Could it be that the winner of the American League Championship Series will have been decided in the third-base coach's box? Or, perhaps, in the form of the lumbering slugger who proved the superior baserunner?
The Tigers and Red Sox appear closely matched in terms of overall talent. It's hard to conclude otherwise after seeing four of the first five games of the ALCS decided by one run. That being the case, it increases the likelihood that separation between the two teams may lie in the sort of details that are often overlooked. In this case, that may well boil down to baserunning, one of the most pronounced areas of disparity between the two clubs.
In Game 2, Will Middlebrooks was the lead runner in a first-and-second, two-out situation with the Red Sox trailing 5-1. Dustin Pedroia grounded a single through the right side to Torii Hunter. With two outs, the default is typically to take an aggressive approach, send the runner and force the other team to make a play. But Sox third-base coach Brian Butterfield had Middlebrooks slam on the brakes.
"When they were making the pitching change I was talking with Butter, and he said, 'Ball hit to Torii, he's been doing this for years, throwing guys out from there, so don't be surprised if I stop you.' He told me before hand he might do it," Middlebrooks recounted after. "As soon as the ball is hit, I'm trying to score of course. But I would never run through a stop sign on Butter. I trust him with everything. He studies the game more than anybody I've ever seen."
In this case, Butterfield allowed his conservative decision to be guided by a number of factors, foremost the arm strength of Hunter and the fact that holding Middlebrooks would mean bringing David Ortiz to the plate with the bases loaded.
"You try to factor in everything outside of the number of outs -- pitching matchups, guy that's in the 'pen, on-deck hitter, your next hitter, the arm strength, obviously, conditions of the field," said Butterfield. "We want to be aggressive, but sometimes it's just not there. And the guy going to Cooperstown can hit."
With Middlebrooks on third and the bases flooded, David Ortiz jumped on the first pitch from reliever Joaquin Benoit and blasted it into the Red Sox bullpen for a game-tying grand slam in an eventual 6-5 walk-off victory. Without Butterfield's hold -- and Middlebrooks' awareness that it was coming -- the Sox might not have claimed a win in a game that, right now, appears to have been a pivotal one in the first five games of the series.
By contrast, in Game 5 of the ALCS, the Tigers had runners on first and second with two outs when Jhonny Peralta grounded a single to left. Detroit third base coach Tom Brookens initially waved lead runner Miguel Cabrera -- whose left leg injuries make it appear as if he's running in a swimming pool -- before changing course and trying to ask the slugger to slam on the brakes.
Too late. Cabrera blew through the late stop sign and was thrown out at home by about 15 feet.
"You're thinking you've got to score with two outs, that's the old baseball thing. But in this particular case with Miggy you've got to hold him up right away," rued Detroit manager Jim Leyland after the game. "[Brookens] was waving, and it probably stopped him a little late. With Miggy right now, you've got to stop him. And there was nothing Miggy could do, he saw him waving and Brookey held him up a little late.
"In saying that, everybody just assumes the next guy is going to get a hit. That doesn't always hold true," added Leyland. "But [Brookens] made a mistake."
Later in Game 5, in the third inning, Mike Napoli doubled, got a terrific break on a tapper just to the left of starter Anibal Sanchez to advance to third on a come backer and then got a strong read when a two-out pitch in the dirt trickled away from catcher Alex Avila to score the Sox' fourth and final run.
"You've always got to be ready for it," said Napoli. "Butter is always in my ear to be ready for a ball in the dirt. We were talking earlier about 90 feet can win you a ballgame. And that definitely helped us tonight."
On one hand, Napoli hardly seemed a candidate to create a run with his legs as much as his bat. He's slow, has a degenerative condition in his hips and is managing plantar fasciitis in his foot that makes it feel a stabbing pain when he runs. Yet the Sox were not necessarily surprised to see that it was Napoli's aggressive and intelligent gambit on the bases that led to the margin of victory.
"Mike Napoli far and away gives us the most flexibility when he's on the bases despite his speed. He's always engaged and looking to advance 90 feet. He set forth a tone that the rest of the guys have followed and the rest of the guys have caught up to his thought process," said bench coach Torey Lovullo. "He understood the importance of [the Sox' aggressive base running philosophy in the spring]. He was brought up in the Angels organization where it was preached. You could see that play out everyday. We could see that [in Game 5] -- the ball got away from the catcher, not necessarily the fastest guy but the most prepared guy and he took advantage of a situation that turned out to be the winning run. I think that's what we're all about getting accomplished here, and everyone else has bought into it."
SEEKING VALIDATION FOR A BASERUNNING CULTURE
When John Farrell became manager of the Blue Jays, and was entrusted with responsibility for the management not just of a pitching staff but also of offense, he became fascinated with the potential impact of an aggressive base running culture -- asking not just players like speedster Rajai Davis but also slugger Jose Bautista -- to look to steal a bag or take an extra base. The approach was driven by more than just a desire to claim an extra 90 feet at a time, though that, too, was significant.
It was about keeping the other team on its heels, whether forcing an opposing pitching staff to contend with the constant necessity to manage baserunners rather than just the hitter or forcing a defense to constantly feel as if it must rush with every play on the field.
Farrell knew that his preference was to import the same approach to the Red Sox dugout. But before he and his staff -- most notably, Lovullo, who is in charge of the running game -- committed to it in full, they wanted to make sure that it was indeed beneficial from a bottom-line perspective, that the occasional extra out was a worthwhile toll for the impact generated by an aggressive approach on the bases.
"We went through this exercise in spring training. It was brought out to us in spring training that, whatever you were doing previously in the last two years, keep doing it, because there were a lot of situations where we benefited from being calculated aggressive," recalled Farrell. "Because of those resources, [Red Sox director of baseball information solutions Tom Tippett] specifically, we have the ability to say, this is the style we want and this is what we want to do, and he has the ability to bounce off of us, OK, this is what your approach might mean in runs or increasing scoring chances by X number. All of those answer the what if question of, are we doing the right thing? Are we doing something that is a benefit rather than a detriment -- all while pushing the envelope?"
"In spring training we had several sit-downs with [Tippett] where we outlined some of our thoughts, and he outlined the importance of baserunning, timely baserunning, and how it could help and hinder [the offense]. So we became situationally aware, just a little more situationally aware of when to take chances and when not to take chances," added Lovullo. "We certainly incorporated his information. It's a good case study. It's a 10-year process that he's been following, so we of course wanted to integrate some of his thoughts to make it a little bit better."
Tippett, Lovullo recalled, allowed the Sox to re-examine such things as the presumption that the consequences of making the first out of an inning at third base were severe, whether it made sense to attempt a steal with two outs and two strikes with a top hitter at the plate so that he could lead off the next inning with a clean count if an out was made and, in an interesting prelude to the critical hold of Middlebrooks in Game 2, the value of sending a runner from second with two outs.
The general thrust of Tippett's studies?
"It's never a good time to give up an out," said Lovullo. "The old adage, don't make the first out at third base, trade an out for a run, two outs, send the guy from second base; attempt a stolen base with two outs and two strikes so the leadoff hitter can lead off the next inning with a clean count; those make a lot of sense, but they don't necessarily work all the time."
Nonetheless, there was also plenty of evidence to support an aggressive approach on the bases, to appreciate the value of an extra 90 feet not just in a vacuum but also for its resonance on other aspects of the game.
FOLLOW THE LEADERS: A PLAYER-LED PROGRAM
While it was one thing for the Red Sox coaching staff to say that they wanted to create a baserunning culture that mixed aggressiveness and intelligence on the bases, it was quite another to have the personnel to carry that out in a somewhat extraordinary fashion. But the fact that, in the words of Butterfield, the Sox have players who constantly "talk the game" and care about the details, about winning games with precision at the margins, had a huge impact in terms of allowing the Sox to create an attitude on the bases.
"We dropped a lot of new concepts on [the players] in spring training," said Lovullo. "They were very foreign. We spent a lot of time talking about it. For us to watch the progress that it's made and how it's gotten to this point is pretty special. We feel like it's another dynamic, another way we can go out and execute to beat teams."
There was more than just buy-in from the players. There was a genuine commitment to leadership, to embracing the concept of being an aggressive and intelligent base running team and to seeing that translate to both the way in which the club prepared for games and, ultimately, how it competed in games.
Butterfield cited three examples:
"Early on in the process, I had a one-on-one conversation with Dustin Pedroia. It was obvious that all the players gravitated towards him, and it was obvious that when he spoke, you could hear a pin drop in the room," said Butterfield. "I said, 'Pedey, how can we become a great baserunning team?' He didn't even hesitate. He looked at me and said, 'Whatever you need, you let me know and I'll get it taken care of in here.'
"That is so helpful to a coach or a coaching staff when your best player or players are on board and they're going to police it in the clubhouse walls to make sure we'll do it all together," continued the third-base coach. "There's going to be some things that guys don't like, that some of your veteran players don't like. We felt like if there were things they didn't like and they thought we shouldn't do them, they would tell us behind closed doors. Then, on the other things that we thought were important and they knew were important, they'd just take care of it themselves."
Backup catcher David Ross, in a team meeting, suggested that the team's veterans all needed to practice running the bases and getting reads on the ball off the bat after their first round of swings in batting practice.
"He said, 'We all need to get out there after our swings and run the bases, especially if we've got young guys, get some reads off the bat in order to become a quick, decisive baserunning team,' " recounted Butterfield.
Jonny Gomes also became a voice in the movement for a hard-nosed baserunning approach. In many ways, he's offered a pair of the signature moments in what the Sox have implemented on the bases, having set a tone for both the regular season and postseason by scoring from second on infield hits on Opening Day and then again in the first game of the playoffs against the Rays.
"Jonny Gomes is an example of a guy who always runs hard 90 feet," said Butterfield. "He will knock you down on a double-play ball, do whatever it takes. He's a tremendous player as far as the effort for things required in a game."
During advance scouting meetings that precede every series, Butterfield will go over the running times of different batters from home to first base in order to give his infielders a sense of the clock to which they must adhere to record an out. Do they have time to set, or do they need to hurry a throw?
Butterfield offers a fairly straightforward categorization of the home to first times for each player on a roster, grading them as a minus (say, a 4.6 home to first time), an average (around 4.35 or 4.4 seconds from home to first for a right-handed hitter) or a plus (around 4.1 or 4.2 seconds).
But Butterfield also includes an added level of detail in breaking down those home-to-first times. Gomes took notice.
"A lot of times, there would be an asterisk next to the running speeds. I would say, 'This guy, if he smells a hit, he's going to give you a plus time, but most of his times are pedestrian -- average times,' " said Butterfield. "And Jonny brought that up in a meeting and he goes, 'Butter's talking about the running speed times, he'll always talk about how if this guy smells a hit, he'll give you this time. We're not about that. We're about, when teams scout us, they're going to get consistent running times all the time because we're always going to go hard, regardless of where we hit it, if it's at somebody or if we extend somebody.' I thought that was fantastic."
The players became situationally aware, paying attention to details like who was on deck (mindful of the desire not to take the bat out of a hot hitter's hands) or taking note of the positioning of teams on specific plays -- as when Will Middlebrooks, after entering Game 5 of the ALCS as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning, took note of how the Tigers were defending the bunt, with Miguel Cabrera charging and Jose Iglesias covering second, and recognized that third base might be vacated on a sacrifice, thus permitting him to run from first to third on a bunt.
The Sox have players who possess well above-average to incredible speed in Jacoby Ellsbury, Quintin Berry and Shane Victorino. All three rank among the best base stealers (as measured by stolen base success rate) of all time, not just for the fact that they are fast but also because they are situationally aware.
But throughout the rest of their roster, the Sox aren't a fast team. Yet they've become a club that is perpetually geared toward taking the extra 90 feet, but doing so in a way that is mindful of avoiding errors of neglect. They have run into a not inconsiderable number of outs (the Sox' 25 outs at the plate in the regular season led the American League by a considerable margin), but they also set a record for the highest stolen base success rate of all time by an AL team (87 percent) -- a mark for which Butterfield suggests first base coach Arnie Beyeler deserves considerable praise for his video advance work on pitchers' pickoff times and delivery times to the plate -- and led the AL in runs scored advancing from second to home on singles.
Butterfield told Pedroia in the spring that he wanted to create a great baserunning team. Have the Sox accomplished that?
"For the things you're looking for -- No. 1 is effort. No. 2 is intelligence. They're locked into everything we're trying to do. It's showing in our base stealing," said Butterfield. "We don't have great speed, but as far as what you're hoping for as a third base coach, you can never take your eye off the ball as a third-base coach, so you're using your peripheral vision to see that runner. You're always trusting that runner to give you 100 percent. I have great trust in all of our runners giving me 100 percent.
"I would say yes. We've done a great job pushing the envelope going two bases. On some occasions, we've had average runners do a great job on going three bases. Yeah, I think the effort and the intelligence has just been above and beyond."
Certainly, through five games against the Tigers, the Sox' feel for when to push for the extra base and when to hold in deference to an offensive opportunity in the batter's box has been a difference-maker. To this point in the ALCS, the team's execution on the bases has been of a championship-caliber; the Tigers' has not. And in a series of two teams loaded with talent, a case can be made that that has been enough to define why the Red Sox are now within a game of the World Series and the Tigers are backed into a corner.