During spring training, Red Sox left-hander Craig Breslow suggested an exercise: Remove the nameplates.
Ignore the names and reputations of the two left-handed relievers, and simply look at what they'd accomplished in their careers. From 2008-12, one of them averaged 60 innings a year with a 3.01 ERA, 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.4 walks per nine innings. The other had averaged 63 innings, a 2.88 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts and 3.6 walks per nine innings.
More recently, in 2012, the first pitcher 2.70 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts and 3.1 walks per nine innings in 63 1/3 innings; the second had a 2.70 ERA, 8.1 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine innings in 63 1/3 innings.
The first pitcher was Breslow himself, a baseball nomad who pitched for five teams in that five-year stretch. He was thrilled when the Red Sox approached him last offseason about the first multi-year deal of his career, signing a two-year, $6.25 million pact that included a team option for a third season in 2015. Finally, in recognition of his metronomic strong bullpen performances and strong workloads over a five-year period, a team showed a willingness to commit to him for more than a single year at a time.
The other was Jeremy Affeldt, who scored a three-year, $21 million deal from the Giants after he followed his Breslow-like regular season with a dominant postseason in which he fired 10 1/3 shutout innings in 10 games en route to a World Series title with San Francisco. The Giants dropped some serious coin to retain a setup man with the ability to throw from the left side in the mid-90s, fearing the possibility of a bidding war if they didn't move quickly to keep their postseason force.
Breslow enjoyed a standout year in 2013, perhaps even the best of his career. He had a 1.81 ERA in 61 appearances, becoming the most reliable Red Sox bullpen contributor in the relay to closer Koji Uehara. In his last 28 appearances of the year, he allowed just one run. Though his strikeout numbers nosedived (he punched out 5.0 per nine innings), that represented the byproduct of an intentional shift to garner weak contact and ground balls from opposing hitters, something Breslow accomplished through a considerable increase in his commitment to a two-seam fastball to both righties and lefties as well as an impressive cutter.
Yet it is only this month that his accomplishments -- for 2013 and indeed his career -- have started to command the spotlight. He's pitched in seven playoff games this year, blasting a zero onto the scoreboard in each of them for a total of seven shutout innings. Suddenly, the perception Breslow's complete body of big league work has been elevated.
And so, Breslow was asked on Monday, does he derive any satisfaction from this sort of national media attention and recognition?
"The short answer is no," said Breslow. "I'm not looking for validation from [the media]. I need validation from the 24 other guys in this clubhouse and from the manager who decides in the eighth inning I'm the one he wants to run out there. Is appreciation for the work you do nice? Absolutely. I'm not going to say I'd rather people say I stunk.
"How do you know when you're having a good season?" he continued. "When the game's on the line, the manager calls down and he wants me to go in the game, I feel like I know I'm having a good season. That's been the case. That's been the case with anyone down in the bullpen."
Nonetheless, Breslow understands that there is a difference in how he's viewed now that he's translating his career-long success, for the first time, to an October platform. There are more eyes on him, to the point where the curiosity about him has shifted.
For years, Breslow has been something of a curiosity. As a Yale alum with a degree in molecular biophysics, he's been profiled in the past primarily on the basis of his intelligence and academic pursuits. He understands that his path to this point makes him an outlier. But he also finds it refreshing that the focus has shifted from his off-the-field background to a more traditional examination of his on-field performance.
"That simply could be a case of the other stuff going on being far more unique. There are a lot of good baseball players, and unfortunately not a lot of good baseball players who went to Yale. But certainly if someone wanted to simply write a story about my on-field accomplishments, I would love that, too," said Breslow. "I understand that part of what makes me unique is sort of all of that peripheral stuff, but at the same time, when I come in here and I put on the Red Sox uniform, I'm a baseball player like 24 other guys in this clubhouse, and I'll I'm looking for is validation, appreciation and acceptance from those guys."
He is getting it, of course, Being a pivotal contributor does that, and it is fair to suggest that Breslow -- who had never pitched in the playoffs prior to this year -- has emerged as a primary option in many of the Sox' most meaningful situations this month.
That, in turn, permits the perception to shift, turning an adjective into an adverb that makes all the difference. The pitcher has not changed. The view of him has.
"I've tried to pride myself on being as sure a bet as one can get," said Breslow. "I'd like to think I've also been consistently good. Consistent doesn't always draw these images of quality or good performances. Mariano [Rivera] was consistent -- consistently amazing, but consistent.
"This season has been incredibly consistent for me. I've prepared the same way, I feel like I've taken the same stuff out there and I feel like I've gotten very similar results from outing to outing. That's one thing I take a lot of pride in. It's also one thing I feel like I can control, short of the results. I feel like if I get myself ready to pitch the same way every day, then I should expect to pitch the same way every day, and I feel like for the most part, for 170 games or whatever, I have."
He is carrying that into the playoffs. And so, with seven critical scoreless innings to his credit in October, a month during which he's held opposing hitters to a .130 average, Breslow is getting attention for his work on the mound in a fashion that exceeds anything he'd encountered previously.
And so, it is natural to wonder whether Breslow -- who would have been eligible for free agency after this season had he not signed the multi-year deal -- might have been in line for a resounding ca-ching had he not agreed to remain in Boston through at least 2014.
Yet the left-hander chooses to consider a different sort of hypothetical. Rather than thinking of the money he might have left on the table, he wonders whether his season might have been derailed before it started had he not signed a deal that ran beyond 2013.
After all, he opened the year on the disabled list while working his way back from shoulder tendinitis. It was a disconcerting development for a pitcher who follows a metronomic routine in keeping himself in consistent shape to practice his craft. He was able to follow what proved a successful timetable in his return from that injury, joining the Sox in mid-April in a position where he was ready to compete at the big league level.
In the absence of long-term security, Breslow notes, he might not have felt comfortable following the rehab course that ultimately proved to be in the best interests of both his own health and the strength of the club's roster.
"I think it's a fair question to say, if I did not have not only the financial but also the proximal security of knowing exactly where I was going to be next season, would things have gone this well this season? Would I have panicked early on when I wasn't feeling good, tried to come back too soon, tried to do too much?" noted Breslow. "The answer is, nobody knows. I certainly attribute the success, some of the success of this team, to the knowledge that there's a core group of guys here who are going to be Boston Red Sox for a long period of time. So, coming out of spring training, we talked about writing our own script, but also recognizing it was a narrative that didn't need to be written in one year."
Indeed, Breslow was mindful that part of the reason why he was signing a multi-year deal was because there were few guarantees that the Sox would re-establish their footing as a postseason participant in 2013. But he liked the idea that he could be a part of helping the Sox recover from the rubble of a 93-loss season in 2012, and he hoped that the reversal of fortune could be swift.
The team's recovery has been faster than anyone could have anticipated, and so suddenly, Breslow finds himself assuming some pivotal innings for a team that is now preparing to participate in the World Series. Given what has transpired -- the opportunity to play for a team whose status as one of the last two standing is the envy of the rest of the baseball world -- the potential missed financial opportunity has given Breslow no cause for disconcertment.
"Absolutely not," Breslow said of whether he has drifted into a what-if game featuring thought bubbles filled with dollar signs, a reflection of having passed on greater riches. "It's not going to get me anywhere. I made the decision [to sign for multiple years with the Sox] knowing I could potentially be leaving some money on the table and I was OK with it. Why look back now and decide that whatever criteria I used for making the decision might have been flawed in the first place? When you make a decision, whether or not that decision is right, you need to jump in and move on.
"This was the first organization to make a commitment longer than just one year to me, that wasn't just going through the arbitration process," he said. "I respected that, and when you have a career that's caused you to bounce around as much as I have, just the ability to sleep in the same bed for two years is a welcome change."
So, too, is the opportunity to win. The chance to participate in the postseason is no mere means to a financial end, after all. For Breslow and his teammates, something far more significant than free agents dollars are at stake.
"We know what this team means to this city," noted the left-hander, "and we also know what winning means to us. We've got one more series, and hopefully we come out on top."