The Sox finished the season with a clean sweep of the Indians to finish the year at 95-67. For the fifth time in six years, Tito has led the Sox to 95 or more wins. He is the only coach in Boston history to have five 95+ win seasons under his belt. And yet I am sure we'll hear in the days ahead about how he isn't a great coach. Because, as always, people can be stupid.
But before we turn our attention to the post-season, it's worth taking one last look at what the Sox did in 2009.
The big story, to me, was the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as a leadoff hitter, base-stealing threat and superb outfielder. And all this comes just as he is entering his prime.
He finished the season with a .301 batting average and a .355 OBP, both full-season career highs. He lowered his strikeouts and increased his walks from 2008. and a fielding percentage of .994. Only two errors in center kept him from another error-free year. He should be in the mix for a Gold Glove, an award he deserved last year and was snubbed for.
One award he will win (again) is for the most stolen bases in the AL. Jacoby got his 70th stolen base yesterday in the season finale, making him the first player in the AL to have 70+ stolen bases since Brian Hunter had 74 for Detroit in 1997. Combine all of this and you get an elite center-fielder who just turned 26. And will likely man that position for the next 10 years or so.
The offensive power this year came from soon-to-be free agent Jason Bay. He erupted for 36 homers and 119 RBI this year, both career highs and the fourth time in five years Bay has hit at least 30/100. Although he struck out a lot (162 times to be exact), Bay also hit .267 and posted a .921 OPS. Add to that an error-free sheet in left field that should earn him a Gold Glove and Bay has to be in the AL MVP mix, doesn't he? He's second in the AL in RBI, third in both homers and walks, sixth in runs scored and ninth in slugging and OPS. I'm not saying he should win the award, but he deserves to be mentioned.
Youk had another solid season, as I pointed out last time. Youk hit .305 with a .961 OPS, both of which led the team. His 27 homers and 94 RBI were off his career highs from 2008, but he still had a solid year. He played his usual stellar defense at first and willingly moved to third for more than 1/3 of the games he played to help rest Mike Lowell. He is as selfless as player as the Sox have and is their bedrock.
The big pickups for the lineup during the season were Victor Martinez and Alex Gonzalez, both of which were huge successes. V-Mart hit .336 with a .921 OPS since joining the Sox and gave the lineup a flexibility and depth in the field and at the plate that they were missing for most of the year. Gonzalez was brought back for his stellar glove, but he surprised with some impressive offense. Did anyone think he'd hit .284 and hit five homers in his 44 games? I sure didn't.
On the mound, you could have a real debate about whether Beckett or Lester was the staff ace. Lester was 15-8 with a 3.41 ERA. Beckett was 17-6 with a 3.86 ERA. Beckett had the better WHIP (1.19 to 1.23) but Lester had more strikeouts (225 to 199). Beckett threw more innings (212.1 to 203.1) but Lester had more quality starts (23-20). Either way, the bottom line was that Lester and Beckett formed one of the deadliest 1-2 combos when they were both on their game.
Clay Buchholz seemed to regain his form, although he stumbled a bit in his last two outings. Maybe it's nerves going into the post-season, but Buchholz showed he can win consistently in the majors. Whether that makes him a rotation regular or a valuable trade chip remains to be seen. But it gave Boston a reliable third starter.
Tim Wakefield...his first half was amazing, culminating in his first All-Star game. But then his back acted up again and he missed most of the second half of the season. Still, he went 11-5. But the question is whether Wakefield will continue to pitch. The knuckler doesn't damage the shoulder, but it can't help his back either.
In the pen Papelbon turned in another solid season as closer: 38 saves, a 1.85 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. It's funny, myself and others voiced our concerns about Paps this year. That he looked off a little and was giving up too many hits and walks. Well, we were right about the walks; he gave up 24 this year as opposed to 8 in 2008. But he allowed four fewer hits this year, lowered his blown save total from five to three and dropped his ERA by half a run. So maybe we all need to cut him a little slack. Bottom line is that he gets the saves.
Daniel Bard had a good first-year campaign. The young fireballer had a 3.65 ERA with a 2-2 record and 13 holds in 49.1 innings of work. He also had a WHIP of 1.28 and struck out 63 batters. That's no misprint; Bard had a K/9 number of 11.36. He held opposing batters to a .232 average and a low .319 OBP. He has a bright future in Boston, especially with that 100+ fastball blowing by opposing batters.
The unsung steady hero in the pen was Hideki Okajima. 61 innings of work, a 6-0 record and 24 holds. He dropped his blown saves from eight in 2008 to two this year. The only major negative was Oki's ERA rising from 2.61 to 3.39 this year. But overall he was the most reliable reliever in the pen this year.
The two major pen additions were Ramon Ramirez and Billy Wagner. Ramirez joined the team before the year started and made 70 appearances. He had a 2.84 ERA, a 7-4 record, 12 holds and four blown saves. Ramirez-bashing became a favorite pastime for some fans down the stretch with some bad games against the Yankees, Angels and the Royals (irony abounds...). But he had many more good than bad games...by a wide margin.
And then there's Wagner. I believe when he was traded to the Sox I called him Gagne 2.0 and a lousy pickup. He went 1-1 with six holds and a 1.98 ERA in 15 appearances while striking out 22 and walking just seven. So the "Gagne 2.0" name was WAY uncalled for, because that bust couldn't perform to save his life in a Little League game.
That said, Wagner did come a little undone in two big games down the stretch, picking up the loss in a 4-3 defeat to the Angels on September 17 and allowing two runs late in a 3-0 loss to the Yankees nine days later. And that speaks to a rep Wagner has picked (as Aviv has alluded to numerous times): that Wagner chokes with the game on the line. And his post-season numbers.... 9.58 ERA and a 1-1 record in 10.1 innings of work. So while Wagner was good for Boston in the regular season, his effectiveness now is still in question. Either way, he's a Type-A free agent and the Sox will get two picks out of it when he signs somewhere else for 2010.
And now we hurry up and wait for the Twins and Tigers to play their one-off to see who gets the chance to put down the Yankees in the ALDS. Which means the start time for the Sox/Angels series is up in the air as well right now. So sit back and relax. The real season starts in a couple of days.