Red Sox are anything but ‘Money’

Going into Friday night’s three-game set with the Yankees, the Red Sox have dropped 14 of their past 18 games. Still, despite what you think, what you feel, what you know deep in your bones, they are not — repeat not — choking.

Choking, like clutch-hitting, is an archaic expression. They are really counterintuitive notions rendered obsolete with the advent of sabermetrics. It’s worth reminding you that the Red Sox have for years employed one Bill James, who espoused and popularized the bloodless idea — I simplify, of course, but you get the point — that position players can be represented by their statistics, particularly those that take into account on-base and slugging percentages. It was “Revenge of the Nerds” meeting that least nerdy of endeavors, sports. And its gospel was spread through the book “Moneyball,” now a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, now as then, a disciple of the statistical method and general manager of the Oakland A’s, whose emphasis on on-base percentage supplied at least a theoretical basis for the contemporary Red Sox. The "Moneyball" theory would be persuasive but for the fact that the A’s lost five of the six playoff series they have appeared in since 2000.

The playoffs are “a crapshoot,” Beane likes to say. Funny, Joe Torre used to say the same thing when he was managing the Yankees, whom the A’s, like the Red Sox, were built to beat.

The irony is that the big-market Yankees have become more sympathetic than the big-market Red Sox. Then again, judged against Boston’s current competition, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox qualify as bullies. Even as Pitt hits the screen, one is again reminded that the name of the game isn’t “Moneyball.” It’s money.

What else is new? You’re judged by what you spend and how you spend it.

And again, if there’s a franchise worth rooting for, it’s the Rays, who are merely the best-run team in sports. The odds remain against them winning a wild-card berth, but the idea that they’re still competing makes you wonder why no one has optioned their story. In the past three seasons, the Rays have won the vaunted AL East twice and been to the World Series, considerably more than Boston can say.

Let’s go back over the offseason. The Rays’ former All-Star first baseman, Carlos Pena, was signed by the Cubs. Carl Crawford, the most coveted free-agent hitter on the market, was signed by the Red Sox. Their shortstop went to San Diego. They lost, basically, their entire bullpen: Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler (also to Boston), Chad Qualls. I’m sure I’m missing somebody. Whatever. Their DH was supposed to be Manny Ramirez, until, of course, Manny was caught being Manny.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, acquired the aforementioned Crawford (whose $142 million contract represents more than three times the Rays’ annual budget), and Adrian Gonzalez to go with John Lackey, whom they signed before the 2010 season. In his first year with Boston, Crawford has an on-base percentage of .295. Lackey, 32, in the second year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, has an ERA of 6.49. Unfortunately, the geeks have yet to devise a statistic that measures the falloff in performance when one goes from the second team in town (the Angels) to the second team in baseball. Perhaps, that, too, is counterintuitive.

So much for "Moneyball." One forgets that the sabermetricians were seduced by a team with three starters who definitely didn’t suck — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The Red Sox rely on Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and a 44-year-old knuckleballer.

The more you look at Boston, however, the more you’re apt to bring up criticisms aimed for decades at the Yankees. The Yankees can afford to make mistakes. True. (A.J. Burnett comes first to mind). The Yankees aren’t a team; they’re a collection of free agents. Not exactly. The Red Sox have a $164 million payroll. The Yankees are at $207 million. Then again, $43 million of that is tied up in three core players who have been there since 1996 — Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada (overpaid, and grossly overpaid) and Mariano Rivera (a relative bargain, at $15 million per). Alex Rodriguez — the guy everyone loves to cite, with only some justification, as an example of front-office profligacy — is in his eighth season as a Yankee, a tenure in which he has acquired two MVPs and a World Series ring.

Only two Boston players have been there that long — David Ortiz and Tim Wakefield. I don’t know if they subscribe to the theory of "Moneyball," but they’re old enough to remember when the Red Sox were chokers.