If someone told you after Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees that the Boston Red Sox would be firing one of their coaches Monday, it would be pretty obvious who was getting sacked — except that it wasn’t so obvious.
Despite incidents with some of the Red Sox’ most respected players, a seeming near mutiny in July and two open letters from the front office publicly supporting him, Bobby Valentine has endured. Pitching coach Bob McClure? Well, he wasn’t so lucky.
Having served as a pitching coach with three organizations since 1999, McClure is clearly one of the more respected pitching minds across Major League Baseball. Likewise, as the Red Sox’ third pitching coach in three seasons, there were no indications that Boston pitchers weren’t happy with McClure or that he was in any way doing less than a stellar job.
That being said, there were plenty of indications of discord between McClure and Valentine that date all the way back to spring training. Do those reports have something to do with his firing? Probably. But are they the primary reason the Red Sox let him go? Likely not.
Back in May, a struggling Los Angeles Angels offensive unit was quickly becoming the scapegoat for a disappointing season. So, the team fired its long-maligned hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, and the return was almost instantaneous, with the L.A. offense quickly becoming among the best in the league.
Now, did that have anything to do with the fact that Hatcher was somehow deficient in his baseball knowledge, or that he was teaching his hitters poor habits? Absolutely not. What it did accomplish, however, was sending a message to an underperforming hitting unit.
Of course, the Angels’ offensive resurgence likely had much, much more to do with the fact that Mike Trout soon started to establish himself as a star and Albert Pujols quickly got back on track to being, well, Albert Pujols — but try telling Angels fans that Hatcher’s firing had nothing to do with it.
Nonetheless, whether the Angels were mathematically destined to trend back toward a statistical mean, it’s impossible not to speculate that sometimes such a coaching shakeup can precipitate a change in mental focus from the players. That’s not to say that the team wasn’t giving a total effort under Hatcher, but psychology is a complicated thing, so who knows if the team didn’t respond in kind to a move that was clearly intended to create a sense of urgency.
With McClure, too, it’s impossible not to speculate that his firing was intended to create a similar sense of urgency: a feeling that other shakeups will follow if on-field performance doesn’t improve. When you can’t fire the players, sometimes a coaching shakeup is necessary, and in cases such as with Hatcher and McClure, such a message seems to be better received when it’s targeted — in this case, a targeted message to the pitching staff — rather than just firing the field manager and continuing to spread the blame equally. The blame for this failure of a 2012 season isn’t equal. It lies squarely on two pairs of shoulders.
If you’re Jon Lester or Josh Beckett opening your laptop or checking Twitter to hear about your pitching coach’s firing, you’re probably feeling a sense of personal responsibility — that you let McClure down. And, quite frankly, that’s exactly how the duo should feel. The twin fallen aces should be embarrassed by their respective performances and realize that if they had pitched up to expectations in 2012, none of this would likely have happened.
Now, the question is, does that message accomplish anything? Does the change in psychology somehow lead to a change in performance?
Well, who knows. This certainly wasn’t such a case as with just-fired Indians pitching coach Scott Radinsky, who was legitimately faulted for failing to develop a young pitching staff. With the Red Sox, Beckett and Lester already know their mechanics and what they’re trying to do on the mound. McClure, and any other pitching coach, is more an expert set of eyes to keep everything in line.
No one is questioning Beckett and Lester’s effort, and no one is saying they’ll suddenly be more motivated or will try harder under a new pitching coach. By all accounts, each has done everything within their control to turn around their seasons. It even appears Lester may have found some answers of late.
But, one more time, psychology is a complicated thing, so who knows how they’ll react. With the inability to fire the players, clearly something had to change, and the status quo was no longer an option for a grossly underachieving starting rotation. No one can predict how the players will react, but at least there is likely to be some reaction. Staying the course was no longer tenable.
That’s why firing McClure was the right move for the Boston Red Sox, even though he can’t be blamed for the team’s struggles. He is absolutely being unfairly scapegoated, but guess what? Sometimes life, and baseball, isn’t necessarily fair.