BOSTON — Even as the Red Sox hit their stride with a five-game winning streak and Dustin Pedroia plays caroms with sorcery, the Sox have a worse record than the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Sox look better now than they have at any time this season. At 48-35, they’re three games up in the American League East. It’s an incredibly talented team.
But the D-backs (52-31) have been better. At .627, they’re one of three teams in the majors with a .600 or better winning percentage.
It’s amazing, considering the Diamondbacks won just 69 games a year ago. But it wouldn’t be the first time Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo, who are in Year One running the show after leaving Boston, helped turn around a 69-win team.
The 2012 Red Sox won that number of games ahead of winning the 2013 World Series.
Boston West is thriving. Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter, assistant GMs in Arizona, were previously front-office forces for the Sox as well. Porter had a stopover with the world champion Cubs first, and there are Indians and Pirates influences at play under Hazen too.
“That was the narrative early: how are you going to bring Boston west?” Lovullo said recently. “But what we really wanted to do... let’s take things that we know work, that we saw work inside of that environment in Boston and bring 'em here and do it, because that’s all we know. Watch it work, because that’s what we expect. And then perfect certain things that we want to put our own special touch on.”
Lovullo, the beloved bench coach in Boston from 2013-16 who was briefly the Sox’ manager when John Farrell was ill in 2015, did not see success coming quite this fast. No one reasonably could have.
“I had zero expectations coming in,” Lovullo said, which is not to say he had low expectations. “I knew that there was a group of guys that cared about one another and I just kept telling them that if we care about one another and rely on one another, something pretty powerful could happen.”
Lovullo went to great lengths to reach out to his players ahead of spring training. What he found was a group that had come up together and already had a bond, something that could be fostered.
But not everything has come easy for Hazen and Lovullo, nor could it have.
Hazen spent 11 seasons with the Sox, from the Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington years to the start of the Dave Dombrowski era.
“It’s harder than I thought it was going to be,” Hazen said of being the top baseball operations executive for the first time. “Having the people that I worked for prepared me as probably as [well as could be] — I’m indebted to those guys forever. But it’s harder than that.
“You take responsibility for everything that happens. You take responsibility for every decision that’s made. You’re responsible for the minor league system to the draft to everything else. And I think that is something that makes it more challenging.
“At some point, you got to ride a bike without the training wheels. ... It’s every single day, it’s every single minute of every single day. But it’s fun. And being with Jared Porter and Amiel makes it awesome.”
Time management is key when so many different people need you. Lovullo will want to talk to a player sometimes, for example, but then something will come up with the medical staff and he has to play catch up the rest of the day.
Managing in the tougher National League, Lovullo wishes he pulled the trigger on some decisions quicker.
“It really is very unsettling, because you can’t let your guard down. I think I was prepared on a certain level, but managing in the National League took me a little while to get in the flow of it,” Lovullo said. “I made some mistakes, no doubt about it.
“Maybe the pitcher’s coming up, and I'm not quite sure enough what direction I want to go. And I got to send the pitcher up on deck, and I still haven’t made up my mind — I got to call him back last minute.”
Hazen and Lovullo didn’t clean house when they got to Arizona. Perhaps what’s most impressive about the regime is how they’ve been able to institute change without wiping out what was in place.
The first year for new GMs is often an evaluation year and Hazen acknowledged there’s some accuracy to that. But he emphasizes listening to what was already working well. A straight replication of the Red Sox model just wouldn’t work.
“There are pieces to every organization that are really, really good. Every single organization,” Hazen said. “And we’ve tried to identify those things and tried to build on those. ... And then there have been parts of the process that we felt like, I think, some of the things we had learned in other places, we felt like may have been done better.”
“There are things that we brought into, say, the draft from an analytics standpoint,” Hazen said. “[Director of amateur scouting Deric Ladnier] was awesome. We have a lot of really good scouts...And those guys embrace that stuff.
“It never overrode the quality scouting, and I think that’s important because that’s how we did it in Boston too...We’re trying to bring more information into all of our decision-making models. And so that can be, that impacts medical, that impacts analytics, that impacts scouting process. That impacts everything. And so we’re trying to really build that up.”
That, of course, means the use of something like Carmine — the database system the Red Sox are now phasing out in place of something meaner and leaner, Beacon.
“We do [have one], from a systems standpoint,” Hazen said. “But again, that’s something that we’re continuously trying to build and improve and develop, so they already had a system that we’re using and we’re, I think all 30 clubs probably have that now.
“It’s not something that I feel like we’re — I hate to say it, it’s so cliche, but reinventing the wheel here.”
Corner infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb have led the way offensively. But it’s the success of the D-backs rotation that’s been most notable. Zack Greinke has a 3.05 ERA and Robbie Ray 3.06. Hazen picked up Taijuan Walker from the Mariners as one of his first moves. He has a 3.30 ERA.
Hazen gave credit to the prior D-backs administration, to Dave Stewart, and to Tony LaRussa. The latter remains in the organization.
“That’s the majority of the club that’s out there on the field,” Hazen said.
Both Lovullo and Hazen miss Boston. Arizona is a much different market, but Hazen isn’t necessarily enjoying being away from the fishbowl.
“I don’t feel differently in that regard,” Hazen said. “I can’t speak apples to apples because I wasn’t in the same position. But I think the pressure that you feel is, it’s an internal pressure...I mean, I personally don’t know if I could have felt worse about you know, some things [in Boston]."
The outlook for 2017 in Arizona has changed, Hazen said, because of how well the team has done. But the general plan is unaltered.
“One of the things we talk about more than anything else was ensuring that the process was going to remain a process no matter what,” Hazen said. “Torey and I have tough conversations. About things that have gone on during a game and I think what we’ve tried to, what we want to, establish is a commitment to really playing really good baseball every night. That’s going to take time. We’re a young team. That takes a lot of really good coaching.”
They’ve had that. There was certainly a contingency of fans in Boston that thought Lovullo should have taken over for Farrell. There’s a contingency that dislikes Farrell no matter what he does.
Lovullo knows the criticism his former mentor faces.
“I just would like people to remember about the people that he’s touched and the branch of people that have fallen off of John Farrell,” Lovullo said, motioning in the dugout to Hazen, who was nearby. “This guy’s one of 'em right? He hired Mike Hazen. No one knew who Mike Hazen was. He’s also won a world championship and he’s won an AL East title in four years. He’s done some really special things, and I'm grateful for my relationships with him. I’m grateful for what he’s taught me. And I'm thankful for all that because I wouldn’t be here without him today.”
Here, today, the Diamondbacks have a better record than the Red Sox, a surprising and excellent way for Hazen, Lovullo, Sawdaye and Porter to begin their next chapters, no matter how the season finishes.