BOSTON – The squalid beards are mere facades. Do not be fooled. While the Boston Red Sox continue to make facial-hair history by growing the most dreadful collection of beards this side of a hockey locker room, they're leeching attention from a far more important cranial feature: what's inside their heads.
This is the real story of the Boston Red Sox, who Saturday night will host the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Not beards or chemistry or Boston Strong or the unquantifiable. The Red Sox believe they are here because they're smarter than other teams and translate that knowledge into baseball's highest-scoring offense.
"If you could do baseball IQ," outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "if you could rate that, truly off the charts with baseball knowledge."
This is not empty pontification. The Red Sox are legitimately, quantifiably a smart baseball team. Certainly the line between intelligence and talent is blurry. Rarely are the two mutually exclusive. Still, Boston hitters saw 25,667 pitches this season, 650 more than the next-best team and the most in the 13 years MLB.com has tracked the statistic. They're willing to take strikes (they stare at major league-high 37.6 percent of pitches in the strike zone) because they're so confident in their late-count approaches. Moreover, they set a record by successfully converting 86.6 percent of stolen-base attempts. The Red Sox were caught only 19 times. The Pirates' Starling Marte was caught 15 by himself.
If the 2004 Red Sox were The Idiots, then, perhaps it's time to coin the 2013 Red Sox something different altogether: The Geniuses.
OK, that's a little much. After all, the so-called Idiots saw 25,665 pitches, just two fewer than the supposed Geniuses. And these Red Sox actually have a lower pitches-per-plate-appearance average (4.022) than the major league leader this year, the Minnesota Twins (4.029), who weren't even mediocre, let along a cunning group of offensive tacticians.
Indisputable is the Red Sox's ability to combine patience with production. First baseman Mike Napoli leads the major leagues with 4.59 pitches per plate appearance, the third-highest mark for a player over the last decade. Five other Red Sox average more than four pitches. The lowest regular is Shane Victorino at 3.83, which is 184th out of the 356 players with at least 200 plate appearances. Plenty of hitters produce without seeing a lot of pitches – Yadier Molina (334th), Hanley Ramirez (320th), Adam Jones (319th) and Yasiel Puig (314th) come to mind – but such patience led to Boston's MLB-best .349 on-base percentage.
Red Sox hitters pointed to one another for that. Plate discipline isn't contagious, of course, but the Red Sox believe conversations in the dugout matter. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia reports to right-handed hitters about pitchers' approaches and tendencies, and David Ortiz does the same to left-handers. Human IQ is inherent. Baseball IQ is ever-evolving.
"Guys that don't necessarily standardize test well but understand nuances of the game and have a feel for plays as they develop [have baseball IQ]," said reliever Craig Breslow, the Red Sox player best suited to talk on the subject of IQ because he is widely recognized as the game's smartest player. "You talk about guys that always seem to be in the right place at the right time. I don't think that's coincidence or luck. I think that's the ability to see plays unfold, recognize where the most beneficial position would be and get there.
"A guy might not be able to remember his multiplication tables," he continued, "but he can remember the way a guy has pitched him for his last 25 at-bats. And obviously in this arena, that's incredibly valuable."
"When you talk about things," Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster said, "no matter what environment you're in, what setting you're in, what job place, any way we can to improve our ballclub – on bus rides and plane rides, sitting around playing cards – we talk about baseball. And it's a lot of fun.
Such savants exist. Most of the Red Sox went the learned route instead. Granted, it does not take a genius, or even a nincompoop, to realize the more pitches a hitter sees, the more pitches a pitcher must throw, and almost every pitcher's stuff worsens as he tires. Facing the Red Sox and the at-bats they grind out is the sort of thing that wears not only on a pitcher's arm but his mind. Quick innings are like a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue. Long innings are like choking down two fingers of Mr. Boston's.
"Pitchers have to kind of be creative when they face us," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said.
Pitting the Red Sox against the Tigers' high-powered rotation should make for good times. Yes, Gomes said, good pitching does beat good hitting. The Red Sox lineup isn't merely good, though. It is good, and it reinforces its excellence through conversation and constructive criticism.
"I've never been around a team that talks about it so much."
Dempster is in his 16th season and on his fifth franchise. Even if his sentiment is tinged with recency bias, it illustrates that general manager Ben Cherington's blueprint to plant the Red Sox's clubhouse full of players who love the game and want to talk about it and put high value on improvement went beyond the trite idea that he was in search of grit.
For these Red Sox, there is something more. In 2004, Boston outfielder Johnny Damon called the Red Sox "a bunch of idiots" who didn't know any better than to think they could come back from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS against New York. These Red Sox know better than to rely on mystique and aura to let themselves into Fenway Park. They don't think about beer and chicken or Bobby Valentine or any of the missteps of their recent past. This is an entirely different Red Sox team, one that strongly discourages idiocy of any kind.
"Watch the game," Pedroia said. "Watch it with a purpose. If you're not hitting that inning, don't go inside and hang out and watch TV. Watch the game. If you do that, you can pick up keys here and there on certain things. You get more intelligent. Watch it long enough you might figure something out."
Maybe even how to be a Genius.