As the John Farrell era begins down in Fort Myers, Over the Monster takes a look at his track record as a manger, beginning with his strategies on offense.
After a predictably disastrous experiment in clubhouse culture shock with Bobby Valentine, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington was willing to do whatever it took to restore order and peace. In this case, "doing whatever it took" simply meant sending Mike Aviles to Toronto to bring in former pitching coach John Farrell.
The man who was long viewed as the logical successor to Terry Francona will finally take the reins this season. Unlike Valentine, Farrell comes to Boston with a very limited track record as a manager. He spent just two seasons at the helm in Toronto with a team that had few reliable sources of production. The 2011 squad finished a respectable 81-81 thanks in large part to Jose Bautista's MVP-caliber season and a strong performance from young lefty Ricky Romero. 2012, however, was a disaster. The meager starting rotation suffered a huge number of injuries and Romero, the only starter to post a better-than-average ERA in 2011, had the worst ERA of any qualified starter in the game. On offense, only Jose Bautista--who missed almost half of the season--and Edwin Encarnacion were above average by wRC+.
These two years have left Farrell with a 154-170 record as a manager, but that is hardly a fair assessment of his abilities. He comes to Boston amidst a strange mix of high hopes and low expectations. His history with some of the key pitchers on the Red Sox has many fans excited about the possibility of guys like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz returning to their past glory, but the team's recent failures and the multitude of question marks surrounding some of Boston's most important players has left many experts predicting a fourth or fifth place finish in the AL East.
Obviously, when it comes to Farrell's ability to help individual players, all anyone can do is speculate. Farrell has a reputation for keeping things nice and boring in his press conferences and for shielding the players from the type of criticisms that Valentine was all-too-eager to offer up. In fact, that's probably the primary reason he was brought in and, whether it helps the team perform better or not, it will at least bring the team back towards the approach used by Terry Francona in winning two World Series championships.
We might not be able to say much about how Farrell will improve the club, but his two seasons as the Blue Jays manager can tell us something about his tendencies as a field general. Over the next few days, with the help of Baseball Prospectus' excellent managerial stats and Baseball-Reference.com, we will be taking an in-depth look at his managerial style in a few key areas of baseball strategy, beginning with his approach to offense.
While the assumption is that Farrell with be very similar in style to Terry Francona, on offense, that may not be the case. Farrell was far more aggressive as the Blue Jays manager than his old dugout mate ever was. The Blue Jays attempted the sixth highest number of stolen bases in the AL in 2011 and the fifth highest in 2012. That's not to say that they were overly aggressive--their stolen base percentage in 2012 was .75, basically right at the break-even point and only slightly below it in 2011 at .716--but with just one elite base thief in Rajai Davis it does appear to be more of team strategy than a product of the available talent. In 2012, five players had steal totals in the double digits and only three players topped 50 plate appearances without at least one stolen base attempt.
The more disturbing trend from Farrell's tenure as Blue Jays skipper is his use of the sacrifice bunt. The Blue Jays bunted at an average rate in 2011, but something changed in Farrell's second season and the team's bunt attempts jumped to second in the American League behind the Angels. It is difficult to find a reasonable justification for this change in strategy. The 2012 Blue Jays were not a strong pitching team that could expect to win a lot of low-scoring games and at fifth in the American League in home runs and sixth in Isolated Power, they were not exactly a natural fit for a "small-ball" style of offense.
In addition to bunting and steals, Farrell also appears to love the hit-and-run, employing the tactic more often than anyone outside of Mike Scioscia. Once again, this doesn't appear to be a product of Farrell tailoring his strategy to the talent at hand, but rather a personal preference. The 2011 Blue Jays were 14th in the AL in contact percentage and the 2012 team was 11th, making the hit-and-run anything but an obvious choice for the team. In his second year, they were at least above average in getting the ball in play with those swings, however, so Farrell seems to have found a way of making the strategy work despite the lack of contact hitting around him. It is hard to say for sure if Farrell really called for so many hit-and-run plays with just the available data, but what evidence there is suggests he employs it more frequently than most and that is in keeping with his other aggressive offensive tactics.
There is no telling how many of these strategies Farrell will bring to Boston. The manager is not the only person with input on such tactics and differences in personnel naturally demand different strategies. Two seasons of managing makes for a small sample and these numbers are prone to pretty significant variation. In his first year as manager Farrell's offensive approach was fairly similar to Francona, but his second year was very different, approaching an offensive strategy closer to Mike Scioscia's Angels. Many factors could have influenced that progression. For one, he was dealing with a team that got on base far less in that second year and that could have pushed him to play for a single run more often when he finally had a man on.
Still, this could be cause for concern. The Red Sox play in a high-offense environment and giving away outs for a base or two is not typically a good strategy. Players like Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jonny Gomes don't fit well with the type of offensive tactics that Farrell seems to favor. On the other hand, Farrell has not been reckless in his use of the hit-and-run or in sending runners. If he uses these tactics selectively, he could make good use of the speed he does have in Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino with his liberal green-light policy and Dustin Pedroia is very well suited for executing the hit-and-run behind them.
Given his mixed track record, it will be interesting to see how John Farrell handles his new offense. He could certainly frustrate fans with a Scioscia-style game that doesn't fit the Red Sox, but he could could just as easily adapt the team and his style of play to become something between the extremes of Francona and Valentine. Hopefully if he doesn't end up optimizing Boston's offense, he at least doesn't hold it back.