As with every manager, John Farrell's success or failure in Boston is going to come down to wins and losses. A manager that can't turn his club into a winner is not going to be a manager for long. However, this first season, Farrell is under pressure not only to win, but also to fix the team's pitching. It was pitching that failed the 2011 Red Sox in the month of September. It was pitching that turned the 2012 Red Sox from projected competitors to also-rans. If there is hope for the 2013 Red Sox, it will come from revitalized pitching. In the eyes of many, Farrell is the one charged with that revitalization.
As a result, it has become standard practice to remind everyone that John Farrell is not the pitching coach and his job goes beyond helping a few players. Of course, he will aid pitching coach Juan Nieves as best he can, but he is first and foremost the team's manager. The manager sets the rotation and the bullpen roles. He decides when starters need to be pulled and who gets the ball next. It may be impossible to make any kind of informed statement about his ability to improve Jon Lester or Daniel Bard's performances, but after two years at the helm of the Blue Jays, we do have some insight into how he handles a pitching staff.
There is an obvious expectation that a former pitching coach should excel at managing pitchers, but it is hard to tell if that has been the case. The Blue Jays' starting rotation was dreadful during his tenure. Their starters' ERA was the fourth worst in the American League in 2011 and 2012 and their FIP was the third worst in 2011 and the second worst in 2012. Their relief pitching has been better, but it has not been great by any stretch of the imagination. They were worked hard under Farrell, pitching the fourth highest innings totals in the American League both years he managed, largely because the starters were so bad. In 2011, they were in the middle of the pack by ERA and FIP, but in 2012, they had the worst marks in both. Beyond Casey Janssen, however, who blossomed during Farrell's time as manager, there was a serious dearth of talent in said bullpen, so it is hard to know just how much Farrell is to blame for this decline.
In his first year as a manager Farrell tried to get as much as he could out of his starting pitchers. The 2011 Blue Jays did not have great starting pitching- they were 11th in the AL in ERA that year, but Farrell still pushed them to the sixth highest average pitch count in the league at 97.7. They also had the sixth highest number of starts where the starter went over 100 pitches. Things changed in 2012, however. Last year, the Blue Jays starters averaged just 91.9 pitches and went over 100 pitches just 52 times, both well below league average. Injuries decimated the 2012 Blue Jays rotation, so that may have forced Farrell to pitch more young starters working on strict pitch counts, but the change in strategy was fairly dramatic.
During his time up North, closers were an issue for Farrell. The Blue Jays had Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco trying to fill that role in his first year and they were predictably terrible. The team ended up blowing 43% of save opportunities that season, the worst percentage in the league by a wide margin. In 2012, the team brought in Francisco Cordero, but after he blew three of his first five saves, Farrell turned the job over to Casey Jassen, who then converted 22 of 25 opportunities.
Farrell has rarely asked his closers to get more than three outs. In fact, he rarely has any of his relievers go for multiple innings, apart from one or two players dedicated to long relief such as Luis Perez or Carlos Villanueva. In almost every respect, his relief pitching roles are pretty well in line with the league norms. He uses a closer almost exclusively for the ninth inning and he prefers to have one or two setup men around to pitch the eighth. He makes fairly standard use of his specialists and long relievers as well. His relief pitchers were just a bit below average in terms of multiple-inning stints in both 2012 and 2011. They recorded more than three outs just a little more than average in 2011 and just a bit less than average in 2012. His use of relievers for less than three outs also hovered right round average.
The most significant trend in his relief usage pattern may be his unwillingness to use relievers on zero days rest. In 2011, when his bullpen was fairly average, Farrell pressed relievers into service the day after an outing just 62 times, well below the league average of 79. In 2012, with few reliable arms available to him, Farrell was just as extreme in avoiding consecutive days pitching, allowing it 84 times, while the league average was 98. Just one AL team had fewer pitchers work on zero days rest. The Blue Jays were not in the thick of a pennant race in either season, however, so the pressure to use his best relievers on back-to-back days was probably less than it could have been. Still it hard to believe this is just a result of circumstance, given just how extreme Farrell has been at avoiding consecutive outings.
Finally, Farrell seems to abhor the intentional walk, calling for 28 his first season as a manager and just 20 last year. Two teams intentionally walked more than twice the number that the Blue Jays did last year. This is not surprising given that Farrell was a pitcher and then a pitching coach. He may well prefer to let his pitchers work around hitters in situations that ordinarily call for the intentional walk, giving them a chance to get the out working out of the zone. It is possible however, that this strategy was specifically tailored to Toronto. The Blue Jays pitchers gave up more home runs than any other team while Farrell was managing and putting an extra man on might have seemed like an unnecessary risk for the long ball prone staff.
Farrell will have a lot more to work with in Boston, even considering the question marks surrounding the Red Sox' rotation. The bullpen should be a strength and Farrell will be able to make good use of it. Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves will likely fit the long relief role and Hanarhan, Tazawa and Bailey should give him quality options of the final frames. Farrell now appears to be more proactive than Valentine in calling to the bullpen and there isn't likely to be anything too surprising happening when he picks up the phone. In this respect, he will probably resemble Terry Francona. It will be interesting to see if he does continue to shun back-to-back outings for relievers, especially if the Red Sox find themselves in a tight multi-team playoff race.
There is no way of knowing if John Farrell will truly be the savior of the Red Sox rotation that so many fans want. He is not likely to be some extreme iconoclast in his approach to either the rotation or bullpen roles, however. If he does manage to resurrect the pitching staff, it will not be through some wild new approach.