So far, so good for the 2013 Red Sox. A 5-2 record, the lowest runs allowed per game in the American League. A decent mix of easy blowouts and close, exciting wins. It's hard for fans of any team to ask for much more, much less those of the Red Sox, who just spent 2012 losing better than 90 games.
So far, so good for John Farrell, too. He received a louder ovation yesterday at Fenway than even Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, and the actions of the team and their comments to the media seem to suggest that it's a different clubhouse from the one Bobby Valentine
left behind was chased from with pitchforks. Throw in reasonable pitching and lineup choices and there's not been much to complain about.
Except for the baserunning. Because, man, have there been some gaffes early on. We all knew before the season began that John Farrell was aggressive on the basepaths. We'd heard it from the Jays fans and then eventually Farrell himself. "Relentless" was used at one point. And so far the Sox have been that, but with decidedly mixed results. Particularly noticeable have been the outs made at home, usually on ground balls with the infield in, but more concerning, at least to me, was Shane Victorino's out at second in Monday's game against the Orioles.
Looking only at the game state, sending Victorino may have made sense. Wei-Yin Chen had been rolling along through the first three innings, and with the Red Sox getting a rare baserunner, Farrell may have been looking to manufacture a run. Get Victorino to second, have Pedroia go all-out just looking to hit the ball to the right side and move Victorino over, then have Napoli go in search of a simple fly ball, which the Red Sox had been hitting plenty of to that point.
When you get down to the nitty gritty, though, it looks a lot less impressive. For one thing, Pedroia, Napoli, and Middlebrooks were the next three batters. Is it really worth risking an out ahead of those three? Beyond that, it wasn't an ideal count to run on, and really no count is ideal with Matt Wieters behind the plate. Since 2011, Wieters has caught better than 38% of would-be basestealers. Before Victorino was caught, he'd gunned down three of four in 2013. Simply put, the circumstances have to be perfect to make it worthwhile to run on him, and in this case they were anything but. Nevermind that he may have actually gotten in ahead of the tag--it didn't make sense to run there, regardless of the result.
Generally speaking, it's not wrong for a manager to promote aggressive baserunning. Ideally, I think they should all know the numbers--what percentage of steals need to be successful to make it a profitable venture on the whole--but I don't think that's really what's going through Farrell (or indeed, a great many other managers') head when he's deciding whether or not to send a runner. In fact, given his experience as a pitching coach, it wouldn't be surprising if he was more focused on the effect an active baserunning threat has on the man on the mound.
Still, there are some situations where you just don't send the runner, and this was one of them. For all that there's the chance to distract the pitcher, the second Victorino left the bag for good, there was at least a 40% chance he was dead in the water. And if Victorino's dancing had the chance to distract Chen, his getting caught was certain to deflate the Red Sox.
Agression is all well-and-good. It forces the defense to stay on its toes, allows for plenty of extra bases, and perhaps as much as anything else can keep a team invested and hard working throughout a season. But it has to be tempered with intelligence. No matter what the psychological benefits, it's not worth running yourself out of an inning. Stealing third with two outs, as Jacoby Ellsbury has recently enough, falls in the same vein. A manager's philosophy will make a team take bigger risks, but those risks shouldn't come with minimal upside. If John Farrell wants to keep on running, that's fine. But pulling back a little bit from the extreme we've seen so far could go a ways towards saving some innings.