Since Torey Lovullo took over, the Red Sox have been on fire. Too little, too late, yes, but in the last couple months the Sox have gone from a team that was fighting for one of the top few picks in the draft to one that is now hoping for a sweep of the Indians to leave them with a .500 record at season's end.
Of course, while the team's record under John Farrell might be enough to induce a change in management in some scenarios, that is not how Lovullo got the job. Lovullo is here because John Farrell was diagnosed with Lymphoma, with his treatment drawing him away from baseball for the time being. Now Sean McAdams is reporting what most had assumed up until this recent run of success: if John Farrell is healthy come spring, he will be Boston's manager once more.
Here's the reality: John Farrell's Red Sox have underperformed miserably these past two seasons. Since 2013, they've compiled a 121-156 record despite entering both seasons with high expectations. Taken in a vacuum, that is probably enough to get a manager fired, whether the failures are truly theirs or not.
Here, too, is the reality: These years don't come in a vacuum. John Farrell won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013. And while you can tell a story which paints Lovullo as a hero saving a team that had stagnated under Farrell, you can just as easily not, and place the blame where it really lies: on underperforming veterans and free agents.
Why did the Red Sox fail in 2014? Because the free agent market was completely ill-suited to their situation, and where they needed all their pieces from 2013 to hold up perfectly to overcome that weakness, the likes of Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew fell off the map, while the young players they were depending on fell on hard times in their second shot at the majors.
Why did the Red Sox fail in 2015? Because the lingering veterans of 2013 went completely to hell, and Boston's ground ball strategy was subverted by their ground ball pitchers forgetting how to induce ground balls while huge free agent signings in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez made the left side of Fenway Park an absolute disaster area.
Some will say that Farrell's to blame for Ramirez and Sandoval's failures, but that doesn't really speak to Lovullo's credit. Lovullo, after all, hasn't done anything with those two. He's simply been relieved of them.
What Lovullo has had is a new cast of characters who are performing out of their minds. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw look like All-Stars. Clayton Kershaw apparently decided to imitate Rich Hill for a handful of starts. Even those players who have flipped a switch since Lovullo's arrival have much more likely explanation. Rick Porcello finally got the time off he needed to figure out what the hell was going so wrong, and Blake Swihart's resurgence started back when Farrell was still in command (and was expected given his too-early emergency call-up).
Again, I can see where the anti-Farrell argument comes in here: he's too reliant on/loyal to veterans. If he'd just given X, Y, or Z the chance they'd deserved back in May...
Here's the thing: John Farrell oversaw the introduction of Xander Bogaerts to Boston's lineup in 2013, making him a starter in the postseason after putting up a .684 OPS in the regular season against in mostly advantageous platoon situations. Yes, he was the manager when Ben Cherington signed Stephen Drew in 2014, pushing Xander off short. He then proceeded to get Xander in the lineup day after day after day, showing faith that he was the team's future even in those miserable middle months. He was also the one who got Mookie Betts in the lineup every day when he was called up for good in August last season. And while that sounds like a small feat given how strong he finished, it's worth noting that he started that stretch by seeing his OPS dip to .623. Farrell gave him the next start, resulting in a 1-for-3 night with a walk and a double, and the rest is history.
Farrell's worst sin in this department probably comes in Jackie Bradley's first callup this season. He went 0-for-4 in his first game, 0-for-4 in his next start a full three days later, and 0-for-3 in his third start with a gap just as large in-between. But frankly, that was when the team still had a chance. They were bouncing around .500 at the time, and Bradley, lest we forget, had a career OPS of about .550 at the time. When the Sox were basically out of it, in the last couple weeks before Farrell's diagnosis, Bradley started game after game. He did this in spite of starting 1-for-19. And then, while Farrell was still at the helm, Bradley started mashing, putting up a 1.158 OPS over those last six games.
Look, I'm not going to tell you John Farrell is a perfect manager. I'm not even going to tell you he's particularly great. He makes some questionable in-game and lineup decisions, absolutely. And while it's hard to lay blame at his feet over Ben Cherington's for the persistence of certain underperformers in 2015, he might well give a bit too much leeway to certain players.
But if Torey Lovullo had started the season in charge over John Farrell, I imagine the Red Sox' record would be much the same now. If John Farrell was still healthy and in charge, he would be presiding over this resurgence the same as Lovullo is now. And, frankly, Farrell might well be the reason this team is even functioning as well as it is right now. Look at the 2012 Red Sox, or the 2015 Nationals. When teams underperform, particularly those with big payrolls and the high-paid players that come with them, they tend to implode dramatically.
That hasn't happened in Boston this year or last. These players were not at eachother's throats come August. When Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett (and, yes, Nick Punto) set off for Los Angeles in 2012, they seemed as relieved to be leaving as we were to be getting rid of their contracts. Here's what happens when one of John Farrell's players leaves for Los Angeles:
Managers don't make the difference between a winning and losing team so long as they're not deliberately engaging in sabotage. A team that's good enough to win will win, and it takes one awful manager to ruin the atmosphere cultivated by success. On the flip side, it takes a good manager to overcome the gloom that losing brings and keep the team running smoothly, making it somewhere free agents want to come and homegrown players want to stay.
There's been plenty of talk that Dave Dombrowski has taken over just in time to reap the benefits of the foundation Ben Cherington laid. That certainly underplays Cherington's free agent failures, but it's not entirely untrue. Torey Lovullo is in many ways riding that same wave, and he's able to do so because the team he inherited was not one that had succumbed to infighting and finger pointing, but one that, with a little help, was set to rally behind their manager.
John Farrell will be back in 2016, health permitting. Not just because it's terrible PR and downright inhuman to fire him under the circumstances, but because his performance doesn't actually merit a dismissal. If, God forbid, he isn't, then Torey Lovullo is a fine candidate to succeed him. But Lovullo's run with Boston should earn him a different managerial position, not that of the man who set him up for success.