It's said by many that a manager can't win his team games, only lose them. Even as someone who has used that line often enough in the past, I'll be the first to admit it's only true by the least generous of definitions. It's based on the idea that, given plenty of time before every game and plenty of analytical resources, an MLB manager should be able to put the most appropriate team on the field for every game. Their bullpen decisions should likewise be reasonably paint-by-numbers, with the only major asterisk in both departments being rest to keep players in good condition.
And in those regards there is something to be said for the idea that most managers should approach perfection. If you've got your LOOGY in to face a bunch of righties, you're doing it wrong. If you've got someone who struggles against right-handed heat, you should probably keep him on the bench when you're up against, say, Garrett Richards. At the end of the day, it still matters where you set the baseline--what is the standard we judge these managers against--but it shouldn't be hard to approach 100% on these decisions.
There's more to being a manager, though. A lot more. A big part of what's made John Farrell's tenure in Boston so impressive even through these past two years is how calm the clubhouse has been. Not in a "we're happy to be losing" sort of way, but in stark contrast to the madness of 2012, when Bobby Valentine came in and burned the place to the ground even as the Sox were hanging around .500 for most of the season. Last year saw club favorites like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino lose their roles due to inability. We saw two highly-paid stars in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez come in and bomb hard.
This is Boston. When things like this happen in Boston, they have a tendency to really explode. The media gets a scent, digs its teeth in, and starts ripping. And you could see them trying in 2015. Pablo Sandoval's Instagram moment seemed like an opening. Throughout the season, we heard all the whispers. "The clubhouse hates Hanley," or "he wouldn't be bad if he'd actually work at it." There's a reason none of this became a real story. There's a reason that both players ended the season more or less out of the lineup without anything exploding into the usual Boston-sized affair of media silliness. John Farrell is very likely a big part of that reason. For all that it hasn't managed to win since 2013, this clubhouse is strong and unified, which is nice because it means we don't have to go purging half the roster just to clear out the bad feelings after a rough year.
For John Farrell, though, 2016 will represent perhaps his biggest challenge yet, and for unenviable reasons. It's set to be a year of hard decisions that will need to be made fast. Of lines drawn in the sand, and surgical extraction of pieces that just aren't doing their part.
In 2015, this was not Farrell's strong point. But it was also not entirely his fault. We can point to some specific examples where he clearly let things go too far. Justin Masterson pitching as much as he did? We had him pegged three starts and 26 innings before the Red Sox finally called it quits. Hanley Ramirez in left field lasted too long by half given that Mike Napoli was still hitting .208/.323/.403 by the end of May in the last year of his contract. But can he be blamed for trying to get Rick Porcello going for so long? For leaving Pablo Sandoval at third as the season burned? No, he cannot. The Red Sox were not going to be without those players in 2016. Farrell could hardly just give up on them in 2015 knowing that he'd be forced to rely on them again to start the season to come.
2016, however, will be a different story. The Red Sox are not unfamiliar with the concept of a sunk cost, and a second straight year of terror from Hanley, Sandoval, and/or even Rick Porcello could leave them a lot less willing to continue investing playing time--not an insignificant resource by any stretch of the imagination--in these guys. The difference between a winning team and a losing team in 2015 may very well have been found in the difference between Ramirez/Sandoval and some random mediocrities from Triple-A, so bad were the pair. Farrell and the Red Sox cannot let them hold a contender out of the playoffs.
Beyond the lineup, though, Farrell also suddenly finds himself with a lot to lose in the bullpen. When a manager is given the sort of pen Farrell had to deal with in 2015, it's hard to place the blame on their shoulders. Sure, maybe Alexi Ogando wasn't the exact right option for that moment, but when the alternative was Matt Barnes, who really cares? This time around, however, Farrell has options. This is a bullpen that should be a major asset. So every instance where the Red Sox cough up a late lead or blink first in a tie will be under even greater scrutiny. Why go to the lefty there? Should the Sox have turned to Craig Kimbrel so early in the tie? Should they have pulled him so quickly? Should Junichi Tazawa really have been trusted to take on the Blue Jays? Seriously, what is it with Tazawa and Toronto?
But I digress.
The thing is, Farrell has never really carried the reputation of a great manager in terms of decision-making. He is a player's manager, and while that does carry a great deal of value that's not seen on the field, on some level it is code for a guy who doesn't put strategy at the top of his list of priorities.
But the Red Sox can't really afford for Farrell to play too much softball this season. While the past two years have been sunk in large part due to a combination of offseason failures and in-season underperformances, there's only so much time before the blame shifts. Dave Dombrowski checked most of the Red Sox' boxes this offseason. They have their ace. They have an excellent bullpen. There's depth at every position that's really of concern, and while that's never a guarantee to pan out, it means Farrell has no excuses for not at least exploring his options when/if it proves necessary. If the season ends poorly because all the options flared out, well, nothing he could do about that. If Travis Shaw languishes on the bench for three months while Pablo Sandoval plays like some guy who wandered in off the street and got mistaken for a baseball player? Not so much.
John Farrell will not be the difference between a Red Sox team that sinks or swims. It's the ones who allow their teams to implode like Bobby Valentine who can turn a decent squad into a 90-loss disaster. But in this year more than any other in recent memory, Farrell could be the difference maker between a team that heads into October at the top of the AL East, and one that has to face the wild card round, or even misses altogether. If ever there was a time to take his strategy both big-picture and small to the next level, this is it.