Last week, three decisions by John Farrell sent Twitter into enough of a frenzy that I noticed it in my heavily curated feed of Red Sox maniacs. The first was his decision to push David Price from pitching Sunday in Toronto on regular rest to pitching Monday in Boston, in order to pitch Steven Wright in the series finale on Sunday in Toronto, thereby getting the Sox through one full turnover of the rotation in the first week; the second was his decision to put defensive liability Pablo Sandoval at third base on Saturday behind groundballer Rick Porcello, and the third was the choice to play useless-against-righties Chris Young on Sunday against Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada.
Before we get into the merits of the decisions, let’s first say that none of them ended up mattering too much. After a rocky-as-expected first inning, Wright pitched as well through six innings on Sunday as we could expect of anyone, Price included; Porcello’s Saturday bugaboo wasn’t the groundball, but the hanging slider to Jose Bautista (who homered twice, accounting for all of Toronto's runs), and it wasn’t just Young who couldn’t hit Estrada on Sunday -- it was everyone. But it’s not the results that matter as much as the thought process, and the inherent question in every lineup questioning tweet is whether or not Farrell’s choices were good for the team in the short and long runs -- mostly, but not entirely, independent of how they worked out.
My position coming into this thought experiment was, frankly, who gives a crap? In a week with two rainouts, the Red Sox were up against the wall to get playing time for a deep lineup, and Farrell was obviously doing the best he could to stick to some sort of predetermined first-week plan, part of which involved telling adults when they would get to actually do the work for which they were hired to do. Furthermore, the Sox' obvious problem is having one or two too many rotation players, mostly because of Brock Holt's versatility and Travis Shaw's rise, and that's a General Manager problem, not a manager problem. However, this is a simplistic and quite possibly wrong way to view it, which is my favorite way, but one I'll forego for now for you, the people.
After some reflection, I’m more sympathetic to the ‘every game counts equally, so don’t mess around’ crowd than I would have expected, even if I don’t think a game in April is worth the same as a game in September (though I consider the difference in value to be ultimately amount to little more than some stray decimals). I think we have considerably less reason to go nuts over small discrepancies in efficiency in April than we would in September, because I would say that games in April necessarily mean the least -- but again, by such fractional measures that it might not seem worth worrying about.
The problem is not merely that a game in September might be fractionally more important than a game in April, or that a certain lineup or starter in April might be fractionally more important than another one of either, but that we find our meatiest baseball arguments in the tiniest of matters. My belief is that there’s no way the knowledge you gain by sacrificing full efficiency for brief periods of time does not pay off down the road in bad money not spent after good. We are always still dealing with people, and it doesn’t matter what they do or how much money they make when it comes to keeping everyone… well, if not happy, content enough not to rock the boat. If they get some April playing time, maybe that earns them a trade or keeps them happier down the road, which works out for everyone. It means they're managed.
The worst-case scenario is that these one-off cost us games, but we can't assume this is the case simply by reading the lineup card when it's printed (as we're wont to do on Twitter). In the best-case scenario, these playing time one-offs pay real dividends. Discovering the content of roster players seems worth the cost -- less than one-ninth of the chance of winning any one game (less because a bench player is necessarily going to factor less than a bona fide star)... all of this before we get to the issue of keeping employees happy -- which, you know, matters. Just ask general 'manager' Sam Hinkie or, if you’re feeling really grim, 'manager' Bobby Valentine. For every ‘27 men, 27 cabs’ story, there are 27 more telling you how much better it works when the clubhouse gets along. Put another way: No one has to like each other, but it doesn't hurt.
If you say yeah, yeah, but we know Sandoval is bad, and even you picked Wright to be bad this year, I’d say last part first, I did pick Wright to be bad this year, and for an inning I looked like I was right, and first part: no, you do not know Sandoval is still bad. He probably is no longer worth starting, but that was the same logic behind Mike Lowell getting thrown into the Josh Beckett trade as a straight Marlins salary dump, and all Lowell did was emerge as World Series MVP and general badass less than a year later. If that wasn’t enough, John Lackey was the New England's sports pariah heading into 2013, and all he did was anchor a World Series-winning rotation. If that doesn’t convince you that we don’t ever really know anything, I don’t know what will.
Except, of course, actual playing time, which is going to happen one way or another. The best way to handle this situation is to get ahead of it and schedule the bench players for games ahead of time, and the best explanation for the Red Sox’ moves this week is a standard-issue work schedule that got crunched by the weather. It has moved around the cold-weather teams like the flu. If Panda played in a weird scenario, it’s only because the zoo’s viewing hours were set long ahead of time, as was Young’s playing time, and Wright’s guaranteed start. If he doesn’t prove the limits of our knowledge, what does? By 1:25 he was the worst of the Sox’ crap rotation. By 3:25 he was maybe the current No. 2. Unlike the knuckler, life comes at you fast. And that’s the thing about risk: It always comes with upside. You don’t need your best lineup every day. You just need it most days, and most of the days are yet to come.
Just don’t let Young hit against a righty late in game when you have a lefty-killer on the bench, please. This is the real worst-case scenario, and for all the leeway I've given Farrell in the 1,100+ words above, this one was a fridge too far.
With Pablo Sandoval available, Chris Young will hit for himself against a righty who throws 96.— Brian MacPherson (@brianmacp) April 11, 2016