As the Red Sox play toward their second straight division title, I increasingly believe that the only reason manager John Farrell is still under constantly pressure from fans and analysts is that he is unable or unwilling to clearly define his strategies and strengths. I think his major problem is not one of managerial competence but one of communication. Even as his teams finish in first place, he is unable to articulate why his style contributes to the team’s success.
That’s what I’m here for.
Let’s start with an easy question: If the Red Sox are so good, how is their manager so bad? The self-evident answer to this is that their manager is not bad and is, in fact, good, and that the ostensible bullpen brainfarts that earn him the ire of Twitter are either exceptions to the rule or built into the rules themselves. Not that I figured this out for myself. I learned it from the Patriots.
I can’t remember where I learned it — probably this podcast Bill Belichick did with a lacrosse reporter — but I thought the reason he cited that the Patriots notoriously seek maximum roster flexibility wasn’t just a dollars-and-cents proposition. The Patriots, he said, have players able to fill different roles (most notoriously, wide receivers playing cornerback) not just to save money but to ensure that those players always have something to engage their brain; Belichick said, to my recollection, that it was better to have fewer players that were more engaged in the process because, in effect, it was better for them — and thus, of course, better for the team.
There are flaws in this method, of course, and we’ve seen them from time to time with the Patriots, about whom all “flaws” are obviously relative. I’ve seen Patriots seasons end because those same wide receivers-turned-defensive backs couldn’t fake it well enough, and I’ve seen the patchwork-roster approach get ripped to shreds by the Ravens more than once. I’ve also see the Patriots win five Super Bowls and nearly win two more, which are the good parts imho.
I think there are lessons here that we can apply to how Farrell manages the Red Sox that will help us understand why they are in first place, as they have been for about half of Ferrell's tenure as Red Sox manage and virtually all of the last two seasons, despite some repeated bullpen implosions and occasional lineup quagmires.
The first lesson, I think, is that we should listen to Farrell’s explanations for why he makes certain in-game moves with an open mind, if only to avoid having to relitigate the entire “Why is Matt Barnes in the eighth inning?” discussion every time he comes in... which, frankly, I think is probably finally a thing of the past at this point, but for absence of the evidence of such — outside of the, y’know existence of Carson Smith — I’ll ignore it.
At this point, the better question for me isn’t why Barnes keeps pitching the eighth inning; it’s why, if Farrell is so bad at managing a bullpen, the bullpen is so damn good. We all know that Farrell believes in defined roles in the ‘pen, and makes changes to those roles quite deliberately. If I’m not worried about the Barnes situation, and I’m not, it’s because I have full faith in Farrell to make the right move before the playoffs start, a full Twitter decade from now. I think if Smith is healthy, the move makes itself, and I think Farrell has used Barnes in that role to define the role more than he has to showcase Barnes because ultimately the role itself is a big part of Farrell’s management strategy.
Which works, by the way. It works. For the occasionally glaring mismatches it produces, it undeniably works. Farrell lacks Belichick’s ability to shrug off the media, both in reputation and personality, so he takes a lot more punches. I just ultimately don’t give a flying bat about Farrell’s explanations, and try to judge his moves in totality until the postseason.
With a team this good, it’s just not worth the effort. This is why I don’t mind when Brock Holt \o/ leads off batting under .200. This is why I don’t mind when Chris Young plays against righties. This is why I can stomach the Barnes thing. It’s a long season. The system doesn’t have to be perfect if it works.
We always want perfection, though, and Farrell bears our expectations by virtue of his job description. He clearly doesn’t like it, and I wouldn’t if I was him, either. I would hate it even more if I talked and talked and talked and no one listened. Maybe Farrell does explain himself well enough, and we just don’t want to hear it. We want to think he’s dissembling, but what if, in stressing the importance of roles and responsibilities and playing time, he’s just telling the truth?