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The Friday Fire Farrell Index: Raise or fold?

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An extended poker analogy.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red Sox
Will he be back? Should he be?
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We made it this far. It wasn’t easy. Even in a year the Red Sox breezed past the 90 win mark with more than a week to play, it hasn’t been the smoothest trip. We were attacked neither by pirates nor Pirates, but by Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees and Rays and now, with a single win or New York loss, the American League East is ours.

By any measure this has been a successful regular season. Well, except one. Has John Farrell done a good job? There is no consensus. Depending on who you ask, he’s been either incompetent, average, or, in the most rare and generous take, actually kinda good. I’m in the latter camp. With some exceptions -- the David Price incident, the stealing signs nonsense -- I think he’s been as good a manager the Sox could ask for, in a vacuum. Why the Red Sox would be playing baseball inside a vacuum is another story entirely.

With that said, even I, serial defender of Farrell, think that this is probably the last September series he manages for the Sox. I agree with CSN NE’s Evan Drellich, who says that Boston has two options as Farrell heads into a lame-duck contract year: Let him go or extend him and, however temporarily, end the constant speculation about his future. It’s the old poker rule: If your hand is good enough to call, it’s good enough to raise. The same way you’d rather not limp into a pot, you’d rather not have the Sox play out his final season in limbo. It’s certainly one strategy, it’s just not ideal.

So let’s look at the two better options:

Raise, and keep Farrell around

No matter what happens this October, Farrell has proven that he can keep a team in it long enough to win it. He of course won the World Series as Red Sox manager in 2013, but that year the Sox went into the playoffs as the big stack of chips, so to speak, and more or less smushed the rest of the league thanks to David Ortiz. It was great.

Still, it’s on Farrell’s resume, though I think even the manager’s supporters (hello again!) would admit that the WS title is scarcely relevant to this conversation anymore, simply by virtue of our having the conversation. In English: If it mattered to enough people that Farrell is one of two Red Sox managers with a World Series title since World War I, he’d be on a Tim Wakefield-like permanent retention program. He’s not.

As to the question of whether you want to go all-in with Farrell, that’s between you and your god, but there’s no question that he gives the team a good enough hand with which to win. He’s like a pair of jacks as your hold cards. Hooks, baby! Jacks are great in theory, but the math on them dissolves when a Q, K or A hits the board; the flip side of being “hooks” is that they can, well, hook you on a hand that falls apart against something better

To go all-in with jacks, then, you have to be sure you have the best cards and are willing to lose if you don’t. It is a very strong hand, but by no means the strongest hand available, and it can frustrate you to no end. You can, also, always do better. In theory, you’d take pocket jacks until the cows came home, but in practice you’d quick adapt to their very real limitations. It’s a winning hand, and it looks fantastic, but in high-stakes situations where you simply need to better, you might find yourself unable to do so.

This is why I think JJ is a good analogy for Farrell. He’s good enough to get most jobs done, even the big ones, and in that sense an extension would make sense if your idea of the Red Sox was a team that could win enough games just to get into the playoffs and take it from there, whatever the odds going forward. It’s certainly my idea of the team, and I’m not shy with hooks or about my love of Farrell.

Fold, and move on

If baseball is a game of failure, poker is a game of blight. We say “success” in baseball means getting a base hit 30 percent of the time; win 30 percent of your poker hands long enough and you can buy your own island. You’re more likely to play 30 percent of your hands than win them, and the more judicious you are, generally, the better you are.

From this angle, the only smarter thing to do than extend Farrell is to let him go. Forgive my lack of tangible evidence here, but it seems plain as day that Dave Dombrowski is not overly content with the hand he’s been dealt here. He’s no dummy -- he knows not to throw away good cards while the game is still live -- but he’s a man who aims quite a bit higher, or for something in his comfort zone.

To wit, everyone wants the equivalent of pocket aces as their hole cards. In this convoluted baseball analogy, let’s say Jim Leyland plays that role. Suppose pocket aces aren’t available. Next up you’d want AK or pocket kings. Variously, let’s say Terry Francona, Joe Maddon and a handful of others fill these roles. (You might not like or even respect Maddon, but he’s certain in-demand, if only theoretically.) You could call Torey Lovullo a pair of queens, which would make him nominally better than Farrell; I’m not sure this is correct, and I don’t think Lovullo deserves the benefit of the doubt, but it’s a reasonable position. Joe Girardi might fit in that too.

The point of this exercise is to show that, as good as a pair of jacks is, there are a lot of hands against which it loses. You can almost always have a better manager. You can almost always win it all with a worse manager, too. The odds are against you, but the odds are always against you. It is still a game of failure, and one that is largely determined by factors beyond a manager’s control. Just as a poker game is largely determined by the flop, Farrell is subject to larger forces.

So does he have us hooked?

I don't think so. We haven't pushed all-in on him yet, during a year that was begging for it, so it’s probably time to fold. Even if Farrell brings us the title this season, it won’t be because he’s the best manager out there, and that’ll never been good enough for some people. Maybe it’ll turn around the front office, but I doubt it. They know what he actually does and doesn’t do to that end, and given what the Celtics just did to IT, I wouldn’t expect loyalty from Dombrowski.

I expect him to do what’s best for his club, and I think he won’t pass up the chance to get whole new set of cards without losing too many chips. He might not end up with someone better than Farrell, but in the long run, that’s not the point. The point is that, in the game of failure, you fold so that you can fold again down the line and maybe, maybe, just maybe, win it once in a while, maybe with the best manager, but probably not. The next guy won’t be the nuts either, so to speak; of that, we can probably be sure. They almost never are, and yet it seems increasingly nuts not to try, because otherwise, why do we bother? We want to be surprised; we want new stories, even if they’re just like the old ones, and Farrell’s story feels, if nothing else, like it’s already been told.