RED SOX: Why Fire Farrell?

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Up until the last six or eight months, I listened to Boston sports talk radio pretty regularly dating back to when I first moved to an area where I could easily pick up the signals of WEEI and the Sports Hub in my car. But, I gave it up and went back to music and podcasts for one, simple reason:

I refuse to be a sucker for bullshit, easily-disproven narratives meant to whip the already-rabid local sports fanbase into a frenzy.

Because that’s what virtually all of these shows do. They aren’t there to inform or enlighten. There’s no place for in-depth discussions like the one Bill Simmons recently had on his new show with Mark Cuban and Malcolm Gladwell about the business of basketball. Sports talk radio exists solely to get people like you and me to listen by taking an “everyone and everything sucks” position to get people talking and drive up ratings. That’s it.

In Boston, this attitude feeds into a sense of entitlement that, like it or not, makes the fans in nearly every other city in America hate our guts. Most of them think we should not be allowed to complain about anything for the next 50 years.

And I get very disappointed when people who I know are smart buy into these hot take narratives instead of thinking critically.

Just yesterday, several of these blowhards were discussing the Red Sox’ decision to utilize former big league pitcher Brian Bannister, who has served in the front office doing pitching analysis, in more of an on-field role. They railed against this move, calling Bannister a “nerd” and saying the pitchers don’t need more “numbers” to help them. This is the kind of anti-intellectual dreck that we do not accept in analysis of other mediums (like politics and business, for example) but seems perfectly acceptable when it comes to sports.

I still listen to Toucher & Rich most every morning because those guys are in on the joke. You can tell that neither of them take any of this stuff seriously. Hell, they even have a segment called “The Hot Take Police” where they mercilessly destroy professional and well-paid bloviators (like the ones who work at their station) for their absurdness.

On the rare occasion lately when I’ve unfortunately listened to non-T&R local sports radio, I’ve been bombarded with call after call after call for Red Sox manager John Farrell to be fired. To which I ask: why? And what purpose would it serve?

If the season were to end today, the Red Sox would make the postseason and appear in the Wild Card game. I know since June 1 the team hasn’t played well, going 13-18 in that time.

But given the low expectations of their pitching staff coming into the year, and the injuries they’ve dealt with that have mostly depleted their depth, doesn’t this feel like where you’d expect them to be right now? Within striking distance in the AL East and, at worst, in the postseason?

This isn’t to say everything is wonderful. While his peripheral numbers appear fine, on the whole David Price hasn’t delivered. Besides the surprising performance of Steven Wright and the decent, workman-like job by Rick Porcello, every other starting pitcher has been a flat-out disaster. Not one member of the bullpen, including Craig Kimbrel, has been consistent with the possible exception of Heath Hembree.

And while the Red Sox offense remains first in the AL in hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, it has disappeared for stretches and undoubtedly has cost them games. Not to sound too much like Nick Cafardo, but it appears this Red Sox lineup “can be pitched to” and taken out of commission.

At times, Farrell has had to turn to the likes of Bryce Brentz, Ryan LaMarre, Deven Marrero and Mike Miller (not THAT Mike Miller) in key situations due to a constant stream of injuries to position players, primarily to left fielders. The devastating injury to Carson Smith, lost for the year and probably most of next to Tommy John surgery, left Farrell with few options he can consistently rely on in the bullpen. Plus, he’s had to parade out Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez, Roenis Elias, Sean O’Sullivan and various other assorted flotsam and jetsam as starting pitchers, all with varying degrees of ineptitude.

All of this is to say that I fail to see where any of the club’s struggles this year are directly the fault of the manager. He has done his best with the team he was given. It is not his fault his bench is almost always made up of guys who belong in AAA. It’s not his fault two-fifths of the starting rotation he’s been handed can’t get out of the 5th inning most nights. In turn, it’s not his fault his bullpen is so constantly taxed that he must option pitchers back and forth to AAA just to get fresh arms. William Cuevas, anyone?

The manager is always an easy target when a team struggles (again, the Red Sox are in the playoffs if the season ended today). But at what point do we pin blame on the actual big-league ballplayers themselves who aren’t performing, and the front office who didn’t identify these problems in the first place?

Sure, Smith’s injury was a surprise since he was apparently given a clean bill of health at the time of that trade. That injury fundamentally changed the bullpen’s structure, and Dave Dombrowski and Mike Hazen are still yet to address that change with help from outside the organization (although I have little doubt they will once the market settles).

However, in the offseason the front office seemed completely OK with going into the year with Buchholz, Kelly and Rodriguez in the rotation. Only an injury to Rodriguez in spring training opened the door for Wright’s unbelievably great season to date.

After signing Price, I’m not sure how serious the team was about adding more pitching either through free agency or trades. At best, this now appears to be a miscalculation by the front office, that the team didn’t put in an effort to sign Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija or even Scott Kazmir or Doug Fister to complement Price and Porcello.

Now, none of this is to say John Farrell is the second coming of Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel. Nobody is above criticism. His usage of bullpen arms is often questionable (although some of his odd moves are out of necessity, as noted above) and in the past he’s stuck with veterans/players with big contracts too long when they’ve under-performed (although that hasn’t been the case as much this year, with Travis Shaw winning the 3B job over Pablo Sandoval an example).

I just don’t see how firing him is going to make the team play better. I’m guessing everyone would want bench coach Torey Lovullo to take over, since he did so well when Farrell was receiving cancer treatments last year. Yes, Lovullo did a great job when the team was well out of contention and there was no pressure on him to perform. Nonetheless, he did so well the Red Sox reportedly rewarded him with a contract for this year on par with that of first-year managers to keep him in Boston.

So that should make this decision all the more easy: fire Farrell, elevate Lovullo and we’ll all be happy, right?

Well, I hate to put in a pin in that particular hot-take-filled hot air balloon, but here’s a newsflash for you: in baseball, the bench coach’s job is to act as an in-game consultant for the manager. If a manager is smart, he bounces his decisions off the bench coach and they come to a consensus on what to do. In addition the bench coach often acts a conduit to the players regarding day-to-day decisions by the manager. So whatever decisions are being made by Farrell, and whatever messages he’s sending the players, are going through Lovullo as well. If they weren’t on the same wavelength, Lovullo would not be here. They’re basically bookends.

So if you’re going to fire Farrell, you might as well fire Lovullo too and start over completely. You’ll have to go outside the organization to find a new manager. And what you’ll have is a cadre of angry Red Sox players who’ll have to learn the tendencies of someone completely new in the middle of their season.

And besides, the history of firing the manager mid-season for a team expecting to make the playoffs isn’t pretty. Only one team since 1980 that’s done that has won the World Series: the 2003 Marlins. From what I can tell no other team who replaced their manager mid-season in that stretch has won a league pennant.

Firing Farrell won’t make the pitchers better. It won’t make the bench longer. It won’t make the offense more consistent. Dombrowski has to make make moves to fix what ails this team. Based on his history, I believe he’ll do just that. Addressing the bullpen and bench won’t be overly difficult. The starting rotation, however? He may have to get creative, with a total lack of arms available.

The failure or success of the 2016 Red Sox should not fall on the shoulders of the manager alone. He does not deserve to lose his job over it. It’s up to the front office to make the right moves, and the players to play up to their capabilities.

That’s my hot take.

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MLB: Lester, Buchholz Bouncing Back

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It was not my plan to write on Red Sox-related topics every week when I re-started by blogging career this season. But I feel like the best thing about the 2013 season to date, for me at least, has been the resurgence of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

There were times last year when both guys seemed so lost, so out of sorts that I wondered if they’d ever regain the form that made them so formidable not that long ago.

Buchholz, 28, was horrendous from the outset of 2012, got sick but then came back strong. By the end of the year he was the most consistent pitcher on the team, but it’s still hard to call it anything but a lost season for him (4.56 ERA). He did make a career-high 29 starts, however.

Lester, 29, for reasons I still don’t understand, went from being one of the most consistent starters in baseball, and one of the finest left-handed pitchers in the game, to astounding mediocrity. He went over 200 innings but his 4.87 ERA and drop in strikeouts (225 in ‘09 and ‘10, 182 in ‘11, 166 in ‘12) were definitely alarming for a starter Lester’s age. Brian MacPherson has a good comparison of Lester to other elite AL lefties here.

But that’s all different now. Through three starts each, Lester sports a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 18/3 K/BB while Buchholz has a microscopic 0.41 ERA, also an 0.95 WHIP with 23/10 K/BB.

Each guy has made hitters look silly with the best of their stuff, making all of their pitches work and without much fear of using any pitch in any situation. I always felt like Buchholz may have better stuff than Lester, and that’s borne itself out so far this year.

Most importantly, the Red Sox have won all six of their starts, all coming against AL East opponents.

Some of the renewed success of Buchholz and Lester must be attributed to the return of John Farrell. Since the start of 2010, these guys have worked with five different pitching coaches (Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Juan Nieves). It seems working with Farrell and Nieves, and the idea there will hopefully be some stability in those positions going forward, has helped significantly.

With Josh Beckett gone, Lester and Buchholz have taken it upon themselves to be leaders and positive influences for the pitching staff. It’s easy to be positive when you’re actually pitching well.

For Buchholz, the key will be remaining healthy and on the mound. His dominating performance Sunday against Tampa where he took a no-no into the 8th inning was an important statement for what he can be. But he’s never made 30 starts in a season and can, once and for all, shed the title of “fragile” if he can keep it together.

Lester has corrected whatever mechanical or mental issues that plagued him a year ago. He’s thrown a lot of pitches in his starts so far, but on Saturday, while I was sitting in the right field grandstands, Lester got stronger as the game went on. Being efficient will be his biggest test in 2013.

Thanks in no small part to these two, the Red Sox have a 2.07 ERA for their starters through 11 games. With enough offense to go around and a deep bullpen, there’s no reason this team won’t compete all year as currently constituted.

And with Lester and Buchholz pitching like this, it’s not hard to imagine the Red Sox being more than just competitors in 2013.

***

I don’t have much more to offer on the topic of Carlos Quentin than what’s already been said ad nauseum, but it’s clear his rage was in the wrong place this week when he charged the mound and knocked Zack Greinke out for at least two months. Was eight games enough for Quentin’s suspension? I say no. As much as I’d like to see Quentin have to sit as long as Greinke will be out, that’s probably a bit too punitive. I still wish MLB would factor in the severity of the opposing player’s injury in determining discipline as the NHL does.

Fair or foul? D’backs owner Ken Kendrick forced some Dodgers fans sitting behind home plate at Chase Field to change their shirts Friday night, or move to a different location. The Dodger blue was apparently uncouth in such a high-visibility area of the park. If you plunk down $3,000 for a suite, should you be allowed to wear whatever you want, within the boundaries of good taste? What I find funny is the fans seemed so willing to don the gear of an opposing team to keep their seats. I can’t imagine ever doing something like that, even if it came with free booze.

Hopefully by now you’ve learned the story of Evan Gattis, the Braves’ catcher who’s overcome incredible personal adversity and is presently tearing the cover off the ball, including this truly insane homer off Stephen Strasburg. My favorite thing ever: he went to Venezuela to play winter ball and the fans called him “El Oso Blanco,” or, “The White Bear.” Gold.

Buster Olney tweeted Sunday the Rangers are “doing early reconnaissance and prep work” on a possible trade for Giancarlo Stanton. Later Sunday, Peter Gammons tweeted that the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox are among the teams to inquire on Stanton, but the Marlins aren’t making a deal now. As with all the Marlins’ best players, the question isn’t if Stanton gets dealt but when. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, will continue to get more expensive and probably wouldn’t mind getting the hell out of South Florida. The Rangers seem well-positioned to make any kind of big trade they want, be it for Stanton or David Price, given their wealth of prospects and younger players. The question, as it was with the Justin Upton sweepstakes over the winter, is whether they really want to pull the trigger.

It seemed like most people had the Rays pegged to be either first or second in the AL East this year on the strength of their pitching alone. But watching them this weekend, it really struck me how poor their offense is. Going into Sunday, they ranked dead-last in team OPS at .601 so far this year. You wonder how long they wait to call up Wil Myers, the prized outfielder who clubbed 37 homers in the minors last year and came over from KC for James Shields over the winter. But even Myers might not be enough.

My music recommendation for the week: “Wakin on a Pretty Day” by Kurt Vile. Until next time.

MLB: Get Over It, Blue Jays Fans

john-farrellIt takes a lot for anything in sports to surprise me anymore. But I can honestly say I met the reaction of the fans in Toronto to the return of their old manager John Farrell with a healthy dose of bewilderment.

Farrell was showered in boos, cat calls and obscenities from every corner of Rogers Centre during the Red Sox’ weekend series with the Blue Jays. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why.

Sure, Farrell didn’t leave under the best of circumstances. The 2012 Blue Jays had many problems and Farrell was criticized for his handling of the clubhouse.

But while I’m not privy to exactly how the negotiations went down, I feel certain no one held a gun to Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos’ head Luca Brasi-style and told him he had to let Farrell go.

Just a year before, the Blue Jays refused to allow Farrell to flee to Boston unless the Sox ponied up the exorbitant price of Clay Buchholz.

That the Blue Jays were willing to let Farrell walk 12 months later for Mike Aviles (whom they’d later trade to Cleveland) speaks volumes about how they valued Farrell. After all, he amassed just a 154-170 record and dealt with the aforementioned issues last year.

Farrell has paid the city of Toronto, its fans and the people he worked with there nothing but compliments since leaving, and that graciousness continued this week in the face of so much disrespect.

Fans seemed to focus their venom on one comment by Farrell where he called his current position in Boston his “dream job.” Did he realize what kind of backlash that kind of sincere comment would make? Probably not.

But let’s take inventory of some irrefutable facts. Farrell spent four seasons as the pitching coach in Boston, where he built strong relationships with people throughout the organization. He was still highly-regarded and clearly highly-valued by important Red Sox figures even after he left for Toronto.

Since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, they have not been back to the postseason once. They have one second-place finish to their name, never winning more than 88 games. Few times have the Blue Jays been truly terrible (their 67-94 season in 2004 was the worst), but they are almost always mediocre and never really relevant.

Since 1994, the Red Sox have nine postseason appearances, two World Series titles, two AL East titles, two years where they came within one game of winning the pennant, just three losing seasons and one year that was an abject failure (2012). Farrell himself was pitching coach on three playoff teams, including the 2007 World Series Champions.

So forgive Farrell for having the outrageous idea the Boston job might be better than the one in Toronto.

Neither he, nor the Blue Jays, nor the Red Sox could have foreseen the circumstances under which Terry Francona would exit Boston and the ensuing debacles that would lead to Farrell eventually getting his “dream job.”

So why can’t the fans let this go? Farrell didn’t want to be in Toronto. The team didn’t want him to be there that badly anymore, either. The Blue Jays pulled several major moves in the offseason and have their best team in years on paper.

Part of me thought the ferocity of their hatred came from all their years of frustration coming to a boil. Their team has been fighting for relevancy for 20 years.

To wit: Roy Halladay’s prime was wasted on middling team after middling team; J.P. Ricciardi’s tenure as GM was mostly a disaster; they gave B.J. Ryan $47 million, for which they got two decent years; they had a manager in the late-’90s who lied about serving in Vietnam, eventually leading his his dismissal; after two incredible years they traded Roger Clemens for pennies on the dollar; Chris Carpenter had a 4.83 ERA in six years there before blossoming into one of baseball’s best pitchers in St. Louis; I could go on, but you get the picture.

I liken this to how Montreal Canadiens fans boo Zdeno Chara at every turn over the Max Pacioretty hit even years later. I’d be hard-pressed to believe Habs fans would care remotely as much about Chara this long after the hit if their team had won anything in recent years.

But then, Friday night, it hit me. When Jose Iglesias got plunked on the arm with a pitch and started writhing in pain, the fans booed. The booing got louder when Farrell emerged from the dugout. But they were booing the simple act of an opposing player getting hit with a pitch and reacting in pain.

In that moment, I realized how amateurish Blue Jays fans at that game truly were. And I guess it’s hard to reason with, or understand, such absurd behavior.

***

Nick Cafardo offers his take on the nonsense in Toronto, calling the fans’ antics “silly.” Cafardo makes a good point about how college basketball coaches change jobs all the time under similar circumstances, however I’m not sure that comparison makes Farrell look better.

Like Farrell describing his “dream job,” does it really make a lot of sense for Texas fans to get on John Hamilton for calling Dallas a “football town?” Really? Are we somehow doubting that football is the most important sport in Texas? Hamilton, meanwhile, has bigger fish to fry, including really unfortunate treatment of his family in Texas. It’s just a game, people.

I suspect when the Braves spent greatly in money and players this winter to get B.J. and Justin Upton in their lineup, they were hoping for results like what happened in Atlanta Saturday night. In case you missed it, this was pretty damn cool.

You know what’s not cool? A 16-year-old Japanese pitcher who was forced to throw 772 pitches in a week during the Koshien national baseball tournament. Jeff Passan takes a closer look at the culture that creates such astonishing abuse.

In honor of the start of the season, Jay Jaffe wrote this thoughtful piece for SI on 20 ways baseball can be improved. It’s a good read and while some are far-fetched (I highly doubt we’ll see Opening Day declared a national holiday, as much as I’d love it), many are very practical. You may see me tackle some of these in this space soon.

I’ll end these blogs every week with a YouTube video of a song you should be listening to. First up are Local Natives, whose sophomore album Hummingbird has been among my favorites of the year so far.

Like this blog? Hate it? Want to ask me something or have an idea for a future blog? E-mail me at jakeodonnell21@gmail.com or tweet me @jaketodonnell.