While teams are still jockeying for position and berths, the biggest remaining mysteries are who will win the various individual awards. The AL MVP race is hotly contested, the NL MVP isn’t. The NL Cy Young is a barnburner with tons of qualified candidates, while the AL race is smaller and less contested. Dave McCullough wonders if Boston Red Sox skipper John Farrell can overcome the bias against him from his hometown fans to win the AL Manager of the Year Award?
After consecutive last-place Boston finishes, with three of the last four ending in the cellar, Red Sox fans came into 2016 short-tempered and with a burr in their saddle. John Farrell was entering his fourth season at the helm, and while he led the club to a World Series title in his debut season, things had gone considerably south since then for the Red Sox manager and his hometown fans. In our forums this season, the Battle of John Farrell has raged without abating since before the games began – and it hasn’t ebbed as the months, and the wins, have mounted. What is the case for John Farrell to win the AL Manager of the Year award? I’m glad you asked.
The Off-Field Circus
Farrell entered the season literally lucky to be alive, having missed much of the 2015 season because of a cancer diagnosis. The 53-year-old manager had stepped aside when the team was 50-64, en route to another last-place finish. The club’s performance improved once Farrell departed the dugout for treatment, with interim manager Torey Lovullo impressing fans and writers alike with his late-season replacement work. New President of Baseball Operations and head honcho Dave Dombrowski retained the recuperating Farrell, but also re-signed Lovullo to be the team’s bench coach – the heir apparent should the ailing manager not make a full recovery, or underperform in the early going of 2016.
Before leaving Florida during spring training, Farrell found himself involved in a minor controversy, as it was announced he and his wife of 30 years, Sue, had separated, and that local reporter Jessica Moran was stepping down from her job to continue a relationship with the Sox skipper. While this has no specific bearing on his case as Manager of the Year, it does show that Farrell had distractions – on and off the field – to overcome.
Overcoming On-Field Adversity
On the field, spring training provided Farrell another unique challenge: how to handle an unhappy, and unfit, highly-paid player who was in the process of losing his job to ineffectiveness. Pablo Sandoval and his $19 million per year on a five-year contract had suffered through a miserable first season in Boston in 2015. And from the minute the third baseman reported to spring training in 2016, his physical shape – round – was a primary subject of every Farrell press conference. Despite getting a chance to compete for a job, the rotund third-sacker was in no shape to contribute to the big league club. Farrell quickly shifted gears to preparing youngster Travis Shaw for duty at third.
Sandoval was not the only highly-paid player to prove himself unworthy for the big leagues during spring training: Outfielder Rusney Castillo continued to prove he was a liability at the plate. Farrell also decisively abandoned Castillo and his big contract, instead turning his attention to readying Jackie Bradley Jr. to be the club’s primary centerfielder, with Brock Holt and Chris Young to platoon in left.
The Pitching Mess
The problems on the field also extended to the pitching staff: Clay Buchholz stumbled out of the gate, killing the fans faith as he had so many times before. Eduardo Rodriguez injured his knee during spring training and did not make his first start until May 31. His 10.03 June ERA over five starts earned him a trip to Triple-A Pawtucket until after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, newly-acquired reliever Carson Smith succumbed to an elbow injury, dashing the manager’s hopes for how to set up his thin bullpen. Aging relief ace Koji Uehara also missed time later in the season, as his performance continued to decline due to age and workload. Junichi Tazawa was forced into more appearances and innings than anyone had planned and eventually proved he was unable to handle it.
Boston fans lamented Farrell’s bullpen management all year, believing that a former pitching coach should be better at coaxing above-average performances from his staff. To their credit, actual pitching coach Carl Willis was also blamed for the club’s inconsistent pitching in the first half of the season, but Farrell took the lion’s share of the blame. His inability to “fix” Buchholz, or to anticipate the arrival of Mr. Price in the midst of Doctor David starts frustrated fans. So too did his relief pitcher deployment.
However, much of the Red Sox early season pitching troubles land squarely at the doorstep of Buchholz’s pitiful performances, as well as the loss of Smith to injury. Without a key piece of his late-game matchup strategy, Farrell had to rely more upon the 41-year-old Uehara, the running-low-on-gas-in-the-tank Tazawa, and mediocrities like Robbie Ross Jr. and Noe Ramirez. Price took half a season to adapt to pitching in Boston and the Sox had trouble stringing together winning streaks. But the struggles of the staff had less to do with Farrell and more to do with player performances, or lack thereof.
It is worth noting that likely AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello thrived under Farrell’s watch this season, as did first-half team MVP Steven Wright. Both hurlers had their best seasons in the majors while toiling for Farrell – and as the season has worn on, Boston’s pitching has become a strength. In addition to receiving good performances from the aforementioned Ross Jr., as well as closer Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox have seen Eduardo Rodriguez work his way through some second-season struggles, Buchholz rebound to be a factor, and the other fringe arms on the staff thrive with the steady hand of Farrell’s management. The Sox bullpen ERA in September has been a microscopic 0.96, beating the 2nd best, and division rival, Orioles 1.56 mark.
Coping With Distractions
In addition to the Sandoval situation, and his personal, off-field issues, Farrell has also had to manage in and around David Ortiz’s season-long retirement tour. While this may seem simple on the surface, it couldn’t have been easy for Farrell. Aside from Ortiz, the Red Sox are nearly a totally different team from the one he inherited – and won with – in 2013. Only Dustin Pedroia, Uehara, Buchholz, and Xander Bogaerts (sort of) remain. Instead, the 2016 squad is a collection of precociously talented youngsters (Bradley, Rodriguez, Shaw, Wright, Sandy Leon, Mookie Betts), new-to-town veterans (Porcello, Price, Chris Young, Hanley Ramirez), and recently traded-for reinforcements (Kimbrel, Aaron Hill, Drew Pomeranz, Brad Ziegler).
Incorporating so many new faces is not easy. It is even harder when there is a baseball legend who commands the spotlight in every city, during every road trip. It helps that the individual in question is the notoriously gregarious and almost-eternally happy Big Papi – but managing the egos and foibles of the well-paid roster is the manager’s primary job in the modern era. Farrell has not only kept everyone happy and productive, he’s allowed Ortiz to be lauded and celebrated while nurturing the nascent brilliance of Betts along the way.
The Red Sox have clinched a playoff spot and likely earned the division crown, having won 92 games along the way. They have performed equally well on the road (46-32) as at home (46-32), playing better as the season has progressed: Their month-by-month ERA shows steady improvement, peaking at the “right time of the year” as they enter the postseason. The Sox have far-and-away the best run differential in AL – sporting a +192 to the next-best Cleveland Indians +104 on the season. They have scored the most runs in all of baseball (861) and their ERA in the second half is 3.42 – one of the best marks in the majors during that stretch.
With a strong final week of the season, the Red Sox can wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But even if they finish behind the Indians or the Rangers, they will have won the toughest division in baseball with a flourish. Their eleven-game winning streak and series wins over quality division competition in the final month of the season showed everyone their mettle as a contender. John Farrell may have taken fire all season from dissatisfied fans, but he has emerged as the favorite for the Manager of the Year award. Who has overcome more adversity than the cancer-survivor who lost his third baseman and his primary setup man for the season in April, received very little from his third and fourth starters for most of the summer, and put together the league’s best offense with a very young core supported by baseball’s best old person?
John Farrell has put it all together for his team, doing so while under close scrutiny and questions about his job security. He has performed better than any other manager in the AL, and deserves to win the Manager of the Year award.