Firing John Farrell Won’t Solve Boston’s Playoff Woes

The Boston Red Sox fired manager John Farrell today. After a five-year tenure that included the 2013 World Series title and consecutive AL East titles in 2016-17 (an unprecedented achievement for the franchise), the responsibility for playoff failures the last two Octobers was placed at the manager’s feet.

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Farrell is not without blame for the team’s 1-6 record in Division Series play the last two seasons. His management of the pitching staff lacked the appropriate urgency for October. His decision not to start Hanley Ramirez in Game 1 was curious at best and only a fast injury to Eduardo Nunez forced Hanley into the lineup, where he quickly became the most productive Boston hitter in the recently concluded series against Houston.

But Farrell should not be left without credit for the team’s regular season successes. His handling of the bullpen and the way he paced it through the season was excellent and if there might be some game-to-game decisions that raised eyebrows, he certainly maxed out production from the team’s above-average to middling relievers that set up for Craig Kimbrel. I think that’s the most direct commentary on a manager’s performance and Farrell thrived.

While it’s true Farrell didn’t adjust his long-term approach bullpen management well enough for the playoffs, it’s even more true that his successor is going to have to deal with a cast of players that is…well, let’s face it, built for the regular season.

Is there anyone this side of Peyton Manning who fits the term “regular season performer” like David Price? He’s a Cy Young winner and the runner-up on two other occasions. He grinds out innings and he seems, from the outside, like a good teammate. And his ERA in postseason play is 5.03. By comparison, Clayton Kershaw looks like Curt Schilling.

At some point, the excuse of “small sample size” that sabermetric-types like to throw out about playoff numbers have to give way to the reality that this October ineptitude has come over eight different years. One bad October is a small sample size. A bad ERA over eight of them is a trend.

But the biggest testament to Price’s “regular season excellence” status came this year, when elbow problems forced him into the bullpen. No one in Boston was all that concerned about losing him in the rotation. He stepped up and threw four shutout innings to save the Red Sox, at least temporarily, in Game 3. Good for him. He’s the only $30 million-per-year long reliever in the major leagues. And he’ll be back in the rotation next year, and hopefully next October.

Then there’s Chris Sale. He was outstanding this year, and as a Red Sox fan, I’ve glad to have him. I like rooting for him. In his case though, the fading starts well before October. August 1 is clearly the demarcation point for Sale’s season. He’s been an early frontrunner for the Cy Young several times, including this year when he seemed to have it in the bag after four months. Another late-season fade likely gives the Cy Young to Corey Kluber. And if you were looking for a revival in October—Sale got rocked in Game 1, setting the tone for the series.

Like Price, Sale bounced back by coming on in relief early in Game 4 and pitched well enough to win, before the Astros rallied late (though the winning run was charged to Sale, the culprit was really Kimbrel). Great. So the Red Sox, with their $222 million payroll, are stockpiling long relievers.

David Price and Chris Sale are who they are at this stage of their careers. The same as Alex Rodriguez was and Barry Bonds once was. The latter two had their moments in October—A-Rod in 2009, Bonds in 2002. But for the most part, their Octobers were one long display of frustration.

A manager can make a difference in how he handles borderline talent, but stars have to take responsibility to be stars on the playoff stage. Whomever succeeds John Farrell still inherits that basic problem. These aren’t Big Papi’s Red Sox anymore.