You can’t fire a third of the team, so it’s believed, so the Red Sox did the next best thing the day after they were shoved to one side by the Astros in a division series. They fired the manager who finally lost his way and control of the Red Sox clubhouse. Even if a lot of it wasn’t his fault.
John Farrell was just too convenient a whipping boy for Red Sox Nation. To the point where enough believe he’d have been executed after 2015 if not for his courageous battle against cancer.
How else explain the summary execution of a manager who managed to coerce fifteen extra-inning wins out of his bullpen? Who got the most out of an offense distinctly lacking in long ball power while some of its best younger players had surprising regressions?
Farrell somehow held on despite his best starting pitcher vaporising going 9-6 down the stretch and his 2016 Cy Young Award winner turning up 4-11 at the All Star break and pitching only .500 ball after the break. He ran into a Houston buzzsaw at a time when the Red Sox were probably drained from winning an American League East they probably shouldn’t have won.
Which made him the first Red Sox manager in the divisional play era to win two straight American League Easts. Farrell this season did the best he could with what he wasn’t given after last season. On the other hand, he did let Chris Sale start one inning too many in Game Four of the division series.
Who knew the Red Sox would miss David Ortiz this much? You knew damn well they were going to miss his run production, but who figured—even with the Red Sox taking a division title without him—that nobody in the Red Sox clubhouse would pick up the leadership baton after Big Papi called it a career after last season?
There was no Ortiz in the clubhouse to tell David Price if he even thought about starting a battle of wits with an overqualified Hall of Fame pitcher named Dennis Eckersley he’d be sliced, diced, chopped, pureed, and baked in the same movement.
Dustin Pedroia, whom a lot of people figured would assume the baton upon Ortiz’s retirement, only proved he was even less comfortable being a team leader than he was when Ortiz was around to have his back. He also proved himself suited for anything but as well. Leading by example is one thing, but when the Red Sox needed a clubhouse cop Pedroia couldn’t walk the beat.
It was one thing for Pedroia to call out his foolish mates when they launched a pointless beanball war with the Orioles. But it was something else entirely for Pedroia to lift not one finger—other than to cheer right along with some of his teammates, it was said—when Price launched from his Eckersley attack toward what a lot of Red Sox observers say was turning the clubhouse into an us-versus-them clubhouse and unifying the team through negativity.
The Yankees and the Astros fortified their clubhouses with veterans who could play and who were solid character enhancers. The Cubs and the Dodgers already had such veterans. The Red Sox looked as though they thought character meant “characters” and decided they had quite enough of those.
Pedroia’s inability to lead—in hand with his season-long knee issues—really hit where it hurt. The Red Sox did have Mitch Moreland and Chris Young, but those two weren’t enough by themselves to police a clubhouse that wasn’t really sure how much policing it needed . . . and probably would have charged police brutality against anyone who tried.
General manager Dave Dombrowski, true to his history, mortgaged the farm to win now, but he forgot a few key elements. He punted on Edwin Encarnacion last winter while the Yankees welcomed Matt Holliday and Todd Frazier and the Astros re-welcomed Carlos Beltran. Encarnacion may not be Ortiz but he does have a jacket in big games, he would have provided power in the order, and he would have been a solid clubhouse presence.
Meanwhile, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts kept quiet in the clubhouse. They didn’t have great seasons, so you could understand to a certain point. Whether either or both turn into clubhouse leaders in due course is probably a matter of speculation. There doesn’t seem to be a large group ready to bet on either or both just yet.
But it was impossible to miss Betts, Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. regressing somewhat this year, after Farrell had been their primary mentor as they developed. Yes, it feels funny saying a player with 6.2 wins above replacement level this year regressed, but in Red Sox Nation Betts hitting a mere 24 home runs and driving in a mere 102 runs (in 2016: 31/113) is as good as taking a long walk off a short plank.
Farrell’s largest mistake in 2017 may have been how he didn’t handle Price’s attack on Eckersley. Practically every non-uniformed individual on the Red Sox payroll apologised to the Hall of Famer for Price’s absolutely unwarranted assault—because Eckersley had the audacity to point out on the air that Eduardo Rodriguez did indeed have a bad outing on rehab on the farm.
Farrell not only said publicly he hadn’t asked Price for that apology, he wouldn’t ask for it. It’s not that Eckersley was incapable of handling such juvenility—getting into a battle of wits with Dennis the Menace is something like bringing a butter knife to the Battle of the Bulge—but the skipper just fortified Price’s ability to rally the clubhouse in the wrong way.
Once upon a time, the Red Sox tangled with the Yankees in a season-ending game which meant the pennant for either team. After a wild argument over a play at the plate, young Yankee outfielder Cliff Mapes demanded to know how much the plate umpire had bet on the game—to the umpire’s face. Mapes was ordered to apologise post haste by manager Casey Stengel. The kid obeyed the order.
That was then, this is now. Not demanding Price apologise might have been the real reason Farrell lost his job at last, but Dombrowski isn’t saying just yet.
Neither has Dombrowski said whether Farrell would have kept his job if the Red Sox had won the division series instead of the Astros. As Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges writes, Farrell came to believe his players’ feelings were more important than the team and its culture top to bottom.
The man who vapourised the toxins metastasised by the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012 to lead the Red Sox to a third World Series championship in eight seasons, then survived two straight cellars to win two straight divisions, lost something in the translation.
Farrell wasn’t exactly Francona as a communicator, either. He lacked Francona’s endearing self deprecation and willingness to explain even the most eye-rubbing moves in ways that suddenly made sense to the befuddled as well as the knowing. By the time Farrell found his way to make things make sense no matter how little sense they made at first, it was like finding the brake on a runaway train two seconds before the wreck.
So it’s being said around Red Sox Nation, anyway. Farrell wasn’t exactly the only one responsible for the Red Sox’s current state of disarray. Whatever they bring in to succeed the manager, though, it can’t be the Valentine type. And if the Red Sox don’t address their power and pitching issues this winter, Dombrowski and higher may have some splainin’ to do. As if they don’t already.
Just as it was after the 2011 collapse—for which Terry Francona basically quit before he could be executed after that season—the last thing the Red Sox need to vapourise the clubhouse toxins is another blowtorch.