CHICAGO — There’s an endless debate among the baseball people you run into over the years about the role of managers: How much influence does one have on wins and losses? How do you gauge the effectiveness of a manager over a 162-game schedule? Is it strictly wins and losses?
If you have talent, you win. If you don’t, you lose. Isn’t it that simple?
For the most part it is. But there are other factors.
How much improvement is there in the players? If the team is going bad, can a manager get it out of a slump? What’s the mood the manager sets in the clubhouse and how big of a factor is that in creating wins? It’s all pretty subjective, but John Farrell faces these questions right now.
After a championship season in his first year with the Red Sox, managing a worst-to-first turnaround, Farrell is in his first real adverse situation as the team’s skipper.
There’s still a core of players from last year’s championship team, though some key ones defected through free agency. But Farrell, 7-9 after the Red Sox beat the White Sox, 3-1, in Thursday night’s series finale, addressed the lackluster start and some of the difficulties associated with it.
“There’s always adversity inside of a season or particular stretch. I think it’s important to respond in an even manner as possible,” said Farrell, in his US Cellular Field office before the game.
“I recognize that we’re bringing in some new players and getting young players settled into their roles. We’ve been hit with the injury bug a little bit. You try to seek ways to get an advantage with the matchup. Try to make the most of an opportunity.”
He shrugs off the changes as an excuse because he knows that teams change and personnel change in baseball. Keeping everyone together isn’t the norm anymore. Either it’s too expensive, which was the case with the Red Sox in letting Jacoby Ellsbury flee as a free agent, or you reach the point where you have to break in new players.
“Spring training is going to give you a foundation to the beginning of the year, but once you get into the season the personality of that team is going to emerge based on the challenges you face early and successes or otherwise that take place,’’ Farrell said. “You’re always trying to work toward, one, being more consistent, and two, re-forming that personality of the team, which takes into account the personnel changes on the team. And then how we meet that adversity or those challenges that are thrown at us whether its injury or performance, travel, or all those things combined.”
It’s not that Farrell hasn’t experienced these bad stretches. He mentioned three bad stretches embedded in the championship season.
He also had two years in Toronto, where he faced numerous “challenges” with underachieving teams. Experiences he learned from.
“We started out 18-8 at the beginning of last season,” he said. “It can be magnified now because you’re starting with a 0-0 record, no batting average, and no ERA. With these numbers early on, it’s not like you can absorb a stretch like this after a good start.”
But there has been a silver lining this season. The pitching. The Red Sox are ranked ninth in the majors in ERA and are pitching better than their record indicates.
“That’s the one thing that allows me to sleep better at night,” Farrell said. “The body of work we’ve had has been relatively consistent. The starters have done a good job of keeping things under control and we’re all aware of some of the opportunities we create offensively but don’t cash in on.”
He knows, too, that while Ellsbury and Stephen Drew aren’t walking through the door, the offense will ignite at some point and perhaps leave the early-season lethargy in the dust.
“We’ve got a couple of players we anticipate getting back into our everyday lineup,’’ Farrell said. “Shane Victorino’s absence has been felt as has Will’s [Middlebrooks]. [Injuries] also create opportunities for other guys. If those opportunities have been fleeting or haven’t been capitalized on, it’s important to remain as even keeled as possible.”
And that he’s done.
The players have commented that Farrell’s demeanor has remained steady, consistent with the manager they know. He’s been able to show emotion, as he did at Yankee Stadium when he got tossed after disagreeing with a replay decision.
It wasn’t lost on the players, who admire that he fought for a call that could not be reversed and then suffered two fines totaling more than $3,000 to boot.
So the players know who Farrell is. He’s the same guy. But does Farrell know the identity of this 2014 team yet?
“Yes. I think in general we know who we are, but we also went through three stretches last year, 2-9, 5-9 and 5-8, and those came after the good start. So to be 6-9 after 15, that stands out and we understand why,” Farrell said.
And while he sees frustration in the clubhouse, he notes, “I think frustration is always part of the game. That can raise and lower at times, based on things and a stretch that might not go our way. How do we react to those frustrations both from an individual and team perspective is what’s important.
“Ideally, we shouldn’t allow that to come in and affect the way we execute the human emotion. How we respond is critical.”
Farrell said there already have been things he and the team have had to address that are unique to this season.
“Contract situations that have been written about that are well known and guys pay attention to that,’’ he said. “You have conversations, that are hard, to try and eliminate that distraction as best you can. Whether that’s an individual conversation or with a small group of players, these are the things in monitoring the pulse of the clubhouse, where you try to stay ahead of it so it doesn’t get bigger than what they need to be.”
Obviously, there’s a contract dispute between the Red Sox and No. 1 pitcher Jon Lester. The Red Sox reportedly offered Lester a four-year, $70 million extension that seems under market. The offer has reverberated through the clubhouse among veteran players, who want to make sure Lester is treated fairly.
Farrell has had conversations with Lester and others about the situation. In spring training, he had those conversations with David Ortiz until his deal got done.
Farrell has drawn rave reviews among the players for his communication skills. They work when times are good. He hopes they work when times are bad.
You can make the case that Farrell is the best manager in the game. People say that when you win it all.
The most impressive thing he could do now is turn this underachieving team into a winner again.
And that would be an impressive measure of a manager.