The Great Red Sox Panic of 2016

On Monday, April 8th, 2002 Dave Dombrowski fired Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner after an 0-6 start. If the hope was to change the clubs fortunes, the move failed: his replacement Luis Pujols went a staggering 55-100. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dombrowski tied the quickest hook for a manager since 1900 – the other unfortunate being Cal Ripken Sr in 1988.

In case there was any doubt, it has become clear over the past few days that John Farrell is aware of this history.

2015 was a difficult year for the current Red Sox manager. The team entered the season with great expectations following a second last place finish in three years, but after a mediocre start (12-10) in April the wheels came off in May (10-19). By the trading deadline, it was all over but the crying, and what few movable parts there were were shown the door for negligible return.

As bad as the on the field situation was, Farrell’s health off the field was the real concern. Shortly after undergoing hernia surgery on August 11, it was discovered that he had stage 1 lymphoma. He would not return that season.

Having staggered to a .439 winning percentage under Farrell, the team’s luck changed shortly after his exit. Buoyed in part by unexpected performances from young players like Bradley or Shaw, not to mention the merciful decision to stop running Hanley Ramirez out in left field, the Red Sox made a run towards finishing .500 by playing .636 ball under interim manager, and former bench coach, Torey Lovullo.

If this had all happened one year earlier, there is no managerial controversy. In 2014, Farrell was fresh off a World Series title and respected throughout the organization, some of his odd tactical decisions notwithstanding. By the time he took his leave of absence last year, however, he was coming off a last place finish and had overseen the club’s steady march towards their second in a row.

Hence the question: who should manage the Boston Red Sox? John Farrell or Torey Lovullo? And if you stick with Farrell, what becomes of Lovullo? The Red Sox answered these questions in early October, announcing that Farrell would return and that Lovullo had been retained as well.

Personally, this was my preferred outcome, because it seemed inappropriate that Farrell not be given the chance to manage again because of his cancer diagnosis. Looking back, however, it may have been kinder to simply fire him.

Throughout this spring, there’s been an undercurrent of desperation. Writers wrote about how the team needed to get off to a fast start, unnamed front office executives were quoted as saying the same, but nothing has confirmed this more than Farrell’s repeated statements that the players performing the best in Spring Training would be the ones receiving playing time when the season opens on Monday – as if Spring Training performances were reliable predictors.

Which is how we find the players expected to be starting at third base (Sandoval) and left field (Castillo) headed for the bench.

For many in Boston, this has been welcome news. Neither Castillo nor Sandoval performed last year – Sandoval was one of the worst regulars in the league, in fact – and three last place finishes in four years means that business as usual isn’t acceptable.

Except that Farrell and the club’s approach so far makes little sense.

The personnel decisions, for example, are clearly the product of panic, not rational planning. Sandoval’s first year was indefensible. Fine. He’s hardly the first big ticket free agent to succumb to the pressure of the contract, however. While populist sentiment is in favor of assigning playing time independent of contract terms, in practice this makes little sense. By putting Sandoval on the bench, you increase rather than decrease the pressure on a player who already struggled with it last year. Which elevates the risk of losing him entirely, at which point you now have seventy plus million of dead money to try and find a home for.

While starting Sandoval and hoping for a return to something closer to his historical performance baselines is the correct decision, sitting him would be understandable if he was blocking a known quantity at third base. He is not. Statistically, in fact, there is greater reason the believe in Sandoval than Shaw, as Paul Swydan covers well.

Even setting the money aside, from a career accomplishments’ standpoint, it would unquestionably be easier to start Sandoval than Shaw. If Sandoval falters, Shaw has his opportunity. If Sandoval bounces back, Shaw can either refine his craft in the minors – where he has not performed particularly well, notably – or serve as the bench bat he was expected to. By starting Shaw, the Red Sox are placing their faith in one good month in the majors and a handful of spring training at bats. If they’re wrong, and Shaw is not a major league regular, their backup option is a mentally fragile third baseman that they just publicly benched.

How does that make sense, exactly?

The decision to start Holt in left field over Castillo, meanwhile, is more defensible but just as puzzling. First, making Holt a near regular contradicts the club’s previous assertion that he performs better when not asked to play every day. Second, it flies in the face of their plan the entire offseason, which was to finally give Castillo an extended opportunity to see if he can make the most of it. Third, they made this decision, apparently, on a few week’s of Spring Training at bats. And lastly, if you’re that desperate to win games early that you need to start Holt over Castillo, why keep the latter on the major league roster? He’s certainly not going to improve by not playing as a fifth outfielder.

Worse than any particular personnel decision, however, is the tone that has been set around the club. As a cerebral game, baseball is not one that is played best under tension, or fear. It’s not good for the individual player’s performance, and it can lead to a poor decision-making which overvalues the present at the expense of the future.

The Red Sox appear fixated on coming out of the gate at a sprint. In a sport that is more of a marathon, however, this approach seems questionable at best. The club has, as Tim Britton writes, completely overhauled its philosophy this offseason. It’s understandable and to be expected that some change accompanies the last place finishes. But the last time the Red Sox over-rotated this far, we went from Tito Francona to Bobby Valentine.

The only consoling thought amidst the current panic, in fact, is that if things do begin to go south, we’re more likely to end up with Lovullo than another season of Bobby V.

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