John Farrell

The Red Sox Really Need a Hot Start

I’m not a scout, but I think it’s fair to say the Red Sox have looked a bit iffy this spring. They’ve lost a lot of games, made a bunch of errors and looked shaky on the mound as well. Now, that doesn’t mean a whole lot, probably. Spring training exists for a reason and that reason is not to win games or even to look good. The team needs to round into form after a long off-season away from the game, and these games are their officially licensed way to do that. These games aren’t even really games anyway, at least not in the sense that two teams are trying to win them.

Still, perception exists. And for what that’s worth, the Red Sox need is a good start.

Good starts are good. The Red Sox haven’t had one in a few years so maybe we’ve forgotten, but though they don’t necessarily mean much as far as overall team quality goes they do seem to have an impact on the way the fans feel about the season. It’s like the batter who gets off to a hot start and later cools and ends up hitting .280. Compare him to the batter who gets off to a cold start but works at it and over the long haul gets his average up to .280. Value-wise they’re the same guy, at least given what we know here. But one of them is a fan-favorite and the other a target for derision. And they’re the same guy! This is, in part, what the Red Sox are facing. A good start and some happy feelings would go a long way to securing the team and focusing them on the road ahead rather than some divisive clubhouse drama.

The issue with the Red Sox this season is they may not have the normal 162 game slate to make their case for themselves.

Traditionally when discussing the season we analysts repeatedly point out how long it is and how a single game in April isn’t likely to alter things much. That’s mathematically true. No sense in getting bent out of shape over 1/162nd of a season going badly. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the best game of any on the schedule to lose is the first game because there are still 161 left to make up for it. That is all completely true and important and good stuff.

The issue with the Red Sox this season is they may not have the normal 162 game slate to make their case for themselves. The team’s two consecutive last-place finishes have combined with a new front office and two off-seasons of spending at the top of the free agent market and, with a bit of an assist from John Farrell’s personal life and Pablo Sandoval’s heft, created what we in the industry might call a sense of urgency. The Red Sox’s current front office is not married to the current field staff or to many of the players and that creates the potential for turnover and drama and we both know how well the Red Sox cope with both those things.

Oddly the team’s success at the end of last season, too late though it was, might also be working against them. The Red Sox started badly under Farrell, who was forced to leave the team mid-season to undergo treatment for cancer. Torey Lovullo managed the team the remaining 47 games, in which time the Red Sox won 27. This was a big improvement considering that at the time Farrell left the Red Sox were 51-64. Over the off-season Farrell fortunately got healthy and the Red Sox brought back Lovullo as a bench coach. Now the guy who won with last year’s team is the bench coach for the guy who lost with last year’s team. So sure this will be great.

There is also this: if this team gets off to a bad start John Farrell is likely going to lose his job. That doesn’t guarantee the team will tank, or even that they’ll miss the playoffs, but it does make those two outcomes more likely. Mostly what it means is the 2016 Red Sox aren’t that good. Jonah Keri did a study for Grantland of all of baseball’s mid-season managerial changes between 2003 and 2012. Five of the 31 manager changes resulted in a winning record for the remainder of the season. If the Red Sox fire Farrell they’re very likely not going anywhere in 2016.

The Red Sox’s average opponent in April will have a .516 winning percentage, or about that of an 84 win team.

So the next pertinent question is how long until John Farrell loses his job? Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal was asked this exact question yesterday in a chat and said, “If the team starts badly, it’s not hard to see Farrell losing his job by June.” I tend to agree. The narrative gets set quickly, so the first month will be extra important, but it seems like Farrell has maybe two months to get the team going in an obvious right direction before Dombrowski turns the team over to someone else. That means the season is even shorter, assuming the Red Sox would like to avoid the messy scenario of having their manager fired mid-season.

The first month of the season features a bunch of games against Toronto, Tampa, Houston, the Yankees, and Cleveland. That’s a difficult schedule. I weighted the PECOTA projected wins for the Red Sox opponents in April and then averaged their collective winning percentage. The Red Sox’s average opponent in April will have a .516 winning percentage, or about that of an 84 win team. Take out the four against the Braves though and the team will face a .531 winning percentage the other 22 nights. That’s a tough start.

It feels like the 2016 Red Sox are going through a crucible. They must start strong to prevent their team crumbling from within. The first month could determine whether or not Farrell keeps his job, Pablo Sandoval’s future in Boston, and could help define or elevate any chaos in the starting rotation (save David Price). The good thing is the Red Sox can stave off all these unfortunate scenarios too. They just need a good start.

Photo by Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images

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1 comment on “The Red Sox Really Need a Hot Start”

Walt in Maryland

As you said, “good starts are good,” but I’m not sure the Sox “need” a good start any more than any other team does.

You could even argue that because the Sox are better positioned than most to make a major acquisition at the trade deadline (more prospects, more $$$), starting strong is less of a factor for them.

John Farrell definitely needs a good start, though. And keeping an often hostile media at bay is never a bad thing, either.

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