On Monday afternoon, with a dreary and rainy backdrop, the Boston Red Sox were bounced from the playoffs in the American League Divisional Series, the second time in two years they made such an exit. Last October, the Indians steamrolled the Red Sox in a three-game sweep during which Cleveland was in full control. This year was different because there were many moments over the course of the series, and especially over the course of the fourth game, when the Red Sox looked like they could manage an upset. Ultimately though, Boston’s lack of recent playoff success cost John Farrell his job, as the Red Sox announced his firing Wednesday morning.
Make no mistake, a Boston win against Houston would have been an upset. It is difficult to be surprised the Astros won a five-game set, considering they bested Boston by eight games in the regular season. The Astros managed the second-best record in the AL, behind the juggernaut Indians who went a month without losing a game. Even still, Houston only finished one game behind Cleveland.
Yet for a team in a baseball-charged market, driven by a demand to win now, the absence of a heroic upset seemed like a disappointment. When you consider that last year’s excuse was that the Red Sox pitching let them down, the offseason addition of Chris Sale presented the opportunity to take a quick 1-0 series lead regardless of what team Boston faced. But things rarely go as planned, and with some questionable judgement by John Farrell throughout the season, the playoff roster suffered.
This Boston team was different than the usual contemporary Red Sox team. Boston finished dead last in the American League in home runs, and had their first 100-stolen base season since 2013. Additionally, despite Boston winning the AL East, they inexplicably excelled in extra innings, posting a 15-3 record. If a handful of those games had gone the other way, the Yankees would have pulled ahead and won the AL East. Of course, we can make these types of what-ifs for every team, but it’s worth mentioning this good fortune because an .833 winning percentage in extras is really, really unlikely.
In analyzing what went wrong in the LDS, the Red Sox can point to a number of key issues, not least of which was inconsistent starting pitching --- something Boston suffered from for a good portion of the season. With David Price’s absence for most of the year, Boston struggled to fill out their rotation, relying on inconsistent performances from Drew Pomeranz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and eventually Doug Fister, who few projected as a playoff starter when Boston picked him up off the scrap heap.
Compounding the rotational issues for Boston were some questionable moves from skipper John Farrell, who overworked his starters on multiple occasions over the course of the last six months (specifically leaving pitchers in longer than necessary in games that were well-in-hand) and mishandled his starters, asking them to come out of the ‘pen when they likely could have started.
Boston’s fragile pitching and lack of depth cannot entirely be placed on John Farrell, but old-school thinking makes matters worse. The issues with the pitching staff and questionable moves by manager, John Farrell compounded themselves against Houston, with a rotational setup that was sub-optimal at best. In a way, the short series served as a microcosm of Boston’s pitching woes, from rostered players to young pitcher development. For a manager who served as a pitching coach previously, none of this puts Farrell in a good light.
While Chris Sale’s frame belies his durability, he still has logged over two hundred innings the past three seasons, including 214 innings this season. Sale had been inconsistent the last month of the season, allowing nine of his 24 home runs over his last five games. His execution in game one was terrible, though his less-than-ideal relief appearance was strong until again, he was left in too long and gave up what was essentially a season-ending home run.
Drew Pomeranz, a good pitcher when healthy, has not logged the innings of Sale, yet Boston rode him to the most innings of his injury-plagued career. In game three of the ALDS, Pomeranz lasted only two innings, giving up four runs and two home runs.
Additionally, 2016 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello was equally inconsistent, logging only 19 quality starts in 33 starts. Porcello’s fWAR was cut by more than half compared to last season, while his walk rate increase by more than one bases on balls per nine innings.
Considering David Price came out of the bullpen for four strong innings, it would seem he could have started for four innings before calling on pitchers of lesser quality. Boston won the game amidst an offensive explosion in the seventh inning, but the process and thinking did not make sense. Similarly, Farrell chose not to start Chris Sale in game four, but ended up using him in relief for nearly five innings, raising the same question: if he’s available, why wouldn’t he start on a short leash?
Entering the season, Boston fans wondered where the Red Sox would find the production lost by David Ortiz, but the Sox postseason exit had little to do with a power outage, and much more to do with issues related to starting pitching. The combination of overworking players and misusing their best assets led to a quick exit, all of which caused John Farrell to lose his job. While it’s hard to be too surprised when the better team wins a shorter series, the Red Sox’ multi-year underachievement under Farrell ultimately led to the end of his managerial tenure.