Red Sox: John Farrell explains why he stuck with Robbie Ross

Jun 28, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) works out prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 28, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) works out prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell’s decision to stick with Robbie Ross last night proved costly, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.

Blame John Farrell.

That’s the sentiment that Boston Red Sox fans are quick to turn to whenever the team falls short in a close game. It’s the manager’s fault. If only he did this or that. If he were better at managing his bullpen then the outcome surely would have turned out differently.

In some cases they are correct – managers do make mistakes. What we saw Tuesday night wasn’t one of them.

The Red Sox lost another heart-breaker to the Detroit Tigers last night when reliever Robbie Ross suddenly lost the strike zone in the 7th inning. He retired the first two batters of the inning easily enough, but the outing began to unravel after Ross clipped Justin Upton with a pitch. Perhaps his control was wavering as his pitch count began to build, or hitting a batter may have altered his approach. Either way, Ross failed to hit his spots. Mike Aviles singled up the middle, which was followed by back-to-back walks to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Tyler Collins to push the go-ahead run over the plate.

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With Ross starting to meltdown before our eyes, Farrell clearly should have taken him out sooner, right? He had already been in the game since the fifth inning, when he came in to relieve struggling starter Steven Wright to get the final out of the frame. What possessed Farrell to stick with the lefty for so long?

It turns out that Farrell did have several good reasons for leaving Ross in the game.

Starting from when he entered the game in fifth inning, Ross ended up recording six outs, or two innings of work, before getting the hook with two outs in the 7th inning. That may seem like a lot for a reliever that typically isn’t used for long stretches, but pitch count matters more than the number of innings. Entering the 7th inning, Ross was only at 15 pitches, so it wasn’t unreasonable to send him back out to the mound given that he hadn’t pitched the previous two games and was one of the more rested options in the bullpen.

After laboring through 2/3 of the 7th inning, Ross’ pitch count ended up at 40. That’s a lot, but hardly unprecedented. It’s not even a season high, as he threw 46 pitches in a game on April 12 and has reached 39 pitches on two other occasions, one of which came in an outing where he tossed three scoreless innings.

Ross is capable of handling this type of workload, so that alone wouldn’t have been a reason to pull him. Farrell could have taken the ball from him when he started to get into trouble earlier in the inning, but by that point it made sense to have a lefty on the mound.

"“Felt like with Saltalamacchia, wanted to keep him on the right side of the plate and with a lefthander coming behind him,” Farrell told reporters after the game, per MassLive’s Jen McCaffrey. “Robbie’s been 40-plus pitches before. He was the one guy who had the most rest down there, and needed to stay with him.”"

Farrell wanted the switching-hitting Saltalamacchia to face a lefty because he’s hitting .143 with a .441 OPS against them this season. Even after walking Salty, you still had to like Ross’ chances to get out the No. 9 hitter Collins, who is hitting .111 against left-handed pitching.

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The numbers were clearly in Ross’ favor. The decision to leave him in the game didn’t pan out, but what was the alternative? Joe Kelly finished off the inning by getting Ian Kinsler to line out to center, but sending him in earlier to face two lefties wouldn’t be ideal. Left-handed hitters have a .323/.500/.581 line against Kelly this season.

If preserving the lefty-lefty matchup was important then Farrell could have turned to Tommy Layne, which he did in the 9th inning. Layne allowed a double to Upton to open the inning and was fortunate to see him erased on a pick-off. Two batters later, Salty smacked a single up the middle, suggesting the results may not have been much different if Farrell had replaced Ross with Layne in that fateful 7th frame.

Farrell also noted that Matt Barnes and Clay Buchholz were both unavailable last night. The 7th inning would have been too early to bring in closer Brad Ziegler, while Junichi Tazawa was used in the 8th. Given that Taz recently returned from an injury, pushing him more than an inning seems unwise. Who else does that leave that could have taken over for Ross after he started to fall apart? Nobody.

The numbers dictate that Ross was the clear choice to face the bottom of the order combination of Salty and Collins. Even if Ross was running out of gas by that point, a lack of available options convinced Farrell to stick with him. It didn’t work out this time, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice. At least he has valid reasons to back up his decision, so it’s not as if he fell asleep at the wheel, failing to notice that Ross was imploding before his eyes.

If you want to put this loss on Farrell, make it for his decision to leave Wright in the game as he was getting pounded for eight runs, including four in the 5th inning before he was mercifully lifted for Ross. Although even that would be unfair, given how good Wright has been this season and the tendency for knuckleball pitches to find their groove again just as quickly as they lost it.

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It’s easy to place blame on Farrell in retrospect, but this loss can’t be pinned on the manager making the wrong choice. With an injury ravaged bullpen at his disposal, he simply didn’t have a better choice available.