FORT MYERS, Fla. -- "He's erudite."
For some on the outskirts of the Engish language, Joe Maddon's description of John Farrell might be perceived as fighting words. But for those more familiar with Webster's (that's the dictionary, not Allen, the pitching prospect), the Tampa Bay manager's phraseology should offer optimism for anybody wondering what a Farrell managed team might present.
(In case there was any confusion, the word in question means, "having or showing great knowledge or learning.")
On the subject of what it has been like to manage against Farrell for the past two seasons, Maddon elaborated.
"When you look at the lineup before the game, or stuff that’s happening over the course of the game, you know that they’re on top of things, obviously," the Rays manager said. "John is really a bright man. He’s a very bright man. He’s different in a lot of ways, but when it comes down to the actual game it’s a combination of what he knows and modern day data and information.
"There were certain guys who were set loose on the bases and trying things on the bases the Blue Jays had never done before. Pitching-wise, you know he’s going to use his bullpen extremely well. You know if you’re seeking an edge, he knows you’re seeking an edge, so they’re pretty much on top of that. Primarily the biggest difference for me was a more open game. More freedom on the bases was primarily the difference."
For years, or certainly since the success of Maddon's Rays, Red Sox followers have been clamoring for the likes of the inventive manager. The run-and-gun, outside-the-box approach that has helped Tampa Bay stare down the barrel of payrolls three time its size and land with the third-most wins in baseball since 2008 fascinates fans.
The reality is that the philosophy of the current Red Sox' manager approximates Maddon's style more than maybe any other skipper in the American League (at least in some of the ways that have elicited the most interest around baseball).
"One thing they both nail is applying pressure," said Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes, who played under Maddon for four seasons. "You think of an offensive style, but you don’t really talk about applying pressure, and they both really stress that. Pressure, that’s what they both talk about."
Perhaps the two most noticeable differences when it comes to defining Farrell's style will be evident in two of Maddon's calling cards -- baserunning and defensive positioning.
AGGRESSION AND PROFICIENCY
It wasn't hard to identify the tone Farrell was trying to set as a first-time manager back in 2011 spring training. That spring the Blue Jays stole 36 bases, fifth-most of any team in the majors. The entire season before Toronto had been a team that swiped just 23 bags, up slightly from a total of just 11 in '09.
The intentions were understood. But as the '11 season unfolded, the strategy would ultimately emerge as Farrell's first big lesson as a manager.
While the Blue Jays finished 2011 with the eighth-most stolen base attempts in the majors, they were just 17th in the big leagues in stolen base percentage. It was just too many missed opportunities for the manager's liking.
"The thing that became very clear [was] that while we were trying to create a culture of aggressiveness and being an up-tempo team, it became much more clear on where the red light needed to be put on," he said. "Trusting players to think they understood the mindset we had based on their experience level may be a little too trusting, so that had to be shut off from the dugout much more readily.
"What did I learn over the past two years? Strive for that balance of aggressiveness and still be as proficient as possible."
With this group, Farrell has every intention of prioritizing the aggressiveness, but perhaps doing so via extra-base advancement instead of flat-out basestealing.
"I think there are ways through baserunning we can put pressure on a defense. That sounds great in concept, but we have to play within the talents of our roster, too," he explained. "We’re not going to run with reckless abandon. There are some things to have multiple options in a first-and-third offense. To the extent we can take that … It’s tempered by realism of how fleet afoot we are.
"We'll have the same intent but to temper it in a way where there are situations we don’t want to risk anything and not give away outs. But at the same time we want to create some distraction for the pitcher to balance, let the outfielders know we’re going to go first to third so we’re going to force them to come up with the ball clean, have a decent transfer and make a good throw."
The player who might exude the qualities Farrell is looking for is Gomes, whom Maddon calls, "One of the best baserunners I've ever had, anywhere."
Gomes hasn't made his living off of stolen bases, by any means (although he did total 53 swipes in his first three minor league seasons). But what he does understand is the value of the extra base, as was evidenced by him becoming the only player in the majors during the '10 season to go from first to third 15 times while hitting as many as 15 home runs.
"He to me fits what we’re trying to do, and could be a guy who can steal more bases than he has, because he can move for a big guy and likes to," Farrell said. "He gets it. We had a play two nights ago there was a read on a ball in the outfield if the instincts and reaction was right they should have been standing on third base, and the guy wasn’t. He was quick to point that out, and not just to me."
Gomes is clearly all-in when it comes to the new manager's mantra.
"You don’t get fast in an offseason. You don’t go from 0 to 40 (stolen bases)," the outfielder said. "It’s like my outfield. Years I DH'd, I always worked hard on my outfield. Years I haven’t ran I always stayed up with working on my running. I would definitely like to turn it on. And what John is emphasizing this year is baserunning."
PEDROIA'S NEW POSITION
Gomes, a notorious pull-hitter, said there were only two teams to execute a shift on him when playing for Oakland last year: Farrell's Blue Jays and Maddon's Rays. It's no coincidence.
Maddon, of course, was known for shifting (particularly on David Ortiz) before it was in style, and continues to implement such tactics above and beyond what most organizations roll out. But it was Farrell who may have been most creative in his use of shifts throughout the '12 campaign.
For that he can thank, in large part, third baseman Brett Lawrie.
"See, Lawrie made that all happen," Maddon said of Toronto's propensity to shift. "He is so agile in that slot over there. They were willing to take that chance. Defensively, absolutely, they were much more aggressive on defense. You could have put someone out there other than Lawrie, but he’s so active out there.
"You’re going to shift, but Lawrie made it even more effective because he’s so into it. He’s agile. He’s quick. He throws really well. He actually played a lot deeper and made a lot of plays other guys would not by his willingness to play deeper."
Farrell would not only bring the third baseman to the other side of the diamond, but Lawrie would often times play so deep in right field that he was closer to the warning track than the infield. Then there were the times (such as during Adrian Gonzalez's at-bats) when Lawrie would play in shallow center field.
"That," Farrell said, "was part of his athleticism."
With the Red Sox, third baseman Will Middlebrooks won't be called upon to duplicate Lawrie's responsibilities. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, however, might be another story.
The plan is with nobody on, when a left-handed hitter against whom the Red Sox want to shift is at the plate, Pedroia will play Lawrie's position in shallow-to-mid right field, with shortstop Stephen Drew playing his usual position (perhaps shaded toward the bag), and Middlebrooks manning the usual second base spot.
With a runner on first, Drew and Pedroia will be on either side of the second base bag, with Middlebrooks standing between the Sox' second baseman and first baseman Mike Napoli.
"We don't want him near the bag," Farrell said of Middlebrooks. "He's not used to that."
As the season evolves, Pedroia's increased positioning role could expand even further to duplicate more of Lawrie's wide geographical coverage. But for now, it will be about getting the second baseman acclimated to manning a spot in the outfield, something he hasn't done before.
It's all strategy the Red Sox will be prioritizing during the final two weeks of spring training games, while also allowing all the regular infielders to experience a crash course Monday with infield instructor Brian Butterfield while the back-ups go to Bradenton to play the Pirates.
It's all part of Farrell's plan, one which might be new for the Red Sox, but not for the opposing managers in the American League East. After all, according to Fielding Bible author John Dewan of ACTA Sports, the Blue Jays last year featured both the best defensive team in the majors (saving 70 runs) and leading the majors by saving 12 runs through shifts. The Rays? They ranked second to Farrell's Jays with 10 runs saved through defensive realignments.
"He knows what he's doing," Maddon concluded. "He's a bright guy."