TORONTO -- John Farrell won't hesitate in revealing his answer to the question, "What is the toughest part of managing?"
"Managing the bullpen," the Red Sox skipper said.
The task, he elaborates, is made even more challenging by the league in which he resides.
"The pitcher in the order never comes up [under American League rules]. Normally that will dictate a lot of your moves. Here it doesn't," he said. "So you have to know your personnel that much better in that gray area. And even with that, a week from now that may fluctuate."
Farrell has been put to the test when it comes to getting a feel for the right and wrong when it comes to maneuvering his relievers. The Red Sox have had 18 different relievers this season, four separate closers, and groups, at times, whose talents flew in the face of convention. (At one point, every Sox relief pitcher had reverse splits -- with righties performing better against right-handed batters, and lefty pitchers excelling more vs. left-handed hitters.)
Earlier this week, Farrell sat down with WEEI.com to offer some insights as to how he approaches the bullpen conundrum, identifying the process, the challenges and the regrets.
Before each series, Farrell can be found at his desk writing down names and numbers on a lined piece of paper. What he's doing is nothing more than copying an already printed-out report listing all the upcoming opponents' hitters' particulars -- strengths, weaknesses, what side of the plate they hit from, etc.
The idea behind replicating the reports is so that Farrell can commit the numbers and information to memory, not having to rely only on digesting the data on a card in the heat of battle.
It is just the first wave of information that will help guide his bullpen decisions. Another card has been printed up by video/advance scouting coordinator Billy Broadbent after compiling facts and figures from bullpen coach Dana Levangie. This sheet, which will ultimately be posted next to Farrell in the Red Sox dugout, has each reliever's history for the previous seven days -- how many times they've pitched, pitches they've thrown in a game, if they've warmed up and pitches they've thrown while warming up, and if they've gotten up and down over the course of a game.
Then comes what Farrell identifies as maybe the most important part of the pregame process -- a stroll through the outfield during batting practice.
"I walk through the outfield every day and talk to each reliever to see if they feel like they're available," he said. "They're not going to say no. In that case I have to understand their mentality and take it out of their hands. ... Although it may be a 30-second interaction with a guy, it leads to you getting a feel for what that day brings and has to offer, and that's why it's so important."
Making Farrell's job a whole lot easier is having the ability to lean on veterans who are not only in-tune with their bodies, but who are also secure in their lots in life. Current closer Koji Uehara is a perfect example.
"We were home against Arizona recently and he did what he has done a few times this season," Farrell said of Uehara. "He said, 'I'm good today, but if I pitch today I definitely need tomorrow off.' He's been very forthright with that."
The manager does, however, go by rules of thumb when trying to decipher a reliever's availability prior to any conversation: 1. Seeing if he has gone more than 25 pitches the day before; 2. Making sure there is a day of recovery if they've pitched three out of five days; 3. When determining if he can pitch a third straight day, making sure the previous two outings included minimal pitches thrown.
There is also the matter of factoring in if a pitcher has gotten up and down more than once in the course of a game because, as Farrell explained, "That takes as much out of the arm as anything. If we get a guy hot twice, he's probably done for the day." (It should be noted that Uehara has only warmed up three times this season without getting in a game.)
The wheels usually start spinning well before the starter is ready to call it day. Farrell and his coaches will try to identify potential matchups in the late innings that will be conducive to certain relievers, while also making sure they know who is and isn't available.
"That's the conversation i have with [pitching coach] Juan [Nieves] early in the day," Farrell said. "Then we're having conversations a minimum of one inning, and possibly two innings ahead, on where we forecast the need. Then we start to line it up."
There also has to be an understanding of how long each reliever might take to get loose. The Red Sox currently have three rookies -- Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa and Drake Britton -- who had never relieved on a full-time basis before the last month, so it is still somewhat trial and error regarding the optimal preparation time for each member of the trio. But, early returns suggest all three can get "hot" in a hurry, with Workman already having a propensity for not needing too many warm-up pitches. (He typically would make just 25 tosses after long toss prior to starts.)
Junichi Tazawa can take a bit longer to get loose, although that process has narrowed as the season has progressed.
"What we do from the dugout is if we know a guy's timing is getting close, we'll say, "Get him halfway, or get him close, and then hold the ball,'" Farrell explained. "Then if we're a hitter away we'll say, 'Get him hot.' Because we have so much youth down there, we'll instruct to the level of getting hot instead of just firing him down there."
Some of the guidelines for Farrell also revolve around his personnel's skill-set. The worries that come with not pushing a pitcher out of his comfort zone are relaxed with Craig Breslow, for instance, because, as the manager said, "He knows himself so well." On the other hand, it is preferred that Tazawa starts with clean innings. (Tazawa has entered with nobody out in 48 of the righty's 55 outings.)
"You handle each guy separately," Farrell said.
Then comes what the manager identifies as "one of the toughest things" -- knowing when to identify the end for the starter.
"You recognize the work they put in during the four days leading up that start," Farrell said, "and you want to give respect to that and give them every chance to win."
The challenge, he explained, is to take emotion out of the equation.
Earlier in the season, Ryan Dempster was already over 120 pitches in the sixth inning when Farrell made a trip to the mound. After a brief discussion with the starter, he left him in the game. It didn't work out. It was a process the manager said he had never followed before, and would try to avoid repeating. (Such scenarios were the exact reason why former Red Sox manager Terry Francona never walked to the mound unless he was going to take out a pitcher.)
"John Lackey will seemingly always put me in a spot where, one, he never wants to come out and then two, I'll hear him and I have to make decisions with my head instead of my heart," Farrell said. "In Houston I made a decision with my heart instead of my head and it ended us costing us the extra run. Where we were with the pitch count, where we were in the order and [Robbie] Grossman had good success against him and that's why we came around Game 3 in that series with Dempster, I took him out after we scored the two runs because Grossman is sitting there in the four-hole. I'd rather have a reliever come in and start a clean inning than come in with the stuff happening."
Like the relievers, managing each starter is also done on a case-by-case basis. Farrell points out that Lackey has often times rebounded to turn in an efficient seven innings. (The righty has averaged 11 pitches per seventh inning in 13 tries this season.)
Then there is a case like Tuesday night when Dempster sat at just 88 pitches through seven innings, yet Farrell turned to Tazawa for the eighth.
"Prior to Dempster going out for the seventh inning, looking at even though his pitch count was low, it had been a long time since he had gone seven innings," the manager explained. "I had to factor in the mental side of that, with the ups and downs and him not having experienced that in quite a while. And in a one-run game, with Taz coming in, even though they've hit him well in the past, I'm not going to run from him."
It didn't work out, with the leadoff man in the inning for the Blue Jays, J.P. Arencibia, leveling off the advantage the Red Sox felt they had thanks to Tazawa's fastball in a 3-1 count. ("He took the guessing game out of it," Farrell said.) Home run. Game tied.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. This is the reality of managing a major league bullpen.
"A lot of times there's a gut feeling that comes into play, also," Farrell admitted. "It's not easy."