Farrell gains valuable experience in first season
Blue Jays skipper's attention to detail popular with players
TORONTO -- John Farrell opted for a career path not often taken by former pitchers when he joined the Blue Jays in October of 2010.
The former Red Sox pitching coach became just the 23rd hurler since 1946 to become a manager in the big leagues.
Farrell arrived looking to guide an up-and-coming ballclub and play a more aggressive style of baseball. Along the way, there were plenty of learning experiences, and even a few surprises.
"The one thing I was never exposed to was the responsibility of 25 players," Farrell said at the end of the year when talking about his biggest challenge from 2011. "In the past, it's been 40 percent of a roster with the pitching staff.
"Managing the clubhouse, being in tune with what's going on with an individual player, whether it's mentally, physically or fundamentally -- there's a lot of time spent, a lot of maintenance in those areas, to be abreast of each guy in the clubhouse."
One of Farrell's goals when he joined the Blue Jays was to implement a more aggressive style of offense. During Cito Gaston's final years in Toronto, the club often sat back and waited for a big inning.
Farrell was hoping to create a little more chaos on the basepaths. He frequently called for a bunt, or hit and run, and encouraged his ballplayers to be aggressive once they reached base.
The results were noticeable at the start of the season as Toronto finished second in the American League with 30 stolen bases in April. The new approach didn't come without a downside, though, as a handful of Toronto players found themselves being caught stealing in crucial situations.
There seemed to be a better balance during the second month of the season. The Blue Jays dropped to fifth in stolen bases with 21 and went on to finish the year ranked sixth with 131. It was an increase of 73 from 2010, and looking back, Farrell believes that helped his club achieve a fair amount of success at the plate.
"We set out in Spring Training to create a different culture, or a different approach to the game," Farrell said. "One that was certainly more aggressive. We knew that would present more opportunities to run or create more runs in certain situations.
"But the flip side of that is we knew we were going to take more risks and because of that there might be some outs that we do run into. It's hard to say if we were to go back at the start of the year, with the roster that we had, and just say, 'OK we're going to play station-to-station baseball,' I tend to believe right now we wouldn't have scored as many runs."
Farrell's emphasis on the running game came from his time as a pitcher in the Major Leagues. He knew first hand the type of distractions an unpredictable team can cause to an opposing pitcher.
The attention to detail to both position players and the pitching staff helped Farrell win over the clubhouse. Slugger Jose Bautista was a big supporter of Gaston during his time in Toronto, but he sang the praises of the new skipper at the end of the season because of the environment that was created around the team.
"He expects us to show up on time, respect the game and play hard -- out of a manager you wouldn't want anything else other than that," Bautista said. "He lets everybody be who they are and he keeps everybody loose and happy at the same time.
"He has done a good job managing this ballclub, having to deal with all the injuries that he's had to deal with, the inconsistency in the pitching and all of the roster shuffling that has been going on. So, for us to have the record that we have, with him being a first-year manager, and all of those things I just talked about, to me, it's pretty impressive."
The Blue Jays went through another phase in their rebuilding program in Farrell's first year and met most critics' expectations with an 81-81 record. That doesn't mean everything went well for the club, though.
The bullpen finished tied for first in the AL with 25 blown saves and the struggles at the back end of the 'pen led to a lot of uncertainty. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch kept moving in and out of the closer's role depending on who was struggling the least amount.
It wasn't until midseason when Francisco found a groove that the bullpen was able to establish itself as a strength on the club. Farrell said -- looking back -- the way the entire situation was handled is his biggest regret from 2011.
"I would have liked to have had more defined roles for the group that was down there," Farrell said. "When a given pitcher might not have performed well, we went to the next option. It might have created a little bit of inconsistency in their mindset and to be able to think along with the game knowing, 'OK, my time of the game is coming up and I can mentally prepare.' ... In hindsight I wish I had done a better job with that group."
Instead of dwelling too much on the past, Farrell now looks towards the future with the main talking point in Spring Training likely to once again focus around the position players.
Farrell would like to see his club have a more patient approach at the plate. Toronto finished fourth in the AL East with 525 walks, but that's not the only area that needs improvement.
There was a sentiment around the club that the offense was, at times, overly aggressive. Blue Jays hitters could often be seen swinging at the first pitch or two in the count, and while that can work in the right situation, it can also lead to a lot of quick outs.
Improving the overall on-base percentage will be a goal, but it won't be an easy one to accomplish. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said while it's possible for the club to take a better approach, a lot of it does come down to the personnel on the roster.
"I think staff and philosophy can improve it a little bit, but I think it's the players you have on the team," Anthopoulos said. "It's something we're going to talk about but it is a fine line, it is a balance.
"We're not asking players to walk, we're asking them to be selective in the strikezone."
The Blue Jays proved to be a resilient group in 2011. Toronto never lost more than four consecutive games and every time it appeared the club was headed into a tailspin it managed to find its footing and get back to an even record.
Part of that success can be attributed to being just four games under .500 on the road. It's a stepping stone for a young ballclub that will have to post a better mark at home in 2012 if it hopes to reach the postseason for the first time since 1993.
"We're a .500 team, that's not satisfying, that's just I think where we are right now," Farrell said. "We've gone through a lot of change and at the same time we played in many stretches very well on the road.
"This team doesn't shy away from challenges or environments that might be hostile, for lack of a better term, or not being in the comfort of being at home. I think that goes hand in hand with the resiliency and the overall characteristics and personality of the team."