No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we’ve asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top managers in the history of their franchise, based on their time guiding that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite.
Disclaimer: We decided to limit the pool to those who managed the Red Sox from 1967 and beyond. Unlike the old-time players, who left a trail of telling statistics behind, there is very little out there other than win-loss records that can truly let us know what kind of manager Joe Cronin, Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl or Ed Barrow was.
Here is Ian Browne’s ranking of the top 5 managers in Red Sox history.
• Red Sox Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP | RP
1) Terry Francona, 2004-11
Key fact: His 744 wins rank second in team history behind Cronin
When Francona came to Boston, all he had to do to calm down an ornery Red Sox Nation was guide the team to its first World Series title since 1918. In his first year on the job, Francona did just that. Down 3-0 against the Yankees heading into Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, Francona never panicked. Instead, he stuck with the players who got him there and maneuvered his pitching staff wonderfully over the final four games of that epic series. Those ’04 Sox are still the only team in MLB history to win a postseason series after trailing 3-0.
After guiding the Red Sox to another postseason appearance in 2005, Francona got them back to the top of the mountain in '07. That team won the AL East title for the first time since 1995, swept the Angels in the AL Division Series, came back from 3-1 down to beat the Indians in the ALCS and swept the Rockies in the World Series.
Known for his ability to keep the clubhouse loose and handle the highly pressurized atmosphere of Boston, Francona earned high marks across the board for his run with the Red Sox. He got Boston to the playoffs five times in his eight seasons. Those eight seasons are impressive enough in their own right, but even more impressive when considering that no Red Sox manager has lasted that long in over 50 years.
2) Dick Williams, 1967-69
Key fact: In '67, brought Boston its first winning season in nine years -- and a pennant
Williams' quote, “I honestly think we will win more games than we lose,” was considered a bold proclamation prior to the 1967 season; it was something Boston hadn’t done since ’58. But his confidence helped set the tone.
Williams became a Hall of Fame manager mostly for his work after leaving Boston, but it all started with one of the most impressive seasons a rookie skipper has ever had for the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967. They were given 100-to-1 odds to win the pennant, but that’s exactly what they did. Much of the credit goes to Williams, who had a drill sergeant attitude at a time the Sox needed it.
His attention to detail was off the charts, and Williams was a master tactician. He was also gruff. But with so many Red Sox players thirsty to win, they could handle that. If Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg are given the most credit for the way Boston wildly exceeded expectations in that magical season, Williams is probably third.
Williams' nonstop intensity ultimately made his tenure in Boston a short one, and he was dismissed by the club with nine games left in the 1969 season. He did more than land on his feet, though, winning back-to-back World Series with the A's in '72 and '73. Williams would later guide the Padres to the National League pennant in '84, giving him four career World Series appearances in his career. He also had a highly-competitive run with the Expos, winning 90 or more games twice and getting the Expos to the NLCS in the strike-shortened '81 season.
3) Alex Cora, 2018-19
Key fact: Fifth manager in history to win a World Series his rookie season
Cora’s tenure with the Red Sox was surprisingly short due to his involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal as their bench coach in 2017. But the job he did in leading the Sox to a franchise-record 108 victories in '18 earns him a high ranking in the annals of Boston managers. Keep in mind that most of the same roster finished with 93 wins the year before Cora got there. That is significant improvement, and much of it was due to the way Cora challenged players to take their game to another level. Mookie Betts sure did. So did Xander Bogaerts and Eduardo Rodriguez.
At his introductory press conference, Cora made it clear that being friends with the players wouldn’t prevent him from doing the best job possible. He proved that by earning their trust in short order. In that 2018 postseason, it seemed like every lineup move or pitching change turned into gold. It was one of the hottest postseason runs any manager ever went on.
Though the Red Sox underachieved in Cora’s second season, winning 84 games and missing the playoffs, his overall body of work in a short amount of time is still impressive. Cora is suspended for the 2020 season but eligible to manage in the big leagues again beginning in '21.
4) John Farrell, 2013-17
Key fact: Only Red Sox manager in history to guide the team to back-to-back division titles
Farrell has one of the toughest tenures to evaluate because his Red Sox teams were all or nothing. They finished first three times in his five seasons at the helm. But in the other two, they finished last.
Though Farrell built up his share of detractors, let’s not forget what a mess the Red Sox were in 2012, the season before he became manager. Farrell got the pitching staff and the team as a whole to refocus, and Boston won the World Series in '13. Hardly anyone projected the Sox to be a championship team that year. Even the front office had them pegged as a team that would probably win 85 or so games. But the veteran-laden squad came together amid the Boston Marathon tragedy and became one of the most beloved teams in Red Sox history.
• 2013: Boston Strong, Mo's sendoff, DR's dominance
It is fair to criticize Farrell for the utter letdown the Sox had in 2014. But you can’t fault him too much for the cellar-dwelling season of '15 because he didn’t have much starting pitching. Once Dave Dombrowski got him some, Farrell guided the Sox to those two straight AL East titles in '16 and '17. The '17 team seemed too uptight, and Farrell must shoulder some of that responsibility as the manager. The bottom line is that Farrell, Cora and Francona are the only three living managers who know what it’s like to guide the Red Sox to a World Series title, and there’s something to be said for that.
5) Jimy Williams, 1997-2001
Key fact: Won AL Manager of the Year in 1999; no Red Sox manager has won the award since
Farrell and Cora both finished second in the Manager of the Year Award voting in their championship seasons, and Francona didn’t start winning it until he got to Cleveland. Williams had a quirky personality and wasn’t all that media-friendly, but he got the most out of his teams.
It helped having Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez in their primes, but Williams did a lot of hands-on work to help players like Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon later become champions. Williams loved to get down and dirty to coach, which isn’t all that common for managers.
In the 1999 ALDS against the Indians, the Red Sox trailed, 2-0. Entering Game 3, Williams told his players that the Indians better sweep them; if Cleveland gave the Sox even a little bit of life in Game 3, his team would storm all the way back and win the series. He wound up being right. With Troy O’Leary going off at the plate (two homers, seven RBIs) and an ailing Martinez firing six no-hit innings out of the bullpen, the Red Sox won a thrilling Game 5. It was the highlight of the Williams era, which included 414 wins -- the most in the last 50 years of anyone besides Francona and Farrell.
Joe Morgan -- the pride of Walpole, Mass., with a tremendous Boston accent -- originally came on as an interim manager halfway through the 1988 season. But when the Red Sox won 19 of his first 20 games during “Morgan’s Magic,” he became a fixture in the dugout until the end of the '91 season. ... Don Zimmer led the Sox to 90 or more wins three times, but he didn’t get the most out of his pitching staff and made some costly decisions down the stretch in '78.
Ralph Houk wasn’t the championship manager in Boston that he was for the Yankees, but he had a scrappy team led by veterans Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs. If only Houk had more pitching. ... John McNamara was the one who got the pitching when he succeeded Houk. But with the Red Sox one strike away from winning the World Series in 1986, McNamara’s team couldn’t close the deal. Taking Roger Clemens out after seven innings in Game 6 at Shea Stadium will be forever second-guessed. Did Clemens ask out due to a blister? He says no. ... Like McNamara, Darrell Johnson’s short tenure was highlighted by a pennant. But he couldn’t do much with a team that was still loaded with talent in '76 and was let go halfway through that unsuccessful defense of the AL East. ... Grady Little made what proved to be one of the worst decisions in Red Sox history when he left Martinez in the game too long in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. But Little’s Sox teams won 93 and 95 games in his two seasons, and the players all liked playing for him.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.