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November 30, 2011

The BP Broadside

Bobby No Valentine for Pitchers

by Steven Goldman

I just don’t think it matters much. The Red Sox apparently have their manager in Bobby Valentine, and it’s good to see one of the most active and flamboyant and active managers in recent memory get a fresh start with a good organization. Valentine was once one of the youngest managers in the game—he became the manager of the Rangers at 35—but other things got in the way, and after a ten-year hiatus that included stops in Japan and ESPN, he’ll be picking up his career at 62.  He was once a young manager for a young team—Valentine’s Rangers broke in Oddibe McDowell, Pete Incaviglia, Ruben Sierra, Edwin Correa, Jose Guzman, Mitch Williams, and Bobby Witt, among others, all at once. Now he’ll be an old manager for a veteran team.

Just as Casey Stengel said that you had to have a catcher or you’d have a lot of passed balls, a team has to have a manager because... well, it’s not exactly clear at this point, given win expectancy studies showing that most managers regularly botch games with bunt, steal, and intentional walk signals. I suppose it’s because without a manager, Albert Pujols might call his own inexplicable hit and run plays or your starting pitchers with 6.41 ERAs will sit in the clubhouse and clog their arteries with chicken-fried chicken fat with a side of batter-coated human fingers. The inmates can’t run the asylum, that is clear. One of Valentine’s good points is that he’s a restless, creative character who likes to draw attention to himself. He’s both the inmate and the asylum, and Boston has not seen that flavor of manager since Stengel himself grew sullen and morose managing a bankrupt Boston Braves team that he had to loan money to so it could make payroll.

That’s all good—better than an unwanted sequel like “Don Zimmer II: The Gerbil Reborn”—but there might not be much more than entertainment value in the move for the time being. As much as Valentine can be a progressive manager who loves to move players in and out of the game, he has never shown a consistent ability to get a team to overcome a conspicuous lack of talent. His sole World Series team, the 2000 Mets, far outplayed its Pythagorean record on the merits of some excellent relief work, a starting rotation that was that fronted by three lefties having strong seasons, and Mike Piazza. It was also blessed by having its worst player, shortstop Rey Ordonez, break his arm early in the season. Ordonez was a mirage Valentine could never see through (or if he did, couldn’t bring himself to quit), and his injury allowed the team to turn the position over to Kurt Abbot, Melvin Mora, and Mike Bordick. That wasn’t great either, but it probably gave the Mets a couple of wins over what Ordonez would have provided. Fate is not always so kind to a manager as to save him from his worst inclinations.

As that Mets team aged, Valentine was incapable of prodding a lineup of fading thirtysomethings and a rotation of Al Leiter, Pedro Astacio, Steve Trachsel, Jeff D’Amico, and Shawn Estes into contention. Nor could he get all those young Rangers moving in one direction for long enough to climb any higher than a distant second place. The elements of the pitching talent were there, from Nolan Ryan to Kenny Rogers to Kevin Brown, but they were never at the same stage of development at the same time. Valentine seems to have conceived Rogers almost exclusively in reliever terms, and that decision probably cost the Rangers several wins over the years, though it’s unlikely an alternative assessment would have pushed them into the postseason.

Valentine’s inability to sort out a rotation in the Texas years and the Mets’ almost total reliance on veteran pitchers during his tenure should be troubling for the Red Sox. We’re still looking for a second young pitcher to blossom under Valentine after Brown—Witt counts if you squint—and the vets came as fully formed products; whatever Leiter accomplished in his career, he figured it out a few years before he ever pulled on a Mets jersey. The Red Sox are short of starting pitchers right now. We can assume Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz will head up the rotation, health permitting, but the identity of the remaining two starters is unknown at this writing. Lackey is out and Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t be ready to start the season. Do the Sox give Andrew Miller another spin? Felix Doubront? Is Junichi Tazawa still an option as he comes back from Tommy John surgery? Should Alfredo Aceves come out of the pen? These are options that haven’t worked for Valentine in the past. New GM Ben Cherington might be better off going the free agent route.

It’s hard to say why a manager isn’t good at something. With the Rangers, he became so frustrated with his young charges’ command problems that he vowed to hook them if they ever walked two consecutive batters in a row. It’s nice to think you can mature a pitcher by fiat, but Valentine demonstrated that it’s not so simple. One of the problems with young players is that when they don’t work out, you can’t know if they failed due to a lack of talent, the way they were handled, or if they simply got hurt. If Valentine, who is old school in singling out players for tough love in the press and perhaps the clubhouse, has problems communicating with his young charges, that might explain his poor track record in this regard.

Valentine reminds me a great deal of something Stengel said about Billy Martin: “He’s a good manager. He might be a little selfish about some of the things he does, and he may think he knows more about baseball than anybody else, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was right.” Valentine clearly knows a great deal about baseball, and he’s willing to be adventurous in his decisions, which, as we will show in Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, can’t be said of many of his peers. But the shattered Red Sox don’t necessarily need adventurous now. What they need, even more than a strong hand in a chicken-free clubhouse, is a manager who knows how to rebuild a pitching staff. Ben Cherington knows this, which is why his rumored avid pursuit of John Farrell makes all the sense in the world. For all Valentine has done, for all he knows, he has yet to show an aptitude for doing the one thing that will make a real difference next year.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year

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