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April 25, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

What Valentine Brings to Boston

by Cee Angi

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Tensions remain high in Boston following the Red Sox’ September collapse, and the departures of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein are still fresh in mind.  The Red Sox’ slow start has exacerbated the situation, leading some to condemn the easiest scapegoat: Bobby Valentine. Even if the Red Sox’ season had started on more positive footing, Valentine’s return to the dugout was going to be an uphill battle—10 years is a long time to be out of a major league clubhouse and still have credibility with players who are too young to be aware of your illustrious credentials or too old to care. But in an organization plagued by injuries, struggling pitching, an inconsistent offense, and inexplicable strokes of bad luck, the hostility Valentine has received has been disproportionate to any possible responsibility he could have had for the state of the team.

The team’s struggles have left some nostalgic for Francona, who received a standing ovation and chants of “We want Tito” at Fenway’s 100th anniversary celebration Friday. Those chants are a sure sign of lost perspective: Francona managed the 2011 Red Sox to the team’s worst start since 1945 and an unprecedented September collapse, then departed in the wake of questions regarding his ability to control the clubhouse, and reports of beer-guzzling and chicken-eating pitchers.

Perhaps Valentine was the most qualified candidate to replace Francona, but his hiring was also a clear message sent from the ownership to the players: Tito no longer works here; daddy (or more appropriately, mommy) isn’t going to be indulging you anymore. Now Valentine is in the unenviable position of taking over an unstable, veteran club, filling the step-dad role for the 40-man roster after last season’s messy self-destruction and subsequent divorce.

As managers, Valentine and Francona have little in common. Where Francona was known as a player’s manager, Valentine is known for control. Francona seemed aloof, while Valentine is eager to issue sound bites and be the center of attention. It’s no surprise that the organization chose a manager who is the opposite of Francona, but it’s also not surprising that the veteran manager is apparently failing to connect with veterans on the Red Sox roster who are used to being handled a different way.

Valentine has already clashed with players after he called out Kevin Youkilis publicly for his performance, resulting in Dustin Pedroia suggesting that Valentine doesn’t understand how the majors work now. More recently, there have been rumors of a spring training clash with Mike Aviles. Valentine’s attitude towards players is nothing new: in 1999, he told Sports Illustrated, “You’re not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse. You’re not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to.”

Cherington gave Valentine his vote of confidence on Saturday, saying, “He’s doing the best he can with the roster he has. It’ll get better. He knows that and I know that, and along the way if changes need to be made on the roster, that’s my responsibility.” In other words, Valentine isn’t going anywhere and the quicker everyone can get on board with that, the smoother this will go. But Valentine won’t receive respect or trust by fiat. He’ll have to earn that by building relationships and proving he’s the sharp tactician he used to be.

That last remains an open question. Some of his recent decisions show he understands the game as it’s played today. He’s not bunting often, he has issued fewer intentional walks than Joe Girardi, and in Jacoby Ellsbury’s absence he has slowed the running game. The blunders thus far have been largely related to the crippled Red Sox lineup and dealing with situations where the team is only as good as the tools available. Unfortunately, in some cases Valentine’s got a screwdriver when he really needs a hammer—and the outcome is ugly, even though he continues to bang away.  

There have been some isolated moments in which Valentine has made questionable in-game pitching decisions (see below), but for the most part, he is working with the players he’s been given. He certainly can’t control how well they pitch and there’s no evidence to suggest Valentine has handed any of his faltering pitchers the ball and said, “Try and give up a home run or two here.” And, of course, a more complete lineup would help to lessen the impact of the pitching staff’s shortcomings—if you can’t prevent runs, you can create them.

Valentine currently doesn’t have a left fielder or a center fielder, though the acquisition of Marlon Byrd might help. He’s down a closer with Andrew Bailey’s thumb injury, and the bullpen is short another pitcher following Mark Melancon’s mechanical meltdown. The absence of John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are felt as Clay Buchholz struggles.

Ironically, Valentine has the right kind of experience working to mitigate such weaknesses.  When Valentine took over the Mets from Dallas Green, he told the players he would keep an open mind about them and asked them to do the same for him. “Give me a chance and I’ll show you how to get there,” he said, according to Peter Golenbock’s Amazin. A look at Valentine’s success with the Mets proves that comment wasn’t just lip service—when Valentine had the tools he needed, and even sometimes when he did not, he had good results.

Valentine showed versatility in how he managed his teams, each of which had its own weakness. The 1999 Mets had weak starting pitching, but utilized a strong offense and capable bullpen to get to the NLCS. The 2000 version, which made Valentine’s lone World Series appearance, had a strong rotation and offense, but lacked stability in the bullpen. By 2001, Valentine was managing an aging roster with the worst offense in the National League, but the team still finished nine games better than its Pythagorean winning percentage. Valentine has had some misses in his career, particularly early on, but he has shown consistency in his ability to make even compromised rosters overachieve, which will be important in Boston.

That said, Valentine does have an issue with second-guessing himself at times. He tends to bounce between two extremes: being too proactive and sometimes being inexplicably hands off. His instinct to over-manage and his desire to be in control of all aspects of the game can lead to rash decisions that backfire. Even worse, if a decision Valentine has made has a negative outcome, he recoils, second-guessing himself to the point of paralysis.

Valentine has a history of being an incredibly busy manager, especially where pinch-hitters and runners are concerned. He ranked first or second in the league in five of his six seasons with the Mets, often going beyond his primary pinch-hitter in his restlessness to make more moves. For example, with the Mets his primary pinch-hitter was Matt Franco, from whom he often got good results. But from 1997 to 1999 he asked utility infielder Luis Lopez, a switch-hitter who batted .250/.317/.341 with the Mets overall, to pinch-hit 99 times, and got only 17 hits. From Steve Bieser to Jim Tatum to Mark Johnson to Desi Relaford, Valentine kept sending hitters up there, but pinch-hitting is a tough business. Sometimes he got great results, but often he got poor ones.

All of those moves resulted in a lot of second-guessing—often by Valentine himself. In a late-season game in 1999 against the Atlanta Braves, Valentine decided to pinch-hit Bobby Bonilla for shortstop Rey Ordonez. Bonilla was one of the most productive switch-hitters in history, drifting toward the end of his career, while Ordonez was such a poor hitter that letting him hit in any key situation was akin to suicide by inaction.

Bonilla had had a pinch-hit double just the night before, and Valentine was confident that Bonilla would be more successful than Ordonez against left-handed reliever Terry Mulholland. But the match-up forced Bonilla to bat right-handed for the first time since he had returned from the disabled list. Rusty, Bonilla struck out. In a post-game interview, Valentine said, “I shouldn’t think before series. That’s the one I’ll kick myself in the butt for. Rey has been terrific in those situations. You just get tempted.” In an act of over-compensation in fear of making that mistake again, Valentine never pinch-hit for Ordonez again against the Braves in the 1999 NLCS, even though Ordonez’ struggles (just one hit and no walks in 25 plate appearances) were a key reason the Mets lost.

Where Valentine is sometimes hyperactive in some decisions, he’s historically slow making others, especially where the bullpen is concerned. While his rank in relievers used in some years like 1997 (ranked 12th) and 2001 (ranked 16th) could be related to weakness in the bullpen, Valentine was consistently less busy than his counterparts when it came to pitching changes. But inactivity isn’t always a bad thing, as evidenced by Valentine’s success in 1999, when Mets relievers were second in the league in Fair Run Average (4.37) and second in saves and holds, taking the Mets to the playoffs for the first time since 1988. But at times Valentine’s reluctance to go to the bullpen cost the Mets games, such as during Game 2 of the 1999 NLCS, when Kenny Rogers was left in the game to give up a pair of two-run home runs in the sixth inning. After the game, Valentine said, “I had no reason to keep him in. I left him in and it was absolutely the wrong move.” His hesitance with the bullpen has already been evident in Boston, which stems largely from a distrust due to underperformance.

Year

Relievers Used Rank

1997

12/14

1998

8/16

1999

7

2000

9

2001

16

2002

9

There’s also a softer side to Valentine. Even though he can be intense and butt heads, he brings an element of humor that is sometimes needed. In the 12th inning against the Blue Jays on June 9, 1999, Mike Piazza was called for catcher’s interference on Craig Grebeck. Valentine was ejected from the game for arguing with umpire Randy Marsh; Valentine later returned to the dugout wearing a fake mustache. Though Valentine was fined $10,000 and suspended two games for the stunt, it was a small price for him to pay to show his team they had his support. Valentine also brought some humor to Monday night’s game against the Twins. With a runner on first in the ninth innin, closer Alfredo Aceves gave up a long fly to the warning track, which Cody Ross caught for an out. Valentine approached the mound to speak with the struggling closer, and as the infield gathered around he looked at Aceves and asked with a smile, “Are you trying to kill me?” In what could have been another tense moment for the uneasy closer, Valentine put him at ease with those words and even the infielders smiled. Aceves worked out of the jam and the Red Sox won 6-5, snapping a five-game losing streak. The win and the laughter are signs of progress, but Valentine and the Red Sox aren’t out of the woods yet.

Valentine’s biggest challenge this season may not be his veteran clubhouse, but a matter of internal conflict: he will have to learn to trust his instincts after years away—despite a tendency not to trust them at times—while also not letting his tendency to micromanage the game overwhelm him. If Valentine can remember his success as a manager in these situations, Boston gets easier, but Saturday’s 15-9 comeback victory by the Yankees is a reminder that there are at least 146 more games this season in which his ability will be tested. 

When Vicente Padilla loaded the bases in that game, Valentine left him in to face Nick Swisher, resulting in a grand slam. But was it bad luck or did Valentine make a bad decision? Padilla had previous success against Swisher, holding him to .056/.227/.222 in 18 prior at-bats, each of the slash stats the lowest of any current Yankee against Padilla. Though we can scream small sample, Padilla had been one of the team’s few quality relievers to that point. 

Later in the game, Valentine tried to use his closer, Alfredo Aceves, in a high-leverage situation in the eight inning when the Red Sox still led by one run. The result was Aceves giving up five runs without recording an out. But Valentine’s decision to bring in his closer in this situation, rather than waiting until the ninth, inning was laudable given current conservative tendencies in bullpen management, and the negative outcome doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong.

Valentine did all he could to try and stay in the game. He made six pitching changes, the most of the season, after removing starter Felix Doubront. He tried two pinch-hitters, but neither was successful and the two five-run innings proved to be too much to overcome; the manager can make a half-dozen moves, or a dozen, or none at all, but in the end the players have to execute.

The Red Sox may never accept Bobby Valentine in the step-dad role. But some of Boston’s injured players will be returning and the schedule gets easier in the coming month. There have been some questionable decisions thus far, but making him the scapegoat for all of the team’s faults misses the value he can provide. Given the situation, would you rather have a clubhouse cruise director running the team or a skipper who has patched leaky vessels before? Perspective in check, and trusting his instincts, Valentine and all his experience could be what Boston really needs this season. At least, if the city wants any hope of second-guessing its manager into October.

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