The Case Against Bobby Valentine

Peter Abraham is correct about one thing: firing Bobby Valentine will not fix the Red Sox. Not because our mathematical chances of a playoff spot are down to 15%, but because he – like his predecessor – isn’t the primary reason his team has underperformed.

One popular narrative around this team, as it always is with clubs losing games, is that this year’s failure is simply a function of effort: they’re just not trying. A subset of Bobby Valentine’s critics argue that he’s not properly motivating the players. A second group subscribes to the chicken and beer theory: that this is a function of a lack of effort from players. And a third group believes that all of the above is true.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the players have, in fact, underperformed as a group. If we compare the offense to the numbers the ZIPS system projected for them, it’s clear that those we expect the most from offensively – with the very obvious exception of Ortiz – have been substantially worse than anticipated.

It’s worth noting, however, that relative to the league averages at each position, our offense looks less poor.

We’ve fallen off in the last few weeks, in part because of the absence of Ortiz, but there’s a reason we’re still in the top 10 in runs scored. The offense has not, in general, been the problem.

As with last September, our difficulties stem from systemic problems with our starting rotation. In categories where you want lower values – think low versus high ERAs – our differential versus ZIPS expectations for our starters are alarming.

In categories where higher metrics are favored – think strikeouts per nine innings – we fare equally poorly.

Nor, as we are offensively, are we performing better relative to the league. In areas where you want your pitchers to have lower values, we’re skewed to the wrong side of the chart.

And in areas where we want higher, we’re middling to negative, with the exception of Doubront’s excellent strikeout rate.

The numbers confirm the eyes: our record is no accident. As Bill Parcells might say, we are what our record says we are. As the difference between the ZIPS projections and our actual peformance points out, however, we are most certainly not who we thought we were.

For the casual fan, as typified by talk show callers, the predictable reaction is to look for someone to blame. Fire the manager, as John Tomase suggests. Trade the underperforming players for anything, a bag of balls if that’s what it takes.

The challenge with this narrative is twofold. First, it tends to accrue blame to the wrong person: the manager. I may be no fan of Valentine, but I cannot build the case that he is directly responsible for the horrific charts above.

Second, and more problematically, it leads to “solutions” like Bobby Valentine himself. The problem with the Red Sox last September, it is argued in many quarters, was Francona. So the obvious solution was to hire his polar opposite, even if the players had been promised that wouldn’t occur. Forget the fact that it was a failure of starting pitching that doomed the Red Sox last season – and that those same starting pitchers had led the team to a 20-6 record a month prior – the problem was commonly accepted to be culture. Enter Bobby Valentine, charged with changing that culture.

It is now August, and we’ve seen how well that’s worked out.

Valentine defenders will argue that Bobby Valentine was not empowered to manage. But as Buster Olney asks, what does that mean exactly?

What would have to change to make that happen? A total makeover of a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, including the jettisoning of some of the best-paid players? The firing of coaches? The dismissal of some members of the medical staff? A complete restructuring of the chain of command?…

Terry Francona dealt with a lot of the same parameters as Valentine: A team of temperamental veterans, a sometimes dysfunctional ownership, a progressive front office, an intrusive media. He lasted nine seasons, and the Red Sox won a couple of championships.

Managers manage, no matter what they have. No organization places its priorities on a tee for the manager.

For Peter Abraham, the answer is yes: a total makeover of a team with one of the highest payrolls in basell is necessary.

The Red Sox need to significantly change their roster, not their manager.

Which may be so. But that points to the difficulty with Abraham’s defense of Valentine: it’s a straw man. It implies that the Red Sox need necessarily choose one of changing the roster and changing the manager. It also implies that blame here is a binary, yes or no proposition.

It seems clear, however, that Bobby Valentine can be both not to blame for our performance to date and not the right manager for this club, this city and these players. The evidence on that front has, in fact, been accumulating since spring training. Forgetting some of the questionable in game decisions, which are unavoidable for managers, Valentine has distinguished neither himself nor the club with his conduct.

  • In Spring Training, Valentine told the media that Ryan Sweeney didn’t know his own swing, Felix Doubront didn’t have a killer out pitch and that Mark Melancon “backed up the bases well” after a rough outing.

  • Also in Spring Training, Valentine said of Jose Iglesias: “I think [Iglesias] can hit and hit on the major league level.” Iglesias season line at Pawtucket is .247/.294/.280.

  • In February, he publicly claimed that Derek Jeter had ‘never practiced’ the famous flip play. A day later, he was compelled to publicly recant and apologize.

  • Late in February, Terry Francona was asked in his role as an ESPN analyst to comment on the Red Sox ban of alcohol from the clubhouse. His reply was, “I think it’s a PR move.” Valentine’s response to Francona:
    “Remember, you’re getting paid over there [at ESPN] for saying stuff. You’re getting paid over here for doing stuff. I’ve done both.”

  • In March, he told reporters that he wasn’t a “believer in the windup, period.” His pitching coach was quoted later as saying, “He wasn’t a pitcher,” added McClure, “so I don’t know if he’d understand that.”

  • Later in March, Curt Schilling said of Valentine:

    “I thought that the manager that managed the Mets that I was not a big fan of was now going to be a different manager, and I don’t think there’s anything different at all,’’ Schilling said. “And I don’t think that that is going to be conducive to doing well here. There’s a lot of things I think that are happening not just from his perspective, but when you talk to these guys – and I’m still talking to some of these guys – I don’t think this is going well. And I think it’s going bad quicker than I expected it to.”

  • In April, Valentine wrote his left-handed roster onto the lineup card, only to reminded by his catcher a few hours later that the pitcher the Red Sox were facing was right-handed.

  • On April 14th, he told a local Boston TV station that Kevin Youkilis was not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.” On June 24th, Youkilis was traded with cash to the White Sox for a marginal return, with one failed prospect and a utility player who was later designated for assignment. Two weeks later, after dropping the first two games of a series to the New York Yankees with Youkilis replacement Middlebrooks sidelined by a bad hamstring, Peter Gammons tweeted the following:

    “Bobby Valentine simnply wanted Kevin Youklis gone. Sometimes you get what you want, but you get Mauro Gomez.”

  • In June, Valentine disclosed to reporters that he asked Clay Buchholz, a start removed from a 125 pitch game, to pitch a day ahead of schedule and that the pitcher declined.

  • Later in June, ESPN’s Buster Olney characterized the Red Sox clubhouse as “toxic.” He has since stood by those remarks.

  • In July, questioned about the inconsistent schedule of Crawford’s play, Valentine said “Actually, I did a manager ‘no-no’ thing, you know. I went against what I was told to do. Never to be done again.”

  • Later in July, Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan predicted that Bobby Valentine’s tenure with the Red Sox would end in a mushroom cloud.

  • Later still in July, Valentine popped up behind Dan Shaughnessy, who was preparing to be interviewed on TV, and yelled: ““It’s not true. I’m not trying to get fired, folks! It’s not true. It’s not true. It was all made up by him [Shaughnessy]. It’s not true.”

  • On August 1st, Bobby Valentine relayed, unsolicited, an anecdote claiming that after Will Middlebrooks had a two error inning [he’s never had a two error inning], his comment to the player had been “nice inning,” and that someone in the dugout had relayed this to ownership who later spoke to him on the matter. A day later, he said it was the “most stupid thing I ever said…on a radio program.”

If this is the list of incidents that we know about, it’s difficult to imagine what life is like behind the scenes. What impact it has had or has not had on the performance of the players is impossible to quantify, and thus it would be inappropriate to assign blame to Valentine for the club’s lack of performance this season.

But if he isn’t the problem, it seems at least as clear that he is not part of the solution. Peter Abraham would have us credit Valentine with the success of “guys like Mike Aviles, Andrew Miller, Daniel Nava, Vicente Padilla, Scott Atchison, Kelly Shoppach, Marlon Byrd, Scott Podsednik and Pedro Ciriaco.” But it is difficult to see how we can credit him for the success of some players while absolving him of responsibility for the failure of others.

And as for Abraham’s characterization of Valentine being pilloried for “contrived nonsense,” context seems important. If one or more of the above issues is considered in a vacuum, that might be accurate. In their aggregate, however, they appear to represent a pattern. The most charitable interpretation of which is that Bobby Valentine is, at best, a poor communicator.

And if one believes as Cherington purports to that winning and losing is more on the players than the manager, it stands to reason that the best manager is the one that gets the most out of his players. Which presumably requires excellent communication skills. Skills that Valentine quite obviously lacks. Add in the distractions that Valentine seems fundamentally unable to avoid, and his net value to the club seems to be negative.

Which is why he should be replaced, for his sake as much as ours. According to John Henry, however, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

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