You Got to Know When to Hold 'em, Know When to Fold 'em

Coming off of last September, as well as a second consecutive year without October play, it’s easy to understand why the Red Sox front office has been reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable. Particularly given the addition of the second Wild Card slot, which provides the illusion of opportunity for foundering clubs.

But it’s time. Not because the probability of a Red Sox playoff appearance hit its season nadir last night, dipping to 7%. Or at least not strictly on that basis. It’s time because there may yet be an opportunity to salvage something from this trainwreck of a season, if we can finally acknowledge that it’s over.

Forget the why for a minute. Whether you blame the injuries – 25 players on the DL in 29 separate stints, Bobby Valentine, Ben Cherington, the starting pitchers or all of the above isn’t what’s important right now. What matters now is time; specifically, the 18 days between now and August 31st. With the playoffs now a virtual impossibility, it’s time to explore the options for converting some of our current assets into longer term value.

And no, that doesn’t mean the two players most responsible for our record. While the common man wants Beckett moved yesterday, for anything, the reality is that the combination of his contract, injury situation and performance make him immovable. Moving Lester at this point likewise would be the textbook definition of selling low, so he should not be going anywhere.

But otherwise, at this point in the season, the entire roster should be on waivers. And with the exceptions of Buchholz, Lester and Pedroia, all of whom have team friendly contracts and have had performance issues this year that might impact their value, Cherington should be on the phone selling anything not nailed down. Particularly assets that are not locked up for next year.

Assuming he clears waivers and throws one more reasonable game, for example, it’s certainly not out of the question that Cook could fetch something in return. This is why I was mildly upset to see the Yankees sign Derek Lowe. Given that ZIPS expects to Lowe to outperform Cook down the stretch (4.19 vs 4.64 FIP), my hope was that Cherington would sell high on Cook and replace him with Lowe for pennies on the dollar. Granted, selling high on arm like Cook likely means a B prospect at best, but given that Cook’s not under control for next season, that would be a more than acceptable return.

Maybe you’re the Braves, Bucs, Dodgers, Giants, or Reds and not thrilled about facing Gio Gonzalez in the playoffs. This is Cody Ross’ line against lefties this year: .319/.394/.758/1.152. Think he could help?

Perhaps your concern is getting lefties like Cano, Fielder or Hamilton out in tough spots? He may be arbitration eligible next year, bu here’s what lefties are doing against Andrew Miller: .130/.200/.182 (as predicted, please note).

Salty, meanwhile, is controlled by the club for next season, but if the club believes Baseball America that Lavarnway is a major league catcher, might the Rays be interested? Salty’s not much for contact and his on base skills aren’t strong (.229/.285/.478), but at least he does something well. The Rays backstops are the worst in the league at .202/.272/.278. And replacing Salty with Lavarnway – again, assuming you think he could catch – would be a first step towards addressing our roster’s on base deficiencies.

And so on. Because the waiver process is opaque, it’s impossible to know precisely who is openly tradeable and who is not. But it’s time to think less about this season and more about next, because the current roster has given us no other choice. One hopes that Cherington both understands this and has the operational freedom to pursue this necessary course of action. Because it’s time to fold ‘em.

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.

Valentine at the Break

In his eight year tenure with the Boston Red Sox, the clubs that Terry Francona managed averaged a .592 winning percentage over the first half. They won almost 60% of the games they played in, in other words. His worst record at the All Star break, oddly enough, came in 2004, when the club went 48-38 en route to a .558 winning percentage.

His replacement this year, Bobby Valentine, would presumably have jumped at the chance to trade for Francona’s worst year, because his club enters the break at .500, with the same record as third place Oakland: 43-43.

Injuries, of course, have played a major role in the club’s malaise. Just as they did last year, the year before and the year before that, when Francona’s winning percentages at the break were .614, .580 and .611.

For his performance en route to the .500 record, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo handed out an “Honorable Mention” to Valentine this morning for his “Best Manager” half season award.

This might seem inexplicable in light of the record, the “toxic clubhouse,” the “widespread disdain” the players have the for manager or all of the above – until you remember that Valentine was Cafardo’s first choice as manager. In October, Cafardo said of Valentine:

He’s exactly what this organization needs. If you want a man who is considered one of the best in-game managers and who has control of his team and the clubhouse, there is no one better available.

In that light, today’s recognition of Valentine can be seen for what it is: a simple inability to admit a mistake.

Barnes for Garza?

Matt Garza - Chicago NL - 2011 Home

When it comes to Garza, it’s tough to envision a scenario in which Epstein doesn’t instantly request pitching prospect Matt Barnes…A deal sending Barnes, Brentz and maybe Workman to the Cubs would seem reasonable to acquire Garza.

via Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox both have the pieces to make a trade – MLB – ESPN.

I’d be more than happy to replace, say, Matsuzaka for Matt Garza for the stretch run. And Epstein would be foolish not to ask for Barnes as a centerpiece in a deal for the pitcher, who comes with legitimate AL East credentials and will therefore be in high demand. But this would be the definition of a bad deal for Boston.

First, there’s the club’s record. The AL East may very well be winnable, but entering play tonight we’re a game under .500. Garza’s good, but not good enough to singlehandedly guarantee a trip deep into the postseason (the current Yankees roster has put up a collective .893 OPS against him) – which is the return you should expect for an asset of Barnes’ caliber.

Second, there’s the years of control. Garza’s eligible for free agency after next season, so trading Barnes would mean trading six potential years of control for less than two seasons of Garza. Unless you want to sign him to a big contract in the interim, but the guess here is that we’re going to see less of those in the years ahead. Because big free agent contracts to pitchers are generally bad ideas, and because we have recent first hand experience of that.

Third, there’s the roster. Matsuzaka’s gone after this year. Lackey will theoretically be back next year, but what level he’ll be pitching at is unclear. Beckett is up two seasons from now, as is Lester – assuming the lefty doesn’t finish first or second in the Cy Young voting in the interim, in which case he’s eligible after 2013. Buchholz is the only pitcher currently on the roster that we control beyond 2014. Adding a pitcher who’s done after next year would almost certainly help us over the balance of this season, but it actively damages our long term outlook by removing a potential replacement or replacements for one of the multiple slots in the rotation we’re going to have to fill, and soon.

No harm in Theo asking, then, but if Cherington even entertains the notion it’ll confirm everything that’s been said about the intelligence of Amherst grads.

Unrelated: If the writer really believes this:

The rotation isn’t the main reason the team is currently 32-33, 7.5 games out of first place and four games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild-card spot, but it certainly isn’t a team strength.

I’d be interested in what he believes is more responsible. Who else is there? The bullpen’s been one of the best in baseball over the last month and we’ve scored the fourth most runs in baseball. It seemed (and seems) obvious to me that the rotation is to blame, which makes the above qualifier odd, particularly in a piece recommending an upgrade to the starting rotation.

Whither Clay Buchholz?

Clay Buchholz

There’s really no other way to say this: Clay Buchholz has been a miserable pitcher in 2012. Sunday’s two run, 6k, one walk affair notwithstanding, Buchholz’ 2012 campaign has been a train wreck so far. Aside from Ubaldo Jimenez, he’s been the least valuable pitcher as measured by WAR (-0.3). Among AL starters, only five are giving up more home runs per nine. Among MLB starters, no one has a higher ERA than Clay’s 7.19. Most alarming, perhaps, is his MLB worst (starter) WHIP of 1.83: each and every inning, he’s putting almost two guys on base by walk or hit. Tough to win games that way, though he’s managed to squeeze out four thanks to his MLB best run support which is just this side of two touchdowns per game.

The question isn’t whether he’s been bad, however, it’s what to do about it. The talk show shouters, of course, would have us dump him for spare parts. More rational commentators would have him succumb to a phantom injury and get himself sorted in the minors where we wouldn’t need the offense to scare up ten runs to win every five days. That approach might yet be the correct one, but Sunday’s start offered at least some hope that Buchholz will start being Buchholz, sooner rather than later. Looking closer at the numbers, there are a few other signs that he might regress at least towards being league average, which would sadly be a massive improvement over his performance to date.

  • BABIP: Buchholz’s career average on balls in play is .289, which is almost exactly what it should be. This season, however, batters are hitting .342 on balls in play. Which, translated, they’re hitting fifty points better than they should be when they make contact. Unless the laws of baseball have been repealed, this is likely to rectify itself over the balance of the season, which in turn should forecast better numbers from Buchholz.

  • xFIP: If it’s true that xFIP – which controls for defense and expected home run totals – has one of the highest correlations to future ERA of any metric, Buchholz should be happy. His xFIP of 4.97, while still poor, is far more palatable than his bloated (and league worst) 7.19 ERA. Buchholz’s xFIP is actually better than that of teammate Daniel Bard, which is obviously damning with faint praise, since the reliever turned starter has lost nearly five miles an hour of his fastball and is walking as many as he strikes out. Still, xFIP offers some hope that Buchholz may have better days ahead.

  • Velocity: Anecdotally, it has appeared that Buchholz’s velocity has been ticking upwards in recent starts. The odd 94 here, 93 there, offered some hope that his arm strength has been coming back, slowly but surely. The metrics offer some support for this; the last time we looked at his average fastball velocity, he was at 91.8 MPH. Today, he’s up to 92.

  • BB/9 / K/9: This is admittedly grasping for straws, but if you look at the graphs of his BB/9, K/9 and K/BB, they’re beginning to trend in the right direction.

Ultimately, there’s nothing in the data that points to Buchholz reverting to his 2010 form in the immediate future. There are signs, however, that he is trending towards becoming at least a league average pitcher again, which is a start. And while his performance in the number three spot in the rotation has been a major disappointment, it’s been offset to some degree by the emergence of Doubront as an above average number four. In spite of his absymal performance to date, then, I’m inclined to put more faith in his history than his ten starts this season.

I know he’s been awful, but have some patience.

Forgive Bobby or Blame Tito: Pick One

Fenway - Field Of Dreams April 20, 1912 - April 20, 2012 (6)

Through thirty-five games, the Red Sox were officially one game off of last season’s pace. The offense, as anticipated, is fine. The loss of a 2011 MVP runners up didn’t help, but we’re fourth in OPS, fourth in slugging, fifth in OBP and second in runs scored. Just as with last September, the problem so far is pitching – this last solid turn through the rotation notwithstanding. Only six teams in baseball have gotten fewer innings from their starters, and only the Royals are walking more per nine. Which might be acceptable if the starters were striking people out right and left, but that’s not the case either: we’re 26th in K/9. All of which adds up to a starters ERA of 5.46 (second worst in baseball) and an xFIP of 4.45 (third worst).

If you’re looking for an explanation, then, as to why the Red Sox find themselves in the AL East basement, there it is. It’s true, as the excellent Alex Speier documents, that Valentine’s decision making with his pitchers has been questionable, and that the poor numbers above may be exaggerated by this. But even if we were to give the pitchers the benefit of the doubt regarding usage, at best they might approach middle of the pack. The simple fact is that the pitching has been bad.

Which is why most of the Red Sox reporters have been inclined to give Bobby V a pass thus far. The team’s performance is not his fault, they argue – it’s the starting pitching. And they’re correct to do so, because the truth is that as much as I believe Valentine is the wrong manager for the Boston Red Sox, our record to date is not his responsibility.

But here’s the catch, if you’re a reporter. If you take this position – and it is, in my opinion, the correct position – you cannot simultaneously hold Francona responsible for the Red Sox failure last September. You know where the Red Sox starters ranked last September in ERA? Dead last, with a horrific 7.08. The next worst rotation? Baltimore, at 6.09: almost a full run better. How about innings pitched by starters in September? Second to last. Pittsburgh’s rotation pitched one fewer game than we did and thereby eked out the fewest starters innings title. Pick your metric, and the starters were awful. They had the worst BB/9 and the third worst HR/9. The Indians starters were the only ones to allow more runs than the Red Sox rotation in September; which would damn them if they hadn’t pitched thirty one and two thirds more innings than our guys. The average hitter against last September’s rotation put up a .300/.386/.489 line for an .875 OPS. Which meant, effectively, that the average hitter was performing a bit better than Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli or Miguel Cabrera have so far this year.

If you were ever curious as to how you go 7-20 in a month, those numbers are a good place to start. Also, throwing poor, obviously not ready Kyle Weiland every fifth day. But what’s the point of all of this? It’s simple. Reporters, you can pick one of the following: a) the 2012 slow start is not Bobby Valentine’s fault or b.) the September 2011 collapse was Tito Francona’s fault. Last I checked, it’s still a free country, so you’re entitled to choose either one of those options, even if one of them is laughably absurd. You cannot assert that both are correct, however. Throwing one the book at one man without even charging another for the same offense is just too much, even for a profession with a notoriously casual relationship with the facts.

Stop the Middlebrooks Madness

If Will Middlebrooks continues to play a pivotal role in the offense, what will the Red Sox do once Kevin Youkilis ready to return? Youkilis is eligible to return on Monday, although it is unlikely he will be activated that day.

Middlebrooks was a third baseman in high school and has played only third base professionally. Could he play the outfield?

“I don’t know,” Bobby Valentine said. “It’s been tossed around in some quarters.”

[…]

“It hasn’t been a table discussion yet. So I don’t think it even has to enter his domain. That being said, I think he’s a pretty — small sample, my being around him — he’s a pretty mature baseball guy. He’s not going to be flustered by a lot of things.”

Red Sox contemplate using Will Middlebrooks in outfield – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

Two things.

First, it’s been four games. Four. It seems unlikely that a 1.361 OPS represents his expected level of performance from here on out, so why on earth would we be making decisions off of it? And if you want to argue that he was tearing it up in the minors before being called up, remember that that was 24 games. It’s early, and he’s been hot: that’s to his credit. But Middlebrooks’ career minor league OPS is .787. Youkilis’s career major league OPS is .878.

In Youkilis is healthy, he’ll probably put up better numbers than Middlebrooks over the balance of the season, the kid’s hot start notwithstanding. If he’s not healthy, play Middlebrooks.

But let’s not go crazy with outfield schemes, or worse, trade Youkilis for pennies on the dollar as Edes would apparently have us do.

Second, it strikes me that if Bobby V didn’t want talk of playing the outfield to “enter [Middlebrooks] domain,” it might be better to not talk to the media about the possibility. You know, because the media might ask him about it, and therefore put it into his domain.

Just a thought.