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.

Some Early Numbers

Three turns through the rotation, with Aaron Cook chomping at the bit and Matsuzaka’s rehab clock rolling, here’s what our rotation’s xFIP numbers look like:

  • Lester: 4.59
  • Beckett: 4.26
  • Buchholz: 5.21
  • Doubront: 3.62
  • Bard: 4.02

The performances of Doubront and Bard, in particular, are making the Cook decision harder. Which is, as they say, an excellent problem to have. One that would have been quite welcome, oh, say, last September.

Some other things that interested me from our early season numbers:

  • Vicente Padilla has the highest K/9 rate on the tea (10.8), and his BB/9 is a reasonable 2.16. Unfortunately his HR/9 is also 2.16, but some of that may be a function of being somewhat unlucky on balls in play (.375 BABIP).

  • Clay Buchholz has been a bit unlucky (.329 BABIP, 5.21 xFIP against an 8.87 ERA), but he’s just not pitching well. He’s not striking anyone out (4.43/9), he’s walking a ton (4.03/9) and he’s giving up more homers per nine than Padilla (2.42). Part of it might be fastball velocity: this season’s 91.9 MPH would be the lowest since 2007. He’s also using his cut fastball a lot more – last year he threw he 13% of the time, this year it’s 24%. Buster Olney of ESPN has speculated that he’s still hurt, or adjusting from the injury, because he’s nearly abandoned the two seamer that was key to his original resurgence. Either way, he needs to start pitching like he can.

  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia has never been a big on base guy – his lifetime OBP is .305 – but in the early going he’s even worse than that. His .275 is the lowest of all of the starters, and unlike Youkilis (.292 OBP), he’s probably not going to recover all that much. That said, like last season, he’s been stinging the ball when he does make contact. His isolated power number (.306) leads the club, and his .551 slugging lags only Ortiz and the surprising Ryan Sweeney. The net? A wOBA that is fifth on the club among players with at least 50 ABs. Even with Shoppach’s good start – he’s slashing .308/.419/.500 at the moment in 31 plate appearances – Salty’s been adequate for the catcher position. WAR has him exactly as valuable, in fact, as the Tigers’ Avila or the Yankees’ Martin. Though I wonder if the pitchers would argue that, given the emerging research into pitch framing as a skill. For those wondering about Lavarnway, by the way, he’s at .286/.408/.413 down in Pawtucket. He’s getting on base at a good clip, in other words, but not hitting for quite as much power as in years past.

  • Like many, I was disappointed in the Marco Scutaro transaction. But while I was skeptical of Mike Aviles‘ ability to play the position as a regular, the more problematic part of that trade for me was the lack of a return for the asset. That part still bothers me, but Aviles performance thus far hasn’t been a problem. While Peter Abraham calls him a “Major league backup” type, he’s played like a starter. He and Ortiz are the only players on the roster who’ve already been worth a win, and Aviles is actually the only shortstop in the American League to be that valuable. Among AL shortstops, in fact, Aviles is 1st in ISO, 2nd in SLG and tied for 2nd in wOBA. And unlike Derek Jeter who’s gotten off to an incredible start – putting up a .386/.421/.591 line – Aviles hasn’t really been that lucky; his BABIP is .306, while Jeter’s is an unsustainable .405. His fielding numbers, meanwhile, are a positive, not a negative. It’s still early, of course, and just because Aviles is playing well doesn’t mean that the Scutaro transaction made sense, but shortstop thus far hasn’t been an issue.

  • Speaking of David Ortiz, he’s obviously been on fire. As Abraham said today, it’s remarkable to think that in 2010, Ortiz was probably weeks away from an outright release. You don’t need to know his BABIP’s .435 to know Ortiz will come back to earth in the weeks ahead, because it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he’s probably not going to hit .400 for the season. Still, one encouraging sign have been his L/R splits. Consider his OBP versus left-handed pitching in the 2007-2010 stretch: .390, .308, .298, .275. It’s no wonder, in fact, that Francona was reduced to pinch hitting Lowell for Papi that year, because Ortiz had become helpless against same sided pitching. Last season, however, he rebounded, putting up a robust .329/.423/.566 against lefties. This year, most predicted a regression towards his former levels of performance. Which may still happen, because it’s early. But thus far he’s at .440/.462/.680. If he can repeat even last year’s performance, he’ll be in great shape at the plate.

It's Nobody's Fault But Valentine's

No matter what the media would have you believe, Bobby Valentine’s current problems are not about Terry Francona. Nor even Curt Schilling. They’re about Bobby Valentine.

Was Schilling a hypocrite when he popped off about Valentine having never been in the locker room, exactly the kind of move he hated as a player? Yes. Is it likely that he’s unfairly biased against Valentine because of his relationship with Francona? Again, yes. But here’s the problem: none of that means that Schilling is wrong. And in the wake of that controversy, Valentine is doing nothing but proving Schilling correct.

The popular narrative about last season was, and to some degree is, that the Red Sox’ failure was attributable to a lack of accountability that festered under Tito’s free hand. Peter Abraham apparently subscribes to this theory, saying yesterday:

Everybody knows what happened in 2011. The Red Sox weren’t ready for the season to start and then they quit on each other at the end.

Is there some truth to that assertion? With certainty. But was that the reason 2011 ended in disaster? Or is the more likely explanation that normal clubhouse behaviors became magnified in the wake of a historic collapse that was the product of a true perfect storm?

What if, for example, Doubront hadn’t showed up out of shape, then gotten hurt? What if Hill had lasted more than 9 (scoreless) games? What if Jenks pitched in more than 19 games, and pitched like Jenks? What if Drew hadn’t faded so suddenly? What if Kalish and Linares hadn’t been hurt and therefore unable to replace him? What if Buchholz hadn’t had a stress fracture in his back, missing half a season? What if Youk had been playing at third instead of Aviles? What if Bard and Lester hadn’t all lost the strike zone at the same time? What if Gonzalez hadn’t shown the ill effects of the home run derby, a surgically repaired shoulder, or both? What if Carl Crawford had finally, eventually been even 80% of Carl Crawford? Hell, what if Darnell McDonald hadn’t been picked off in the top of the ninth inning that first series in Cleveland after being swept by Texas?

The answer is that the Red Sox probably would have made the playoffs, Tito probably would still be the manager and Theo might even still be the GM. In spite of – or is that because of? – Francona’s leniency.

The popular narrative, in other words, is lazy, not attempting to explain why the Red Sox were the best team in baseball for fourth months, nor to understand the failure as a cumulative event. It’s a gross oversimplification that seeks to assign blame for an event that was the product of dozens of cascading errors. One that mistakes symptoms for cause. If any one of dozens of factors had played out differently, Valentine probably wouldn’t be the manager.

None of that happened, however, which is how Bobby V happened. In a classic management blunder, ownership over-rotated and hired the exact opposite of the manager they determined was the problem – his two World Series titles notwithstanding.

The really surprising thing wasn’t that management’s chosen anti-Francona experienced issues, nor even that they occured so soon. No, the real surprise was that after almost a decade out of major league baseball – an exile due in part to his inability to control his mouth – Bobby Valentine, a sixty-two year old man, was after all these years unable to control his mouth.

What the Globe’s Peter Abraham got right was that Valentine’s bizarre indictment of (and later apology to) Youk was a mistake. What he got wrong was the implication – perhaps born out of Valentine’s own denials – that this was somehow manufactured by Francona’s admirers, or those operating off of Bobby V stereotypes. Bobby brought this on himself, and needed no help from anyone to do it.

There just isn’t a rational defense for his comments. Like so many of the things that come out of Valentine’s mouth – remember when he had to apologize to Jeter in spring training?, there was no upside to them. Whether it was intended as motivation or was the product of someone who can’t help himself, the impact was a media firestorm and an angry, immediate rebuke from the clubhouse in the person of Pedroia. All this, nine days into his tenure. Which begs the question: if Bobby’s as smart as everyone thinks he is, why can’t he just shut his trap?

One other thing that Abraham got right: if Valentine doesn’t learn to keep his mouth shut, it’s going to be a long season. Those who wished for a manager that would be harder on the players are going to discover that it’s best to be careful what you wish for.

Five Reasons Bobby Valentine is a Bad Idea

Lotteria: Bobby Valentine

My track record on decisions as they relate to ownership and management of the Red Sox is, at best, suspect. I was not a fan of the new ownership group when they came in. I was not in favor of Theo’s promotion. And I was not supportive of his first managerial hire, a man who had failed with the Phillies. Two world series titles and a nine plus season sellout streak later, and I think it’s safe to admit that I was wrong on all counts. Over the past decade, in fact, I’ve come to appreciate – and in the case of Francona, genuinely like – all of the above.

My previous judgements notwithstanding, I believe that the hiring of Bobby Valentine as Red Sox manager is a mistake, one that will not end well. I was appalled yesterday to hear Glenn Ordway and Michael Holley of WEEI argue that Red Sox fans would love Valentine. I think he’s the definition of an overreaction to the events of last season, and a decision we’ll come to regret. My primary concern isn’t performance; the role of the manager in modern baseball has substantially less impact on a club’s fortunes than, say, an NFL head coach. But Bobby Valentine is a mistake for the following reasons.

He’s Thinking Short Term

If Bobby Valentine is smart – and even his critics will grant him that – he’s thinking short term. He’d be foolish to do anything else. With a two year contract, he’s on a short leash. And at 61 years old, it’s not clear that he’ll get another managing opportunity should he fail or underperform with the Red Sox.

Nor can he expect much patience from ownership. Having missed the playoffs two years in a row, and following the September implosion, John Henry and company are desperate for a winner. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. Desperation, however, leads to good decisions infrequently. If it’s true that Jose Iglesias is Valentine’s preferred shortstop – and his comments on the matter have done nothing to dispell these rumors – Valentine is indisputably thinking short term.

Iglesias’ history demonstrates conclusively that he’s not ready for the major leagues offensively, and even Valentine has admitted that in the American League East carrying an automatic out on the roster is not realistic. Because of injury, Iglesias has been limited to essentially a season’s worth of professional at bats. Over those 671 plate appearances in the minors, Iglesias has put up a .261/.308/.316 line. ZIPS projects that to a .600 OPS player in the bigs; Bill James, usually an optimistic projection, sees Iglesias putting up a .554. Almost eight times out of ten, then, Iglesias will be out. The front office has been clear that Iglesias needs more time, understanding that he’s not ready and that the failure he will almost certainly experience in the bigs could set him back. Valentine appears unconcerned about this, presumably because he’s thinking less about what Iglesias will be doing for the Red Sox four or five years from now and more about him saving pitchers’ runs this year.

A manager who is fundamentally misaligned with the front office strategy is a problem, particularly when that strategy has been effective over a multi-year period.

He Regards His Opinions as Facts

It is commonly understood that apart from the last roster spot or two or players coming off of injury, spring training is not a useful evaluation tool. Rosters are variable, players may be more focused on getting their work in than results, park factors are in play and so on. Year after year, we’re handed fresh evidence that spring training performance is not predictive.

Which is why it’s odd that Valentine is attempting to exert control over the roster based off of spring training performances. These games are an insufficient sample size for Valentine – whatever his baseball acumen – to make predictive judgements on players. If the front office – with its years of experience and scouting of the player – believes that Iglesias should open the season in the minors, for example, why would Valentine use a handful of spring training at bats to conclude otherwise? Or if the decision was made in the offseason to try Daniel Bard as a starter, why would you let six starts persuade you otherwise?

Valentine’s known for his self-confidence, but it would seem clear that he lacks the data to credibly contradict the front office strategies. But when you consider that he regards his observations as facts, his assertions make more sense.

He’s Good For the Media, Not With the Media

One of the things Francona was widely praised for during his tenure with the club was his handling of the media. Whether his deft touch was born in the harsh climate of Philadelphia or born with him, Francona had a knack for interacting positively with the media while being respectful of his opponents and shielding his players from criticism. From a media perspective, he may have been frustrating in spite of his genial nature, because he never really gave you the soundbite you were looking for, the off the cuff, controversial quip that would enrage callers and light up the talk show phone lines. Everything he said was deliberate and considered for impact: how will this answer affect my players? How could this be misconstrued and bent to another purpose? To have that approach and yet maintain cordial relationships with media members is hard, but Francona handled it with apparent ease.

Everything that Francona did, Valentine does not. And the media (self-admittedly) loves him for it. He gives them exactly what they need: controversy. The kind of controversy which drives pageviews, sells newpapers and makes the talk show host’s job easier by having callers fill their airtime.

More than living up to his reputation as the managerial equivalent of Curt Schilling – one always chasing the red lights of the cameras – Valentine is willing to expound at length on anything and everything, or anyone. Already in spring training he’s generated controversy by falsely claiming that Jeter and the Yankees didn’t practice the flip play from the 2001 ALDS, for getting involved in a spat with Ozzie Guillen and for making an issue of the Yankees’ decision to end a contest in a tie.

Some of these issues might be, as Valentine claims, overblown. But it’s difficult to imagine any of them occurring if Francona was still in the dugout. That Bobby Valentine is a controversial is inarguable; even he would probably acknowledge the perception. The question is whether generating controversy is likely to have a positive impact on the Red Sox, and just as importantly for this ownership group, perceptions of the Red Sox. It seems probable, given both how outspoken he is and the volume of statements he generates, that he will periodically embarrass the club.

Francona was the very definition of uncontroversial, and the Red Sox sold out nearly every game in his tenure. It’s not clear how the controversy Valentine generates can improve upon that situation.

He Doesn’t Defend His Players

Valentine’s assertion this week that in 3,000 games he’s never criticized a player was fascinating for the level of insight it provided into the level of the manager’s self-confidence. According to Valendine, public identification of a player’s failure or lack of performance isn’t criticism; it’s merely a statement of fact.

Leaving aside the obvious problem with his argument – whether he thinks something is criticism is less important than whether the player perceives it as such – the real question is what the upside is to his candor. Ostensibly, it’s to help his players achieve “excellence.” And if he was candid in private with the player, the approach would be understandable. But talking candidly with assorted media members about player failures – what he argue are merely “facts” – seems less likely to motivate a player than to inspire resentment.

Making matters worse is the fact that Valentine is, in this respect, a polar opposite from Francona. Whether you believe Francona over-protected his players, it’s difficult to build the case that completely reversing course is likely to help morale. You don’t have to believe that Francona’s approach was entirely correct to understand that Valentine’s approach may be less than optimal, particularly for a team of verteran personalities, and egos.

He’s Different for the Sake of Being Different

While his smartest-guy-in-the-room vibe occasionally rubs me the wrong way, one of the things I admire about Tampa’s Joe Maddon – who incidentally was the runner up to Tito for the Red Sox job – is his willingness to be creative. Bill James’ greatest contribution to the world may well be his insistence on questioning everything: to evaluate, quantitatively, each and every assumption. To ask ourselves how we know something is correct, if we haven’t actually tested. Maddon is perhaps the most prominent disciple of this mindset managing today, because while some of the things he does – infield positioning, for example – seem unorthodox, they’re generally driven by data.

Valentine has much the same iconoclast streak in him. And as Peter Abraham says, even things that initially baffle may well be correct. But the concern is that, at least in some cases, he’s being different for the sake of being different. Consider, for example, Valentine’s opinion on the windup. “I’m not a believer in the windup, period. I don’t get it.” Forgetting the fact that there’s a comfort level involved with pitchers that have spent years crafting their deliveries from the windup, the explanation from Valentine’s own pitching coach was simple:

“Generating power. It’s why guys do it,” said McClure, who noted that the windup allows pitchers to generate power from parts of their body other than their arms, thus reducing stress. “There’s more fluidity, more rhythm, it’s less mechanical. Normally, the windup is so you can get all your body parts moving.

“He wasn’t a pitcher,” added McClure, “so I don’t know if he’d understand that.”

The last part may be the most revealing. What McClure’s saying, however indirectly, is that in spite of the fact that Valentine’s never been a pitcher and therefore can’t comment on the actual merits of a practice from an experiential perspective, he’s got a definitive opinion on the subject.

Which might be fine, if he wasn’t so unequivocal. The real problem isn’t with the substance of Valentine’s pronouncements, but the unjustified confidence he has in them. It bears an uncomfortable resemblance, in fact, to Joe Kerrigan giving Manny Ramirez advice on hitting. Suffice it then to say that I share Chad’s concerns above: every time Valentine does something against the grain, I wonder what the source is. Genuine innovation, or Bobby Being Bobby, seeking attention.

The Net

If the Red Sox are winning, I expect little friction or dissent: winning is the oil that makes the machine run smoothly. My worry is that if – when – the Red Sox hit a rough patch, that the combination of Valentine’s arrogance, short term focus and lack of self-control with the media will cause problems. Some of which may have long term implications, particularly those that relate to player development.

I hope to be proven wrong about all of the above. Nothing would make me happier than for Bobby Valentine to make me eat crow by being exactly the fresh-thinking innovator the Red Sox need. Obviously I’m unconvinced, but the day will never come when I root against my team – their manager included. But none of his actions since taking the reins have persuaded me that he’s anything other than the wrong choice for this club.

Is the Extra Wild Card Format Good for the Red Sox?

Major League Baseball, you may have heard, has altered the playoff format for the first time since 1995. In 2012, we’ll see the addition of two new wild card teams – one per league – each of which will face off with the other wild card in a one game playoff. Discussions of whether this is a good or bad thing for the sport don’t interest me, particularly, because they’re academic: the change is made, it’s not being retracted and none of us can properly predict the impact.

I am, however, extremely interested in what impact the shift in format would have for the Red Sox. Would we still be talking about beer and fried chicken, for instance, if the second wild card had been available last year? In all probability, yes, because while we would have been that second wild card, we would have been starting Beckett on two day’s rest for the one game playoff.

But still. As the American League East grows more competitive by the year, what’s the impact of having one more opportunity to reach the postseason? Like a lot of Red Sox fans, I’m extremely interested in this question. Which is why I was initially interested in Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory’s piece on ESPN entitled “Winners and losers of new playoffs.” Who would benefit the most from the new format? And conversely, who did it hurt?

Oddly, however, Szymborski – who is very, very good – didn’t take what I thought would be the obvious step in answering this question. He’s done the math to estimate the playoffs odds before the change, as well as the 2012 playoff probability after, with the table below sorted by the latter.

But in the context of answering questions regarding the impact of the new playoff format, this format is unhelpful. I’m much more interested in understanding what the difference is in the odds between before and after are, and who benefits the most.

Based on his research, I did some very basic math, subtracting the odds before from the odds after, the results of which are below.

The good news? The Red Sox appear to benefit as much as almost any team from the new format. Which is enough for me to support it.

I Preferred Mystified to Concerned

“But with Buchholz’s injury concerns, Bard’s inexperience as a starter, and Oswalt’s not-actually-here status, this year’s rotation looks as troubling as last year’s. Carl Crawford’s wrist could make year two of the $142 million experiment as ugly as year one. Aviles, Punto, and Iglesias might evoke memories of Julio Lugo sooner than Nomar, Cabrera, or even Scutaro himself. Kevin Youkilis’ health remains troubling, as does his fading range. And Ellsbury might be due for a bit of pullback, if Red Sox senior baseball ops adviser Bill James’ own Plexiglass Principle is to be believed. Shipping Scutaro, Lowrie, Reddick, and the rest out of town this offseason might amount to very little. But none of the players acquired in trade were commodities that couldn’t have been snagged by simply spending a few bucks. The Red Sox could have kept all or most of those players, inked Ross, Oswalt, a couple of capable relievers, and more, and been a better, deeper team once the dust settled.

It’s tough to look at this offseason and not think anything other than This Red Sox team could have and should have been better, if management hadn’t suddenly decided to start pinching pennies.”

Jonah Keri tries to find an explanation for Boston's long, cold winter of confusion – Grantland.