BYE, BYE BOBBY

By Murray Chass

October 7, 2012

Even Bobby Valentine’s sincerest sycophants would be hard pressed to come up with a high rating in any category for Valentine and the Boston Red Sox this year, but they surely have earned designation as the No. 1 flop of the season. Certainly, there were other flops – the newly anointed Miami Marlins and the $160 million Anaheim Angels, for two, and as an individual, Theo Epstein, the exalted chief of the Chicago Cubs.

And in their own special category, the sad-sack Pittsburgh Pirates, who fooled their followers after 19 consecutive losing seasons by building a won-loss record 16 games over .500 (63-47) Aug. 8, then struggling with a 16-36 record the rest of the season, extending their futility to two decades.Bobby Valentine OK 225

But how could anyone top the embarrassment in Boston, where books used to be banned and now Valentine is? The brilliant owners and executives who hired Valentine to manage their $166.6 million product were in such a rush to get rid of him that they fired him a day sooner than they shed his predecessor, Terry Francona, a year ago.

Bobby, we hardly knew ye. Well, that’s not true. Valentine was an open book; the Red Sox hierarchy just chose not to read it, and when they were told of the contents they ignored them.

The 2012 Red Sox lost 93 games, the franchise’s most losses since 1965. They finished in last place for the first time since 1992. They failed to advance to the post-season for the third straight season. Those developments prompted the dismissal of their manager after one year’s employment, the first time the Red Sox have done that since 1934, when Bucky Harris was fired following a 76-76 season and a fourth-place finish.

The Red Sox and Valentine groupies have cited injuries as the reason for the team’s dreadful season, and they indeed had a bunch. But other teams incurred injuries, too. Injuries to front-line players like Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira. Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda didn’t prevent the Yankees from gaining the best record in the American League and another division title.

Yet every Red Sox owner or official who was quoted about Valentine’s demise excused his atrocious job of managing by talking about injuries. For example, when reporters asked Larry Lucchino, the president and chief executive officer, to asses Valentine’s performance, he said, “Difficult as it is to judge a manager amid a season that had an epidemic of injuries, we feel we need to make changes. Bobby leaves the Red Sox’s manager’s office with our respect, gratitude and affection.”

I tried to reach Lucchino to ask him directly about Valentine, but he didn’t call back. “Lucchino is out running around and traveling,” said Charles Steinberg, a senior adviser to Lucchino. That was Friday, the day after Valentine was fired. Lucchino didn’t call Saturday either so he must still have been running around.

Maybe if he gets tired and stops running he’ll call, but I don’t think so. My fellow graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, whose brother, Judge Frank Lucchino, was a classmate of mine, hasn’t returned a call since he claimed I quoted something he said off the record. If I did that – and I don’t believe I did – it would be the first and only time in a 53-year career that I quoted something that was told to me off the record.

Since I haven’t talked to Lucchino since that conversation last November 23, I don’t know what Lucchino thinks he said off the record. Was it his saying general manager Ben Cherington would speak for the organization on the manager search because “we’ve had too many voices speaking”? Was it his saying Valentine did “a terrific job” in his interview? Or was it his asking me, “What do you think of him?” That basically was the extent of the conversation.

Red Sox ValentineI told Lucchino, “He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him.” I offered no details but provided them in a column a few days later and a few days before the Red Sox hired him (www.murraychass.com/?p=4056). About a month ago a New Hampshire reader was kind enough to send this e-mail about a report on a Boston radio station:

“You and Curt Schilling are being given credit on WEEI this a.m. as being the only two guys who correctly predicted the Valentine debacle in Boston.”

The key question is why didn’t Lucchino and the others heed the information they had about Valentine? Lots of people knew his history, yet ignored it.

A friend asked me how much of a role Valentine played in the disaster that was the Red Sox season. He played a significant role by being Bobby Valentine, committing his typically destructive acts and creating one distraction after another, beginning with his senseless early-season ridicule of Kevin Youkilis and ending with his complaint that his coaches had not been loyal to him and had undermined him.

Valentine, however, was not the only high-ranking member of the organization to single out for blame. General manager Ben Cherington reportedly wanted to hire Dale Sveum as the manager but was overruled by Lucchino, who apparently was enamored of the fool’s gold of Valentine. John Henry, the principal owner, and Tom Werner, the chairman, did their organization no favor by endorsing Lucchino’s choice.

In comments to Boston reporters after Valentine’s dismissal, Lucchino said the portrayal of him as Valentine’s biggest booster was exaggerated. “I did serve as an advocate for him during the process,” Lucchino said, “as did John Henry, who knew him even longer than I did, so yes, I was an advocate for Bobby.’’ Lucchino defended what he called the collaborative process that led to Valentine’s hiring but said, “It hasn’t worked out and I share my measure of responsibility for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the decision or process was flawed. It just means for a whole host of reasons, it hasn’t worked out.”

What will be different about the process this year? The list of candidates will not include Valentine.

Chances are good that Valentine has run out of managing opportunities, but the Red Sox job enabled him to climb into second place on the list of managers who have managed the most games without finishing in first place. The leaders:

Manager Losses

WELCOME BACK, TERRY

There is poetic justice in the two managerial moves that were made on consecutive days last week. A day after the Red Sox fired Bobby Valentine, the man he replaced in Boston, Terry Francona, was named manager of the Cleveland Indians.Terry Francona3 225

Francona, whom the Red Sox fired far too quickly and unfairly, had replaced Valentine as an analyst for ESPN, and now that position is open for Valentine to reclaim. It is unlikely that Valentine will be considered for any managerial opening that may develop.

Francona played for the Indians in 1988 and worked in their front office in 2001. His father, Tito, played for the Indians for six seasons, 1959 through 1964. It did not take the Indians long to select Terry to succeed Manny Acta as their manager. They interviewed Francona Friday as one of only two candidates. Sandy Alomar Jr., who was the interim manager for the last six games of the season, was the other candidate.

The Indians had a disappointing final third of the season. Only three games from first July 24 with a 49-48 record, the Indians staggered with a 19-46 record the rest of the season. They ended the season 20 games from the top.

Francona will experience culture shock in his new job. His last team, the 2011 Red Sox, had a $174 million payroll, second highest in the majors. This year’s Indians had a $68 million payroll, 25th in the majors. When Francona was a front-office adviser in 2001, the team had the fifth highest payroll, $92 million.

MEDDLING WITH MEDLEN

The Washington Nationals are in the playoffs, and they are there without their No. 1 pitcher. Stephen Strasberg is not injured. He was involuntarily shut down after his Sept. 5 start, his season finished after 159 1/3 innings under a plan designed by the Nationals’ general manager, Mike Rizzo, and endorsed by manager Davey Johnson.

Strasburg had reconstructive elbow surgery in September 2010, came back for five starts last September and was cleared for limited duty this season, that is, duty under an innings limit. Rizzo explained that he didn’t want to risk Strasberg’s future by having him pitch too many innings this season, even if it meant the Nationals wouldn’t have him for post-season games.

Kris Medlen 225The Atlanta Braves, on the other hand, had Kris Medlen for the post-season. Medlen had the same elbow operation that Strasburg had but two weeks earlier. Previously a starter and reliever, Medlen returned for two relief appearances last September, then began this season in the bullpen. He relieved 38 times before starting a game July 31.

In his 38 relief appearances he pitched 54 1/3 innings. In 12 starts he pitched 83 2/3 for a total of 138 innings. He emerged from those 12 starts and 83 2/3 innings with 9 victories, no losses and an absurdly low 0.97 earned run average. He had pitched so effectively that the Braves gave him the start against St. Louis in the wild-card playoff game, in which three infield throwing errors undermined his effort and created three unearned runs of the five runs he allowed in the 6-3 loss. It was the first start in his last 24 starts that the Braves lost.

The point here is if the Braves could figure out a way to limit Medlen’s innings but still have him available for the post-season, why couldn’t the Nationals have worked out a similar scenario for Strasburg? It didn’t have to be the same formula, but there were ways to achieve the same outcome. Instead the Nationals chose the path of least imaginative effort and deprived Strasburg, the team and its fans of having a valuable asset for the most important games in the nation’s capital’s last eight decades of baseball.

MAKE GOOD GRAMMAR, NOT WAR

It has taken 45 years for someone to win the Triple Crown of hitting statistics, and the statistics zealots want to take it away from Miguel Cabrera. As Cabrera was zeroing in on the rare achievement, ESPN.com had a column about the “’real’ Triple Crown.” It was written by someone from something called “Baseball Think Factory.” I may be displaying my ignorance in not knowing what that is, but it sounds like something where its advocates could do themselves a favor by not thinking so much and just watch games for the pure enjoyment of them.

Miguel Cabrera 225I saw a commercial for an interview with Tony La Russa the other day, and he was saying that people forget that human beings play the games, a point I have long made to those who want to judge players strictly with statistics.

The ESPN.com column noted that Cabrera was “on the cusp” of doing something even rarer than winning the Triple Crown, and that was winning the Triple Crown without leading the league in wins above replacement,” a.k.a. WAR. Mike Trout, the column noted, was “significantly ahead of everyone in the A.L.” in WAR.

Without getting into details, I note that the column inadvertently states one of the reasons I have no use for WAR. It cites two different versions of WAR, one computed by Baseball-Reference, another by FanGraphs. For all I know, there are still others.

Runs batted in are absolute. Home runs are the same wherever you look. Batting average is based on hits and at-bats. None of those statistics have different versions. If we accept new-age statistics, whom do we consult and trust, Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs or some other self-professed expert, Bill James perhaps?

This column goes further, suggesting there might be a better way of determining players’ relative value, but I didn’t learn what it is because reading more of the column would have required payment, and that’s not going to happen.

On the other hand, I would like to offer at no cost a little English quiz to the column’s writer and his editors. Like the statistics advocates I call zealots, I am zealous about the correct use of the English language. I believe that is far more important than WAR and VORP. So this is my quiz:

In ESPN.com’s Triple Crown column, find the grammatical errors in these sentences or phrases:

  • Cabrera would only be the second Triple Crown winner…
  • The Tigers just have nine games left in the season…
  • their is another trio of traditional stats that does a much better job of defining overall player value.
  • Cabrera would only be the fourth…
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