If nothing else, the next few years should be interesting up in Boston.
That’s the first reaction many had when they heard the news that the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine to be their next manager. This is especially interesting to me because I wrote a book on managers, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers (winner of The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award for 2010), so I’m always looking to talk managers.
Overview: Valentine’s place in time
Valentine’s hiring is part of a trend in recent years of bringing back a veteran manager after a prolonged absence from the majors. Davey Johnson, Jack McKeon and even Terry Collins previously underwent this.
It’s also part of a trend of managers being older these days than before. Valentine turns 62 this year. Here’s a partial list of prominent managers who left the dugout before that age: Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Gene Mauch, John McGraw, Bucky Harris, and Bill McKechnie. Those are some the biggest names and winningest managers ever. But Valentine is still younger than Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel, or Jim Leyland.
On Opening Day 2012, Valentine will be the only manager left that once squared off against Earl Weaver or Billy Martin. He was the opposing manager in the game in which Tom Kelly made his big league dugout debut. Kelly retired a decade ago after a career of nearly 2,400 games. When Valentine was a rookie manager, Ozzie Guillen was a rookie player.
For Valentine, this will be a return to the major leagues after 10 years elsewhere. It will be his first time as an AL manager in 20 years.
Want to know how long it’s been since he managed in the AL? The month he last did it, Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner. Interim commissioner, they said at the time. Last time Valentine managed in the AL, Mike Scioscia was a veteran catcher, Joe Girardi a young catcher, Terry Francona a rookie minor league manager, baseball had 26 teams and our solar system had nine planets.
Valentine as man and as manager
Valentine is better known for his personality than his managing characteristics. He has a loud personality and certainly doesn’t shy away from the limelight. He’s always had a reputation for cockiness and even arrogance, words not normally associated with outgoing Red Sox manager Francona.
After all, this is a man most famous for once making a fake mustache out of those eye-black stickers players wear in order to sneak back on the dugout bench after umpires ejected him from a game.
Based on his attention-getting personality, you’d expect Valentine to be a highly active manager, always looking to inject himself in the game. In some ways that’s the case. He really likes using in-game replacements for his position players. His batters have fewer complete games than most of their opponents. He also does an above-average job making sure his batters and pitchers have the platoon advantage. Valentine will vary his batting order from day to day.
More than that, Valentine loves using pinch hitters. In six full seasons with the Mets, New York was first in pinch hitters used three times and runner-up in the other trio of seasons. With the Rangers, Valentine used 213 pinch hitters in 1990, a record for a DH league.
That said, it would be unfair and inaccurate to portray Valentine as always getting himself involved just for the sake of getting himself involved. His bullpen usage has generally been fairly normal. He’s fairly average when it comes to issuing intentional walks. Also, he prefers to play for the big inning rather than one run at a time. He calls for sacrifice hits and calls on his runners to steal about as often as most managers do.
The best tool I know for evaluating managers came from a friend named Phil Birnbaum. He created two algorithms, one for hitters and the other for pitchers , designed to see how well a player under/overperformed in a given season.
Using Bill James’ Runs Created for hitters and his Component ERA (which is the Runs Created by opposing batters) for pitchers, Phil’s system estimates how a player should be expected to do based on what he did in the surrounding seasons. You adjust for ballpark, playing time, and regress to the mean, and then compare expected performance to actual performance.
When applied to managers, it’s a handy way of seeing who got the most or least out of the talent at hand. For example, Bobby Cox got tremendous production from his pitchers. Earl Weaver did great with hitters and pitchers. And so on. In short, the results make sense and pass the smell test.
How does Valentine do? Well, his hitters and pitchers both exceeded projections; +76 for his hitters and +151 for pitchers.
In all, that’s 227 extra runs, which is among the top 30 ever. That’s pretty damn good.
Valentine’s weak spot: the running game
The running game is the main Achilles’ heel in Valentine’s managerial game. No manager in the last half-century has been harmed more by it than he.
Please realize this category refers to two things: 1) the ability of Valentine’s players to steal bases, and 2) the ability of his teams to stop their opponents’ running games. If a team can run wild on the bases but then lets the opponents run just as wild, the running game just breaks even for them. Alternately, if a team never runs but prevents its opponents from stealing, the running game isn’t really hurting them.
One way I like to look at managers is through differentials. Want to know how much a team was helped or hurt by home runs? Subtract how many homers they allowed from how many they hit. The same works for walks, or strikeouts, or any stat.
Apply it to stolen bases, and Valentine’s teams have done horribly bad. In the 2,189 games Valentine managed, his teams stole 1,380 bases while allowing 1,838 steals. That’s 458 steals behind. I’ve checked the differentials for a couple dozen skippers, including everyone with at least 2,000 games managed since 1950, and only one tops Valentine’s gap of -458.
Still, that’s not such a big deal because it’s only half the equation. It’s possible to make it up on caught stealings. How do Valentine’s teams fare there? Well, Valentine’s runners were caught steal 778 times in his 2,189 games while nabbing would-be base stealers on the opposing teams 692 times.
In other words, despite stealing 458 fewer bases than their opponents, Valentine’s runners were still caught 86 more times. Yeah, that’s bad. Doing standard sabermetric shorthand of a stolen base being worth 0.3 runs and a caught stealing equaling –0.6 runs, in all, Valentine’s teams have lost 189 runs on the bases. Per 162 games, that’s 14 runs, or a win and a half per season.
For perspective, here are the worst scores I know for managers:
MANAGER SB CS SBA CSA SB.Dif CS.Dif Runs Bobby Valentine 1380 778 1838 692 -458 86 -189 Bobby Cox 2831 1380 3164 1296 -333 84 -150.3 Ozzie Guillen 807 420 918 277 -111 143 -119.1 Jimy Williams 815 408 1401 526 -586 -118 -105 Frank Robinson 1450 849 1650 782 -200 67 -100.2 Felipe Alou 1286 544 1687 588 -401 -44 -93.9 Joe Torre 3429 1678 3147 1402 282 276 -81 Phil Garner 1425 690 1304 522 121 168 -64.5 Tom Kelly 1714 863 1594 706 120 157 -58.2 Terry Francona 1092 388 1362 431 -270 -43 -55.2
(In cases when a manager was hired or fired in midseason, the above info only includes info from the games he helmed).
I’m sure some guys belong on the list that I didn’t consider, but I doubt anyone tops Valentine. His lead is too huge. Cox, despite managing over twice as many games, still can’t touch Valentine. Impressive. Guillen is the only one who comes close on a per-game basis.
You can play sympathy for the devil on this one. Part of Valentine’s problem was that Mike Piazza caught for him for five years in New York. Piazza is a great hitter who wasn’t very good at throwing guys out. Sure, starting Piazza would cost you on the bases, but you’d be a damn blasted fool to pull him because of it. What he gave you was more than what he cost you.
What impact does Piazza have? Well, in the five years he caught for Valentine, the Mets lost 68.1 runs on the bases; that’s 13.6 runs per 162 games. In the rest of Valentine’s career, his clubs lost 14.2 runs per 162 games. So, no, you can’t blame Piazza for this one.
Let’s look closer. Here’s the chart for Valentine’s teams year-by-year (again only looking at the games he managed in full seasons). The runs column refers to runs gained/earned by his team’s exploits; runs allowed are what the opposing teams did on the bases.
Year SB CS SBA CSA R RA Dif 1985 115 64 101 27 -3.9 14.1 -18 1986 103 85 165 51 -20.1 18.9 -39 1987 120 71 205 56 -6.6 27.9 -34.5 1988 130 57 145 52 4.8 12.3 -7.5 1989 101 49 140 51 0.9 11.4 -10.5 1990 115 48 131 52 5.7 8.1 -2.4 1991 102 50 107 58 0.6 -2.7 3.3 1992 58 25 48 48 2.4 -14.4 16.8 1996 8 12 24 6 -4.8 3.6 -8.4 1997 97 74 106 44 -15.3 5.4 -20.7 1998 62 46 117 64 -9 -3.3 -5.7 1999 150 61 134 44 8.4 13.8 -5.4 2000 66 46 133 46 -7.8 12.3 -20.1 2001 66 48 131 40 -9 15.3 -24.3 2002 87 42 151 53 0.9 13.5 -12.6 All 1380 778 1838 692 -52.8 136.2 -189
In all, Valentine’s teams lost 52.8 runs while opposing teams gained 136.2 runs on the bases, accounting for the –189 run differential. The only time Valentine came out ahead on the bases was when a young Ivan Rodriguez caught for him.
The runs scored by opposing teams can be explained primarily by the quality of his catchers’ arms. Aside from Piazza, Valentine also had Todd Hundley, a tremendous hitter in his prime. More concerning is the poor showing Valentine’s runners had on the bases.
Valentine vs. Pythagoras
One of the odder tendencies for Valentine’s teams was that they kept exceeding their projected win/loss record based on their runs scored and allowed. In his major league career, he’s 45 games over .500 (1,117-1.072) despite his teams getting outscored by 16 runs. Yeah, that shouldn’t be. He really ought to have around 25 fewer wins. In 12 full seasons as manager, his teams undershot their expected win record only twice.
Did he just get lucky? That’s the most likely answer, but some managers have interesting trends across their careers. Some consistently (though not always) do better than their projections. That’s the case for Mike Scioscia, Bill McKechnie, Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, and Earl Weaver. Others kept doing worse, including Bucky Harris and Harry Wright.
Sometimes it’s based on roster construction and usage. Herzog, for instance, had solid but unspectacular starting pitchers, a great bullpen and a consistent offense. If a game was close late, he could bring in his best relievers and win a greater chunk of close games than one would expect. Does Valentine have some similar mojo allowing him to exceed his pythag?
Well, let’s look at it this way: Aside from his 2,000 games managed in the big leagues, Valentine has another 1,000-plus games helmed either in the minors or Japan. How do those teams do versus their pythag projections?
Turns out they did poorly. Valentine’s minor league teams won six fewer games than expected, and his Japanese teams are 12 games under, for a combined sum of 18 fewer wins than expected. It doesn’t fully balance out Valentine’s big league pythag advantage, but it transforms a mountainous edge into a molehill.
Let’s look at it like this: There are two ways to better your pythag record. Either do unexpectedly well in close games or unexpectedly bad in blowouts.
How did it go for Valentine? Here’s his win-loss record in games of various final margins:
Dec. W L Pct 1-run 345 324 0.516 2-run 210 196 0.517 3-run 170 150 0.531 4-run 119 113 0.513 5-run 83 85 0.494 6-run 63 58 0.521 7-run 47 49 0.189 8-run 37 22 0.627 9-run 21 22 0.488 10-plus 22 53 0.293
He was pretty consistent in close games but got clobbered in the biggest blowouts of his career. Is there any reason for this? It could just mean he had an especially bad back of the rotation and put really bad relievers in after them, opting to completely punt some games. It could just be one of those things, though.
Valentine and strikeouts
He likes pitchers that strike batters out. Yeah, everyone does, but Valentine’s staffs actually do it. In 1986, his first full season managing the Rangers, they led the league in strikeouts per inning. Then they did it again in 1987, and again in 1989. In all, Texas never finished lower than fourth in K/9.
The results weren’t quite as extreme in New York, but the same trend existed. Until Valentine got there, the Met staffs had for years routinely been among the bottom of the league in striking out opponents. In 1997 under Valentine, they stayed near the bottom, finishing 13th in K/9. Then they moved to seventh in 1998, fourth in 1999, and second in 2000. They stayed in the top six the rest of his days there, but as soon as he left, they cratered back to the bottom of the league.
How much did Valentine have to do with it? Clearly, the talent on hand matters more than anything else. He happened to be the Rangers manager on duty when Nolan Ryan showed up. It ain’t like Ryan started striking guys out because of Valentine.
That said, you can’t divorce Valentine from his staffs’ strikeout totals either. Whiffs played a key role in determining whom Valentine used and how much he used them.
Consider Texas’ other great flamethrower under Valentine: Bobby Witt. Arriving in Texas shortly after Valentine, Witt was an amazing pitcher. In 1986, he fanned 174 batters in 157.2 IP, incredible for the era. Even more incredible, Witt also walked 143 batters that year. Next year, Witt issued 140 free passes in 143 innings, but with 160 strikeouts.
As long as his arm held up, though, Valentine kept him in the rotation. He didn’t have to do that because Witt ultimately wasn’t especially good. Valentine kept using him, though.
In some ways baseball is like any other workplace. Certain activities the boss likes will become more prominent, and that appears to be the case with Valentine and pitcher strikeouts.
Kids vs. veterans
Valentine has been willing to play both kids and veterans over his career. Overall, his teams tend to be slightly older than average, but he’s shown plenty of willingness to play youngsters. That was especially the case in Texas, which underwent a definite youth movement while he was there. Between the Mets and Rangers, you can come up with a pretty good lineup of players who made their big league debuts under Valentine:
C – Ivan Rodriguez
1B – Dean Palmer
2B – Steve Buechele
SS – Marco Scutaro
3B – Melvin Mora
OF – Preston Wilson
OF – Juan Gonzalez
OF – Sammy Sosa
SP – Kevin Brown
SP – Kenny Rogers
SP – Wilson Alvarez
SP – Cory Lidle
SP – Bobby Witt
RP – Octavio Dotel
Some of these guys I had to move around. (Hey, it happens that Valentine had three third basemen better than any first or second basemen). That leaves a bench of Pete Incaviglia, Ruben Sierra, Mike Stanley, Jose Hernandez, Benny Agbayani, Oddibe McDowell, Timo Perez, Jay Payton, Rey Ordonez, Pedro Feliciano, Tony Fossas, and Mitch Williams.
Many of the above didn’t really blossom until after either they or Valentine moved on, but in general, it’s a nice haul. Valentine isn’t going to pull a veteran just to play a kid, but he also won’t shy away from playing a rookie just because he’s a rookie.
Valentine and the Red Sox
Is it a good hire? It should be. Valentine always had a reputation as a good manager. People often find him to be arrogant and cocky, but no one has ever called him stupid.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s a variation on the old Lemon/Martin combination. In the late 1970s, the Yankees went back and forth between managers Bob Lemon and Billy Martin for a time and had great success with it.
Martin was the fiery manager who could produce immediate results—but would also soon wear out his welcome. When that happened, the Yanks hired the calming Lemon, and the team improved. Then they’d need a new kick in the pants, and New York went back to Martin.
The logic was simple, as both managers’ approaches had their pros and cons. Call on one guy after the other hit the wall of diminishing returns. It wasn’t based so much on tactical preferences as much as their personalities—how they handed the team more than how they handled the game.
Let’s look at Boston. They just blew a playoff bid in historic fashion under a well-regarded leader known as a players’ manager. Valentine gets to play Billy Martin to Francona’s Bob Lemon. Sometimes, the change itself is what matters most of all, and after last fall, Boston certainly needs a change.