8:17 PM CST, February 7, 2012
Bobby Valentine has managed in the World Series and won a championship in Japan but he never has taken a major league team to a division title in 15 seasons as a manager. It's not likely to happen this year either.
A year after widespread indifference and unprofessional behavior from players ended Terry Francona's curse-busting run, the Red Sox are in danger of becoming a middle-of-the-pack team in the loaded American League East. They are winless in the playoffs since Game 6 of the 2008 ALCS at Tropicana Field, and expectations for 2012 fueled by one of baseball's highest payrolls surpass the realistic projections for a team still reeling from a 7-20 September.
That's one of the reasons why former Red Sox coach Dale Sveum picked the Cubs when Mike Maddux's decision to remain as Rangers' pitching coach gave him his choice between working in Boston or Chicago. Valentine, who almost was hired to manage the Marlins in 2010, joined Gene Lamont in the field of backup plans and eventually sold new general manager Ben Cherington that he was the right choice.
That was a good call by the Red Sox's post-Theo Epstein management team, which felt Francona had become burned out after an eight-season tenure that produced more World Series parades (two) than AL East titles (one). Valentine is an excellent manager, much better than his reputation suggests.
Because he's intelligent, ambitious and tireless — oh, also supremely sure of himself — Valentine can come off as overbearing and, at times, condescending. He seemed suited perfectly for his last job, as a top analyst for ESPN, a role in which he was never shy about exposing the faults of young players or unsuccessful managers (just ask Starlin Castro and Mike Quade).
But Valentine is a very good manager. He always has been.
How good is he? The value of a manager long has been one of baseball's best arguments, and won-loss records tell us a lot more about the talent on a roster than the skills of a manager. But Bill James long ago concocted a good formula for broadly determining whether a manager got as much out of a team's ability as he should.
James' Pythagorean standings break down the metrics of a team (the biggest numbers being runs scored and runs allowed) to produce a sum of expected victories. In a small sample, the formula can be argued. But looking at managers' careers, it seems a reliable tool that takes the bias out of the equation.
Twice hired in mid-season and once fired in mid-season, Valentine has compiled a plus-23 Pythagorean rating in his 12 full seasons managing the Rangers and Mets — an average of plus-1.9.
How good is that? In Tony La Russa's 31 full seasons with the White Sox, A's and Cardinals, he was a plus-23 — an average of plus-0.7. In Bobby Cox's 27 full seasons with the Blue Jays and Braves, he was a plus-16 — an average of plus-0.6.
In the 11 years Valentine and La Russa simultaneously managed big-league teams, Valentine's teams produced a plus-20 Pythagorean ranking; La Russa's were plus-8. Valentine and Cox had seven full seasons when they both had teams. Valentine's teams compiled a plus-16 compared to plus-13 for Cox's teams.
Francona was a very good manager. His teams were 28-17 in the playoffs, including those four victories after falling behind the Yankees 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS. But the 2011 Red Sox would have reached the playoffs and possibly avoided Francona's firing and Epstein's exit if they had played up to potential rather than minus-4 in the Pythagorean standings.
Francona was very good when he took over the Red Sox (plus-12 Pythagorean in his first three seasons) but not so great once the expectations became enormous (minus-6 Pythagorean in his last five seasons).
Valentine knows all about the expectations he will face. But Red Sox fans may not understand just how good of a manager they will have running their team.
• President Larry Lucchino is playing a bigger role in the front office. He was Epstein's mentor but left him hanging after a run of shaky free-agent signings, including Carl Crawford and John Lackey. Owner John Henry should have forced a reconciliation, maintaining the status quo in one of baseball's best operations, but instead deemed Epstein replaceable. It's possible Epstein would have left anyway, as he says, but the Red Sox made the choice easy when it didn't offer him a contract extension and semantic promotion to president-baseball operations, his title with the Cubs.
•The Red Sox's biggest off-season additions were relievers Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. None of the top-ranked free agents signed with the Red Sox or their AL East rivals.
•The health of starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz is key for a team that will have Daniel Bard and someone from a group including Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, Andrew Miller and Aaron Cook at the back of the rotation.
•The Red Sox have their fingers crossed that Yadier Molina reaches free agency after 2012. Jarrod Saltalamacchia returns as the regular catcher after compiling a 4.62 CERA and allowing 92 stolen bases. He threw out 23 percent of base-stealers. Yalie Ryan Lavarnway, ranked by Baseball America as Boston's No. 9 prospect, would love to become the long-term catcher. He has been the Red Sox minor-leaguer of the year two years running but is questionable defensively.
•Jacoby Ellsbury led the AL with 364 total bases and 39 stolen bases last season. He hit 32 homers last year after only 20 in his first 349 big-league games. His salary jumps from $2.4 million to $8.05 million this season and the Red Sox are under some pressure to sign him to a huge deal long term before he's eligible for free agency after 2013.
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