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The Zen Master Arrives: Bobby Valentine to Manage the Red Sox

While it is not official just yet, ESPN’s Gordon Edes is reporting that Bobby Valentine will be named the new manager of the Boston Red Sox ending a nearly two month long search. The former Rangers and Mets manager will be at the helm of a major league club for the first time since 2002. His hiring is something of a surprise, as he was not among the initial managers interviewed and has always seemed liked a strange choice for the Red Sox. If the rumors flying around are to be believed, Valentine was the favorite candidate of CEO Larry Lucchino, while runner up Gene Lamont was championed by newly minted GM Ben Cherington.

Valentine will certainly add a new dynamic to the Sox dugout. He is far more gregarious and outspoken than his predecessor, Terry Francona. This has not always been to his benefit or to the betterment of the teams he has lead, however. He butted heads with both the front office of the Mets and the leadership of the Nippon Professional League’s Chiba Lotte Marines (twice!). His willingness to speak his mind has endeared him to sports writers, however, and he will certainly be entertaining in post game interviews.

It is hard to say what type of manager we can expect Valentine to be with the Red Sox. He typically created intelligent lineups as the Mets skipper, batting his best hitters in the top slots and eschewing ideas about traditional lead-off or two spot hitters. However, he has a reputation, stemming primarily from his days as a pundit on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, for disliking the advanced statistical metrics that the Red Sox office clearly embraces.  As Mets manager, he did have a proclivity towards bunts and intentional walks, two strategies that run against contemporary win probability based models for scoring and run prevention. His 1997-2002 Mets teams were very different from the Red Sox team he will bring to the field this coming April. He may well approach the game differently in a much more hitter friendly park in the American League.

Only time will tell if he will embrace the front office’s perspective of the game, but likely it will not matter much. A manager does not typically mean a great deal to the bottom line of wins and losses where strategies are concerned. Texas Ranger’s manager Ron Washington has seemingly never met a hitter he wouldn’t intentionally walk, yet the Rangers have won two consecutive AL titles. Bobby Valentine might not be Earl Weaver, but he is not going to try to make the 2012 Red Sox play like they are the 1987 Cardinals either. I hope to dig into Valentine’s managerial tendencies in much greater detail in the coming weeks but at a glance, there isn’t anything especially radical about his approach to the game.

There are two things that I find very interesting about Valentine’s hiring that go beyond his managerial style. First, he is anything but a safe choice. Had Boston picked Dale Sveum (who ex-GM Theo Epstein ended up landing) or hired Gene Lamont (as GM Ben Cherington is rumored to have wanted) there would be a great deal less to say about the affair. Both were coaches this past season and both had managerial experience as well. Sveum had ties to the Boston organization while Lamont had ties to two of the great managers of the modern game, Jim Leyland and Tony LaRussa. Instead, Boston chose a man who hasn’t even coached in the US in almost a decade and who has battled viciously with his last three employers. In a town where extreme scrutiny is norm, hiring Valentine seems like a wild gamble, full of almost unlimited risk and very marginal reward.

Second, if the whispers coming out of the Boston front office are true, this hiring would mean that Cherington deferred to Lucchino at the end. That isn’t earth-shattering news: “employee yields to bosses wishes” won’t make for a strong banner headline anywhere. It is significant, however. In all of the public disputes Theo Epstein had with ownership, his distaste for Lucchino’s control of certain aspects of operations was apparent. His decision to leave Boston to run the Cubs seems to me to be connected with the ownerships’ refusal to grant him all the control over those operations he had sought to achieve. With this first major transaction, Cherington has signaled a far more pliable nature. This perception of events is only re-enforced by the protracted nature of the managerial search and Valentine’s sudden and strange emergence as a candidate and then front runner. It is worth watching this dynamic over the off-season. If a relatively straight-forward choice like this requires a two month long see-saw ride, what will happen when the issue of  a $50M-player signing arises?

 

This is not to say that Boston hasn’t made the right choice by hiring Valentine. Valentine is charismatic and intelligent and he has had some great successes as manager both in New York and in Japan. His choice might be unexpected and it definitely has a potential for disaster, but Lucchino, Cherington and the rest of the front office have much more information than anyone on the outside and their one goal is winning baseball games. Valentine has been able to do that with lesser teams than this Sox club. I hope that he is a fantastic manager for us, but I have real fears.

My fears basically stem from those two issues above. If the Red Sox had not suffered an epic collapse to finish the 2011 season in heartbreaking fashion, I would not be so worried about the choice of Valentine, unexpected though it may be. However, in the aftermath of that disaster, this feels like a reactionary move. Valentine is a fiery guy and that is exactly what many people are crying out for in the wake of the subdued Francona. Fiery or not, Valentine needs to be the best manager we can find for the job. All of the screaming in the world would not have turned Tim Wakefield, Kyle Weiland and Andrew Miller into Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine this September. If this unconventional choice did not come from the people in baseball operations, I fear it wasn’t made because it was the best baseball decision, but because it fits a narrative.

All fears aside, I welcome Bobby Valentine to Boston and wish him every possible success as our manager. Regardless of the circus around his hiring, he is now the field general for the 2012 Boston Red Sox and as such I want nothing more than to see him take this team to the World Series.  His energy and enthusiasm for the game give me great hope. The Zen Master has landed!