Bobby’s Bullpen: How Valentine Handles Relievers

March 26, 2012; Clearwater, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine (25) reacts in the dugout against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Since Bobby Valentine was named the new Boston Red Sox manager at the end of October, most of the conversation has revolved around who will be in his bullpen. Even before Valentine took over the Red Sox had lost their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, to the extreme generosity of the Phillies. The Red Sox added two major pieces to the puzzle by acquiring Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey. The team also made the controversial decision to move the best remaining reliever, Daniel Bard into the starting rotation. The second best reliever remaining from the 2011 squad, Alfredo Aceves moved back and forth between the bullpen and spot starting duties last year and is also currently in the running for a starting role.

With all this focus on who will or will not be a part of the bullpen, we have not given much thought to how the new manager will use the players he has. Former manager Terry Francona was generally very predictable in this respect. 34 of the team’s 56 save opportunities went to closer Jonathan Papelbon last year. Daniel Bard recorded 34 of the team’s 75 holds, over three times more than runner-up Alfredo Aceves. He was unusually quick with the hook last year, in part because of the failing of the starting staff, leading the lead in the Bill James created Quick Hook stat, with 52. This was not typical for Francona, who lead the league in the opposite Slow Hook stat the previous year and generally was more inclined toward giving his starter a long leash.

Francona ran the bullpen in a very straight-forward way, he generally used one player for saves as often as possible, he gave to eighth inning to his second best reliever, possibly even bring them in an out or two early in close games. Outside the final two innings, he played both the platoon match ups and relied on players like Matt Albers and Alfredo Aceves to get the game to his top guys.

Until we have seen him in action, it is impossible to predict exactly how Bobby Valentine will handle his relievers, but looking at what he has done before might help to clue us in to some of the ideas he will bring to the table in managing the bullpen.

First, I decided to look at a few basics. I wanted to know if he had relievers throw more or less innings than the norm in his previous managerial stints. In both Texas and New York, Valentine was very close to average in the total number of innings pitched by his relievers. It is unlikely that he will allow the bullpen to pitch 517 innings. Only one team under his watch ever pitched that over 500 innings, and that was back in 199, as manager of the Rangers. His teams routinely ranked in the bottom five of the league in relief innings outside that one season, when Valentine leaned heavily on Kenny Rogers, Jeff Russell and Rich Gossage as Bobby Witt and Oil Can Boyd flamed out.

Like Francona, Valentine has favored giving the vast majority of save opportunities to one man. With Mets, he began with John Franco in that role and then handed it over to Armando Benitez. With Texas it took him a few seasons to find his man, but beginning in 1987, Jeff Russell was the closer except for a brief time in 1990 when Rogers was forced to fill in temporarily. One important difference between Valentine and Francona is the number of innings the two ask of their closers. Under Francona Keith Foulke was the only pitcher ever to top 70 innings in while serving as the primary closer. Valentine’s closers typically approached 80 innings, both in New York and in Texas. In general, Valentine has relied more heavily on a few favored pitchers than Francona has in recent years. In New York, he relied heavily on Franco, Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook and Pat Mahomes.

Chris Jaffe, who quite literally wrote the book on baseball managers, has an interesting insight into Valentine’s pitcher preferences:

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.

Jaffe goes on to point out that while the talent on the roster aided this trend, Valentine did give more playing to big strikeout pitchers, even when, as in the case of Bobby Witt, they also happened to be overly prone to walking hitters. That has Andrew Miller written all over it, now doesn’t it? Miller is currently dealing with a strained hamstring, but when healthy he is the type of guy that Valentine just might tolerate a bit more than most managers.

As for when and how often Valentine will go to the bullpen, it is hard to say. When he began managing he was prone to the slow hook, pulling guys only after they had either gone deep into the game or given up a large number of runs. Jaffe lists his first year as manager as having the 8th highest single total season total of Slow Hooks. However, unlike Francona, who is sixth overall in slow hooks for his career, Valentine has not been notably fond of leaving his starters out there over his career. As his very average relief innings totals imply, he doesn’t go to the extreme when it comes his starter’s arms or max out the minutes on his dugout phone.

In looking over Valentine’s time with the Mets and the Rangers, I couldn’t help but notice one interesting tidbit. Over the entire time period that Valentine managed the Mets, they were very good in important situations. Fangraphs has a statistic called clutch which measures "how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment." Under Bobby V, the Mets relievers were significantly better in high leverage situations. Mets relievers were responsible for 13.99 win probability add (WPA) overall in his time there, the fifth best mark during that five year span. They were second in the clutch rating, however, approximately 1.77 times better when it mattered most. These numbers are extremely fluky and making assumptions based on them is generally not a good idea, but it is interesting to see that his most recent team was so much better in high leverage than one might expect. If he did influence that phenomenon at all, he must have learned to so between 1992 and 1998, because his Rangers teams did not exhibit the same clutch tenancies.

Despite his reputation as an iconoclast and an innovator, Bobby Valentine doesn’t appear likely to re-conceptualize the idea of the bullpen from the ground up. He will stick with one player as his closer just like almost everyone else in the game. He may give that player a few more early entrances and lean a bit more on the guys he comes to trust. It will be interesting to see if is still as enamored with high strike out guys as has been in the past. However, he will probably differ from Francona in the small details more that in his overall approach.

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