All focus of late in Boston has been on the much-hyped "turmoil" inside the Red Sox clubhouse, and as always happens when such talk abounds, most of the blame falls upon the manager. Speculation about Bobby Valentine's future has been common, even in rational corners of the internet like ours. It's gotten to the point, despite repeated insistences from ownership that Valentine's job is safe, that people are beginning to put forth their proposals for Valentine's successor.
It's one of those proposals, which has bounced around Boston blogs and radio for a while now, and which was most recently discussed by the New York Post's Joel Sherman, that we decided required some analysis. That proposal, of course, is that since the Red Sox' ship is foundering, the only solution is their old captain. Jason Varitek should be tabbed as Bobby Valentine's replacement, as soon as possible.
It's one of those ideas that sounds great at first: we all remember Tek, we all liked him, he was smart and humble and generally looked the part of a leader. We've all heard the tales of his meticulous pregame sessions with his pitchers, his endless reams of scouting reports on every hitter in the league. Everyone who ever wrote a piece about Jason Varitek seemed legally obligated to mention that he was universally seen as a man who would someday have his pick of managerial jobs. But when you start to pick at the edges of this plan, the entire thing falls apart. Three basic rationales come to mind for making the Valentine-to-Varitek change, and none of them hold up to scrutiny.
Rationale #1: Bobby Valentine is a lousy tactical/in-game manager.
This, of course, is the most straightforward of them all, because we have actual data to look at. We've already discussed on this blog Valentine's tendency to leave pitchers in one or two batters too long. There's been much garment-rending around the game threads and Twitter feeds on his excessive bunting. His lineup decisions, even granting the difficulties he's faced due to injuries, have often left us scratching our heads. I'm willing to grant Valentine some credit for his ability to mix-and-match players in response to the injuries, and certainly for the way the bullpen has performed (when not handed a pile of trouble by the starters, which see above). But let's grant for the sake of this that Valentine has not performed well in the game-management realm of his job.
Jason Varitek hasn't ever managed before. Ever. At any level. And sure, neither had Robin Ventura or Mike Matheny, and they both seem to be doing just fine. (By the way, we'll come back to them later.) But it is certainly worth considering that we have no way to know what sort of manager Varitek would be tactically. Maybe he really likes bunts, even moreso than Valentine. Maybe years of catching have instilled in him a hatred of stolen bases, and he'll take away Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford's standing green lights. I think it's probable that with his vast knowledge of pitchers, he'd do a better job at reading signs of fatigue, which would be an improvement. Bobby V can be frustrating as a tactical manager. But that can be dealt with in ways other than replacing him with a complete unknown.
Rationale #2: Bobby Valentine is a dead letter with the fanbase and press.
Managing the Boston Red Sox is a tricky business. Beyond the obvious on-field management, and the clubhouse politics and psychology that none of us see, there's a bloodthirsty press corps and a rabidly obsessed fanbase to deal with. The best managers (and yes, I am of course thinking of Terry Francona here) were adept at both calming the worst tendencies of that media-fan mob and shielding their players from the torches and pitchforks. Bobby Valentine hasn't been particularly good at this. He thinks out loud (watching him answer questions at the Saberseminar earlier this month was borderline exhausting), and that's not something that works here in Boston, given our collective tendency to go full-bore Politico on every word from the manager. It probably wouldn't be so bad if the Sox were winning, but of course they're not, so it's an issue.
Jason Varitek, one would think, could solve this problem. When he was playing here, he was a Hall of Fame-caliber cliche artist. His interviews (unless you got a really good conversation on pitching tactics going) were dirt-boring, with nary a Notes-worthy dig or mistake. Beyond that, he's the Captain! He's got two World Series rings, and he smashed A-Rod in his smug face that one time and it was awesome. Media and fan angst solved, right?
Not in this town. Think about Josh Beckett for a moment. He's got a World Series ring, too. Indeed, the major reason any Boston player has a 2007 World Series ring is Josh Beckett. And how's he doing in the media right now? How much credit does the average fan on the street give him for that? It's great that Varitek has a long history of fan and media love, and that might get him through the end of this season. But the second his Red Sox start to scuffle, or mathematical elimination from playoff contention comes knocking, the knives will come out. It's just how Boston rolls.
Rationale #3: Bobby Valentine has lost the clubhouse.
This is of course the one we're most familiar with this week. Players have been calling for Valentine's head on a platter, John the Baptist-style. Ownership only barely staved off a full-blown mutiny by letting the team vent in New York. The team doesn't respect their manager, and won't play hard for him, and only by bringing in someone they're comfortable with can the front office save this team from total collapse.
If we assume that all of the above are true, I can't imagine a single person who'd be a worse choice as manager than Jason Varitek. We can all agree that any turmoil, laziness, or general awfulness in the Red Sox clubhouse goes back at least as far as last September. Varitek was around for that. He was part of the team, with that supposedly magic-leadership-granting C on his jersey, while the team collapsed into a heap. If he couldn't get the team to rally itself then, what makes anyone think that he could now? Sure, he'd be "their boss," but Bobby Valentine's their boss now, and apparently he can't pull it off. Granting someone a higher title does not instantly grant them the respect of their underlings. And last September suggests that the current Boston squad's reserve of respect for Varitek has limits.
This is a big part of where the Matheny and Ventura comps fall apart. Yes, both Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny were longtime members of their respective clubs with no prior management experience, and both are doing quite well so far this year. But both retired well before the majority of their current players joined their clubs. That wouldn't be the case with Varitek. Most of the starting lineup, and the entire pitching rotation save Aaron Cook, remember him as a peer. Think about any time you've been in a situation where suddenly your co-worker was your boss. Did it go smoothly? Especially if the company wasn't doing too well at the time? There's no reason to think the sudden reappearance of Jason Varitek in a manager's uniform would magically solve all the Red Sox' clubhouse issues, and there's ample reason to think it might make them worse.
Bringing Varitek back into the Boston fold could be worthwhile. I (and, it seems, most of the other OTM writers) feel he could be an excellent bench or pitching coach down the line. Perhaps, when he's gotten a little more distance from the on-field club, he'll even be a great manager for the team. But now's not the time.