Why Bobby Valentine Does Deserve Some Blame for Pitchers’ Struggles

Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine finally takes the ball from pitcher Josh Beckett (19) during the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers, two batters too late, as usual.

On MLB.com Richard Justice wrote yet another piece in defense of Bobby Valentine which appeared online while yesterday’s game was in progress. That was unfortunate timing considering the content of his argument-

Bobby Valentine? Seriously? Does anyone really believe HE is the problem with the Boston Red Sox? Sometimes we come up with some real silly stuff, and this is about as silly as it gets.

If Bobby V. is the reason Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have won just 10 of their 41 starts, then by all means let's throw his butt onto Yawkey Way right now.

If he's responsible for those 15 blown saves, go right ahead and change the locks on his office.

Well, I, for one, really believe he is at least a problem for this team and he could hardly have done a better job illustrating my point than he did yesterday against the Texas Rangers. Ben summed things up quite nicely in his game recap, brilliantly entitled Two Batters Too Many, Too Often. As he has done all year, Valentine stuck with his pitchers past the point where they began to tire, ignoring obvious signs in the process. He stuck with Beckett in the sixth after a three run fifth inning. One hit was still not enough to convince the Red Sox manager that Beckett was done so just to be sure, he let him pitch to one more hitter, and Geovany Soto took him deep. He then did the same thing with reliever Clayton Mortensen in the ninth, and he proceeded to allow both Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamitlon to reach base. Had Bobby Valentine been managing the 2003 Red Sox, Pedro Martinez may have been out on the hill until the Yankees tore down the old Stadium. Valentine’s slow hook has affected Red Sox pitchers adversely all year and it is certainly a contributing factor to the large number of subpar performances on the staff, particularly in the starting rotation.

On May 5, I wrote about the high pitch counts that Red Sox starters were racking up at that early juncture. In the first month of the season, Red Sox pitchers were averaging 102 pitches per start. That is a fairly extreme average these days. Just one team, the pitching-rich San Francisco Giants have a higher rate than that at this point, with 103 and they play in a park that allows 20% fewer runs than Fenway. The league average pitches per game is 96, so despite a rotation that was struggling with a 5.28 ERA and a 4.82 FIP, through the first month, Valentine pushed his starters deep into games as if he was running Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and company out there.

That average has since dropped dramatically to 96 pitches per start, but as yesterday’s game shows, that does not necessarily mean that the problem has been corrected. Only two teams with a higher average pitches per game have had their starting pitchers have allow more runs this year. So given the quality of his starters, Valentine is sticking with them more than most other managers would. It is adversely affecting them and the bullpen.

On the season, Red Sox starters have left 180 runners for their relievers as they exited, second only to the Kansas City Royals. Of those runners left behind, 48 (27%) have scored. Though that is actually below average rate, the incredible frequency with which Valentine has pressed starters too far has added more runs via inherited runners than all but five other teams. The same applies for all game situations; it is not just starters who are being overextended. Overall, Red Sox relief pitchers have inherited more runners than all but two teams. They have entered with the bases empty the 6th fewest number of times in baseball and entered with runners already on base more often than all but four teams- all while with a near average number of relief appearances total. There is a clear pattern here; Valentine is reluctant to change pitchers and only does so after opposing players reach base.

The hardcore Bobby Valentine defender might say that the pitchers need to perform regardless, but that is simply unrealistic. It is easy to decry pitch counts and wax poetic about the days of Ralph Houk grinding Mark Fydrich’s arm to a pulp, but the modern patterns of bullpen usage exist because they offer an advantage. This constant pressing to get one more out from a tiring pitcher is hurting this team. They have been dreadful in both extra inning games (2-6) and in one run games (11-13) where these decisions tend to have the biggest impact. Most significantly though, they have allowed more runs to score than their performances suggest they should.

As bad as the Red Sox 4.30 ERA makes them look, their peripherals suggest a pitching staff much closer to average (4.02) or even better. Their fielding independent pitching (FIP), which is a better predictor of future ERA than current ERA is 4.19, more than half a run below their ERA. Expected FIP (xFIP) is even better at 4.11. The inclusive advanced pitching metric skill-interactive ERA (SIERA) is 3.96. Those are not great numbers, but with the Red Sox still ranking third in runs scored, regression to something closer to these numbers would have a dramatic impact. With their strong ability to strand inherited runners, if Red Sox relief pitchers inherited merely the league average number of runners the team’s ERA would drop to 4.21, nearly matching their FIP. That is a significant change and it suggests a perceivable negative effect to Valentine’s slow hook.

The Red Sox pitchers have not been very good. That is a simple conclusion and a valid one, but the more important and far less easily answered question is- why they have underperformed both their current peripherals and their individual track records? Overuse early in the year, overextended final innings, and an unreasonably slow hook putting extra runners on base are all contributing factors and all of those are things that Bobby Valentine controls.

Obviously, since pitcher wins and blown saves are the metrics he chooses, Justice is not the most progressive mind around the game today or the most thorough researcher. He goes on to say that "technical stuff" (like pitch selection, mechanics, arm slot, you know, baseball) is "boring," so thoughtful, analytical insight is not something he cares to offer. His simple and largely trite explanation merely satisfies his own stated desire to deal with only easy answers. For those of us who watch this team closely and who are willing to go a little deeper than the first line of a stat sheet, saying, "all things considered, [Valentine] has done a terrific job" is laughable.

It isn’t "silly" at all for fans and writers place some of the blame for the Red Sox failures this season on Bobby Valentine. It isn’t scapegoating or the desire for an easy answer. He has managed these players differently than his predecessor and in many cases he has gotten lesser results. Bobby V alone is not the reason Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have won just 10 of their 41 starts, or the reason the team has 15 blown saves or the reason behind any of the antiquated measurements of futility Justice cites, but he is a part of the problem with this pitching staff and he is the one part that can be fixed without great cost or effort.

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