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My Funny Valentine

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As you may have heard, Bobby Valentine is the perceived front runner for the Red Sox managerial job, with MLB trade rumors currently citing 70 % of respondents polled as believing he will get the job. Valentine’s presence at the top of the list has understandly produced a collective "What the what" from baseball analysts and Red Sox fans alike. Valentine is energetic, experienced and highly likable, but progressive, he is not.

As a baseball pundit, Valentine has lamented strategies based on OBP and other such "advanced" metrics. He coached some excellent Mets teams, but also oversaw some lousy clubs with both New York and Texas. His career winning percentage is an uninspiring .510. Valentine has also been less a company man; in 2000 he was caught up in a scandal in which he was supposed to have spoken ill of management and some of his own players. In his time in Japan he also had run ins with his own management, leading to his surprising dismissal following a season in which he lead the underdog Chiba Lotte Marines to a second place finish.

Why would the Boston Red Sox, an organization known for a devotion of statistical analysis and a progressive approach to the game, go miles out of their way to hire a manger who is neither a calm, steadying, hand nor a devotee to the type of strategies that dominate the organization? It appears that CEO Larry Lucchino is the driving force behind Valentine’s candidacy. Lucchino has been the most outspoken and controversial of Boston’s owners and the one member of the group known to have butted heads with former GM Theo Epstein regularly. Lucchino wants Valentine and that seems to be enough for the current GM Ben Cherington. Why then does Lucchino want Valentine?

Two things occur to me as possible reasons. First, Bobby Valentine is not Terry Francona. Francona was a calm helmsman to the last. He would express frustration at times, but he rarely ever lost his cool. He would argue calls with more a sense of obligation than indignation. Valentine will certainly add fire to the dugout, whether it is aimed at opponents, umpires, his own players or the front office will be a daily uncertainty. Whether the recent controversies centering on fried chicken and beer or the team’s lackadaisical final month’s performance has sparked this managerial pyrotechnical fascination, this logical has disaster written all over it.

The only other reason I can see for the Boston owner's fascination with Valentine is slightly more intriguing. With strange consistency, Valentine teams have almost always overachieved. Valentine’s teams* have been 27 games better than their Pythagorean records. In fact just one team Valentine coached, the 2002 Mets, finished below their projected record. Four other teams merely matched the number of wins the runs based system predicted and seven teams have finished with better records. His 2001 Mets team 9 wins better than their Pythagorean mark, topping the 2000 team’s mark of 6 games over to make them the most overachieving Valentine team.

*Only the 12 seasons in which Valentine was the manager of a team for the full season are counted here

Pythagorean record is far from a perfect reflection of a team’s true talent and wins above the Pythagorean record cannot necessarily be ascribed to the manager’s skill. However, it is pretty easy to understand how this type of continued success would catch the eye. In Francona’s 8 seasons as manager his teams were 9 total wins above the projected record. Compared to Valentine’s 12 seasons and 27 wins above Pythagoras, Tito appears to have less successfully trumped the realities of runs scored against runs allowed.

In their true effect on wins and losses, the best and worse managers are separated by a very thin margin. Trying to determine a skipper’s effect on his team’s record is net to impossible. The relationship between real wins and Pythagorean wins is almost certainly too blunt a tool for that job. However, his team’s consistent ability to win more than the numbers say they should is something you could easily get hooked on. It is possible Lucchino and others in the Boston organization have spotted this anomaly and ran with it.

Harping on this bizarre statistically blurb could have led the Boston leaders to Valentine, but it doesn’t make him a good choice. Valentine does not seem willing to embrace the culture the front office has created in the past ten years and it will almost certainly make the relationship tense. Should Valentine be quick to give away outs, put runners on base or take the bat out of his best hitters’ hands, the heat from the media and the organization will rise quickly. He won’t have an easy time make excuses for poor strategies here, regardless of how traditional they may be and that concern should outweigh a narrow, presumptuous, reading of his record.