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Bobby Valentine Receives Vote-of-Confidence, Often a Kiss-of-Death

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Yesterday, as the Red Sox were dominating the Texas Rangers, Red Sox ownership and General Manager Ben Cherington were coming to the defense of manager Bobby Valentine. The statements of support came in response, at least in part, to the John Tomase piece at the Boston Herald calling for the team to fire Valentine. Owner John Henry issued the following statement-

"To blame Bobby Valentine for the Red Sox being .500 at this point in the season is simply wrong. A lot has been written about injuries to key players this year. The impact of that on the Sox this year should not be discounted.

In baseball, managers often get too much credit and too much blame for what happens on the field. That seems to be a constant. There is often the thought in organizations, "This isn't working so the manager needs to go." But an organization is much more than the field manager. We all share responsibility for the success and failure of the Boston Red Sox. We are not making a change in manager."

Cherington echoed Henry’s statements, but was far less demonstrative, saying, ""Bobby’s our manager and we’re not considering anyone else." He was not willing to address the question of whether or not Valentine would remain the manager until the season ends saying-

"I’m not going to comment on that. He’s our manager. I’m not getting into timelines. I’m not going to get into a timeline for myself either. We’re just doing the job right now, doing the job the best we can, and we’re focused on making it better and I support Bobby."

None of this is really good news for Bobby Valentine. Statements of support for managers have a long and storied history of proceeding mid-season firings. In 2007, Milwakuee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio gave manager Ned Yost a strong vote-of-confidence on Septemeber 3rd as the team was slipping in the standings and Yost was fired on September 16th. On May 16, 2008, Mets GM Omar Minaya voiced his support for manager Willie Randolph and on June 17, Randolph was fired. It has happened a great deal- Clint Hurdle got this treatment in 2009, Eric Wedge received a few votes of confidence before being fired just a few before the season ended, the list just goes on and on. Bobby Valentine has seen this before himself. He was given several statements of support from Mets GM Steve Phillips before he was fired in 2002.

I don’t believe that this kind of thing happens because owners and general managers are going out of their way to lie, hoping to hide their hand while plotting the firings. More likely, that a vote-of-confidence is needed is an early sign that a manager has worn out his welcome with the fans and the media and ownership is starting to acknowledge that pressure. That is almost certainly the case here. Bobby Valentine was hired to replace a popular manager who had brought two championships to Boston in his eight years at the helm, but who seemed to have lost control of his players. Valentine inherited the core of a team that won 90 games and led the AL East for most of the 2011 season. While the team has been ravished by injuries and faces the most competitive field in their division possibly ever, they have also clearly underperformed. Fans expect more and Valentine has not delivered.

John Henry may be correct in saying that managers often get too much or too little credit for the team’s record, but team’s win-loss record is not really the issue with Valentine. There are arguments to made for and against his handling of the team’s injuries and pitching struggles. A number of players have performed well above expectations but just as many have woefully underperformed. Even if we assume, as Peter Abraham suggests, that the team would have the exact record with a Gene Lamont or a Dale Sveum in Valentine’s place, there is ample grounds for firing Valentine.

Even before the season began there were rumors of dissent between Valentine and first year GM Ben Cherington. The popular notion was that ownership had forced Bobby Valentine on Cherington and, despite protests from Cherington, President Larry Lucchino and others, that idea has never really gone away. In Spring Training, Valentine helped feed that notion some by allowing details of the completely normal disagreements over player evaluations (in particular his preference for rookies Jose Iglesias and Will Middlebrooks as everyday starters) to find their way into the press. From the start, Valentine’s talkative nature and his unfiltered frankness with the media drew focus away from the field and into the clubhouse and the front office.

Valentine has exhibited a pattern of making reckless comments to the media that has impacted the team negatively all season and many of those instances are more than fire-able offenses. Here at the most major transgressions-

April 15: Valentine questions Kevin Youkilis "physical and emotional" involvement in the game. A few players, notably Dustin Pedroia, stand up for the struggling third baseman but the relationship is permanently damaged. Youkilis is traded on June 24 for minor league pitcher Zack Stewart and Brent Lillibridge, who has since been designated for assignment

June 16: Valentine tells the media that Franklin Morales will start in place of the injured Josh Beckett instead of Clay Buchholz (who was "plan one") because "Clay felt he needed the extra days." Valentine supported Buchholz’ decision, but the fact that he made this information public shows an extreme lack of judgement at best and a manipulative streak at worst. Either Valentine is so careless with his words that he inadvertently opened his pitcher up to criticism for not taking the ball when asked or he wanted Buchholz to come under fire for not taking the ball when asked. Either one is conduct unbefitting

July 28: Bobby Valentine explains Carl Crawford’s absence from the lineup by saying that he went against orders to rest Crawford every four days. "I did a manager no-no thing and went against what I was told to do. Never to be done again." Valentine explained, adding "I’d like to have all my good players every day, but I understand the situation better now than I did then." Crawford, he claimed he was unaware of the plan, said he was embarrassed to be left out of the game and that he did not want to rest every four days. Just over a week later, Valentine has gotten his way and he is no longer resting the left fielder regularly.

There is no way to interpret this as anything less than a manipulative stunt meant to counter a directive from above. Valentine could easily have dismissed any question about Crawford without revealing any of the details about this "four day plan" dispute, but he knew that talking about it would make it very difficult for the team to continue to follow that plan. Further, the whole mess brought up the issue of Crawford’s impending Tommy John surgery and revealed that the player, his manager and his GM are all on different pages concerning this injury. Just a short time before this, Boston was exploring trades for Crawford, who is owed $102M over the next five years. The whole incident furthers the rumors that Cherington and Valentine do not work closely together and are often at odds.

August 2: Bobby Valentine admits that following a poor inning in the field he said "nice inning" to third baseman Will Middlebrooks. After another player complained to ownership about the sarcastic comment, ownership spoke to him about his treatment of the players. He later regretted dragging up this issue and said his comments on it were "stupidest thing [he's] said on radio." Whether this was pure stupidity as he says or an attempt to put some kind of pressure on the player who went to management about him is immaterial at this point. He does not know how to speak to the media without undermining his players or his front office and yet he is extremely eager to talk with anyone carrying a microphone.

If only one these incidents had taken place, it would be easily forgivable. Valentine has made some tactical errors (including not knowing the handedness of an opposing pitcher when submitting his line up at one point) but if the Red Sox were happy with his game management, they could overlook one or two miscues in the press. At this point, though, Valentine should be on extremely thin ice. Ben Cherington and the owners need to consider the impact this type of behavior will have over the long term. Should the team fail to make a dramatic playoff run this season, they will need to add talent to the roster for next season. Will free agent players be turned off by Valentine and his antics? Will other starting pitchers look at his treatment of Buchholz and be wary of signing here? These are valid questions and they arise purely from his irresponsible actions and his inability to edit his comments to the press. Unless Ben Cherington and company are comfortable working in an environment where their manager is constantly making statements which effect the valuation of players and moving the focus off the field, they need to end this unhealthy relationship.

Should they turn things around dramatically Valentine could even last another season, bringing the club to a place where they can hire their preferred candidate, Blue Jays manager John Farrell (whose contract ends after the 2013 season). However, this is now a very remote possibility. For the Red Sox front office, firing Valentine after the season ends and the team has missed the playoffs is ideal. Though many fans (myself included) would love to see Valentine gone today or tomorrow, firing him in the off-season is probably best for minimizing the negative impact on the club. They can walk off from the Valentine era with minimal drama that way. However, if this team does fall apart further or if Valentine once again speaks carelessly about internal issues, they may not be able to wait.

Very few people would have survived more than one of these incidents while the team underperforms. Valentine has been given more chances than he deserves and even those people who championed his hiring inside the organization are probably beginning to see that. Hopefully, this vote of confidence is an acknowledgement of that and it won’t mean much a week or two from now.