One of Casey Stengel’s best remembered quotes is, “I couldn’t have done it without my players,” and that’s nice as far as it goes. But a manager doesn’t just sit back and leave things to the players; a big part of a manager’s job is to put his players in the best position to succeed, to help them “do it.”
If you followed the Red Sox-Twins game blow by blow, you might have wondered if that’s what Bobby Valentine achieved in a close game made closer by some odd in-game machinations. Insofar as wins and losses are the only things that count, Valentine’s high-wire act worked on Wednesday, and the Red Sox wheezed their way through a late win as much in spite of as because of their increasingly desperate blur of revolving relievers.
The Twins, plinky and impatient at the plate with the kind of reliability associated with death, taxes and sunsets, tried to kill Sox starter Clay Buchholz off with a death by a thousand cuts. But despite two hits in each of the first four innings, the Twins had managed just a lone run against him. The absence of a knockout blow may have owed something to Josh Willingham’s paternity leave to greet his son Rogan’s birth. That many opportunities should lead to runs, especially if the Twins are supposed to fulfill that meme about how Ron Gardenhire gets them to do the little things like advancing runners, and making do with less as the little engine that could, or at least tries. But they got to work with lots, and until the sixth they’d done very little with it.
After 88 pitches through the first five innings, though, Buchholz had to work fairly hard. It doesn’t help when so many of those throws were from the stretch with men on base, but he was clearly gassed, and the sixth inning got ugly fast.
It was only then that Valentine pulled the trigger, perhaps as late as he dared go to his bullpen. Red Sox relievers have a 7.14 Fair Run Average, or FRA. That’s the worst in baseball by a good run and a half, and it’s early enough yet that you can plead “small sample” to your heart’s content. A Baseball Prospectus metric, FRA differs from Fielding Independent Pitching in that it credits pitchers who work out of jams more often than usual and considers defense, base-out situations and batted ball types. All of which is a fancy way of saying that if there’s a fire, the Red Sox have had the wrong kind of gas to try to put it out. If it stuck the whole season, it would be the worst bullpen FRA in more than 30 years, and second only to the 1990 Expos for all-time awful.
But with the bases loaded and another run in and up by five, Valentine went to his pen ... to bring in Scott Atchison, a right-hander. To face the very left-handed Joe Mauer. With the equally very left-handed Justin Morneau on deck.
That’s two lefties who aren’t coming out against any situational machination, and the situation is a perfect illustration of why most contemporary managers obsess about alternating batters by handedness. Riding the hot hand, Gardenhire has been thoroughly conventional of late, with Willingham between the M&M boys. With no Willingham on this night, Gardy went back to putting his two best power sources three-four in the order.
On his career, Mauer has a 126-point advantage in slugging hitting against righties; Morneau’s is “just” 91 points. You don’t manage on what a man’s done in April, you look at the big picture. On his career, Atchison isn’t much for cranking out ground-ball outs, so this wasn’t even really about trying to get a literal twin killing.
Stranger still, Atchison had thrown two innings on Tuesday. Perhaps ideally, he doesn’t even pitch on Wednesday. Ideally, he doesn’t get brought in just to face Joe Mauer. It isn’t even like Atchison’s a bass-ackwards righty with a track record of beating down lefties -- his career OPS split is almost 100 points worse versus lefties.
This might be the antithesis of situational management, and it might have been brave or inspired if it wasn’t simply nutty. Fed a situation with two lefties due and the bases juiced and a five-run lead, Valentine did the opposite of convention, and it burned him. Mauer plated two runners, and only then did Valentine go to the lefty ... and Justin Thomas didn’t make matters any better, giving up a double to Morneau, beaning Chris Parmelee and getting hooked. And just like that, the Sox are on their fourth reliever in five batters. Bill James had a saying about relievers, that if you use enough of them in a game, eventually you run into the one who doesn’t have it that night, but the way the Red Sox's 'pen is working out, they’re finding more than one.
Now, big picture, if you won’t use Thomas with a five-run lead against a lefty, I’m not sure what Justin Thomas is for, but that’s a matter of elective decision making. But if you use Atchison in a less than ideal situation and he fails, is that really his fault? A manager’s supposed to put his players in their best position to succeed, and this clearly wasn’t in anybody’s ideal-situation operating manual.
Maybe Valentine will find his own comfort zone with his bullpen moves. Maybe he’s still figuring out what everyone’s for. To be fair, this isn’t the bullpen he envisioned a month ago, and there’s talent here. As exciting as he was against the Twins, loading the bases, Alfredo Aceves can close as well or better than most. But until Valentine figures out how to put his relievers in the best positions to succeed, this is a problem that won’t get better as quickly as Red Sox fans might like.
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