SweetSpot: Bobby Valentine

If you missed it the other day, check out Steve Wulf's excellent story on Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Is he the top manager of 2012? Eric Karabell and myself each rank our top five managers ... and discuss the worst.

I just returned from vacation and spent a portion of the weekend catching up on the HBO series "The Newsroom." The show has been a little uneven -- what's with all the personal discussions and arguments taking place right in the middle of the newsroom, in front of everyone? -- but a recent episode did present an interesting dilemma.

The theme of the show's first season has been the challenges the newscast faces as it transitions to broadcasting more legitimate news and less fluff. Set in 2011, when the newscast doesn't initially cover the Casey Anthony trial the ratings drop dramatically, so the producers have to decide: Do you give more air time to the trial or to the more important debt-crisis debate going on in Congress?

Well, the Boston Red Sox are Casey Anthony. The Los Angeles Angels are the debt crisis. It's a sexier issue to talk about Josh Beckett's golf outings than Ervin Santana's hanging sliders. It's a lot more fun to break down Bobby Valentine's personality conflicts -- misunderstood genius or funny-nose-and-glasses nutty? -- than to break down Mike Scioscia's bullpen usage. Tabloid headlines about chemistry issues and unhappy players will bring in more readers than stories about Dan Haren's earned run average.

So the dark clouds that hovered over the Red Sox all season had been the car crash we couldn't keep our eyes off. Like it or not, the Red Sox bring in the ratings. While the Red Sox finally, mercifully, died when general manager Ben Cherington seduced the Dodgers with Saturday's big trade, dangling Adrian Gonzalez in order to purge the contracts of Beckett and Carl Crawford, in the end the Red Sox story was more fluff than substance, beginning with this: The Angels, not the Red Sox, have been the season's most disappointing team.

Not that expectations weren't high for the Red Sox, of course, but consider the preseason predictions for the Angels:

  • Of 50 people who voted on ESPN.com's preseason predictions list, 25 picked the Angels to win the American League West and 21 picked them to win a wild card. Only four predicted they would miss the playoffs.
  • Of those 50 voters, only one picked the Red Sox to win the AL East and 15 picked them to win a wild card. Thirty-four picked them to miss the playoffs.
  • The Angels were also the overwhelming consensus World Series pick -- remarkably, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win it all, 10 more than other team (eight chose the Rangers). Only one person picked the Red Sox.
So on a national level, the Angels were the big story heading into the 2012 season, not the Red Sox. According to the vast majority of ESPN's baseball contributors, the Red Sox weren't even supposed to be a playoff team. (Before Angels fans jump all over me, it's obviously too early to write off the Angels just yet. They're 66-62 after losing 5-2 to the Tigers on Sunday, four games behind the wild-card leading trio of Tampa Bay, Oakland and Baltimore, and also 3.5 games behind Detroit. So they have 34 games left to pass at least three teams and claim one of the two wild-card spots.)

But a one-game coin-flip affair is not what the Angels expected after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the offseason and then acquiring Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. Remember when the spring-training storyline was how the Angels-Rangers rivalry was going to develop into baseball's best? Well, wake me up when it begins. The Angels are 9.5 games behind the Rangers, closer in the standings to the Mariners than to the Rangers.

What's remarkable about the Angels is they're in this position despite the unexpected MVP-caliber season from Mike Trout and improvement from Mark Trumbo. And Pujols, even with his homerless April, is essentially on pace to match his 2011 numbers with the Cardinals. Unlike the Red Sox, the Angels don't even have the injury excuse to fall back on. The only significant injury has been to catcher Chris Iannetta. Reliever Jordan Walden missed most of July and half of August and set-up man Scott Downs missed a couple of weeks, but even there the Angels caught lightning in a bottle with Ernesto Frieri.

Trout's monster season, of course, has served to obscure the Angels' inability to stay close to Texas. He has deservedly been the most intriguing individual player story of the season. I think everyone kept expecting the Angels to go on a big streak; it hasn't happened. And now it's getting late.

While Trout's rise to stardom wasn't expected -- at least, not this quick and not at this level -- the Red Sox's collapse fit neatly into the spring-training angst that the media stirred up: chicken, beer, Bobby Valentine, a meddling ownership and so on. While there were obvious issues inside the Boston clubhouse, those stories served to detract attention from the real reasons the Red Sox are 61-67: Beckett, Jon Lester and late-game bullpen issues.

Even with all the missed time from Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Crawford, the Red Sox are second in the American League in runs scored. If Beckett (5.23 ERA) and Lester (4.98 ERA) had allowed even one run fewer per nine innings, we're talking about a 32-run improvement -- or about three wins. If they were 1.5 runs better per nine innings, we're talking a 48-run improvement -- or about five wins. Add five wins, and the Red Sox are 66-62 ... the same as the Angels. The Red Sox have lost 12 games they've led entering the seventh inning; cut that down to a more normal total of six and the Red Sox have 72 wins -- just two fewer than the Yankees. You can blame clubhouse chemistry; I'll blame the team's two aces and a lousy bullpen.

So the Red Sox are now irrelevant; they won on Sunday but nobody cares. The Angels lost again and it's time to start analyzing why. And asking the obvious follow-up question: Are there chemistry issues in the Angels' clubhouse?

Howard KendrickRick Osentoski/US PresswireHoward Kendrick's dive back to the bag reflects an Angels team that isn't advancing.
  • So Trevor Bauer starts tonight for the Diamondbacks. Andrew Cashner, who pitched out of the bullpen for the Padres at the start of the season, is back after getting stretched out as a starter in the minor leagues and he'll start as well. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has an interesting comparison between the two pitchers. For all of the Bauer hype, Cashner's minor league pedigree is similarly impressive.
  • Cameron Scott of Walkoff Woodward looks back at the Rangers-Tigers and declares that the Rangers are good and the Tigers are not.
  • ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski on the worst rotations since 1950 Insider, in honor of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins' rotation (as of two days ago, when the piece was published) have the worst ERA+, just ahead (behind?) of the 2003 Reds. And, yes, Rockies fans, your rotation isn't far behind. As for those 2003 Reds ... well ... it was ugly. Seventeen different starters combined to go 33-72 with a 5.77 ERA. Paul Wilson was the staff ace at 8-10 with a 4.64 ERA and 166.2 innings. Danny Graves (4-15, 5.33), Ryan Dempster (3-7, 6.54) and Jimmy Haynes (2-12, 6.30) were the others who started at least 10 games.
  • Starlin Castro, Hall of Famer? Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus makes a great point about age and playing time.
  • Ben Duronio of Capitol Avenue Club says all three Braves outfielders should be All-Stars.
  • Franklin Morales has looked good for the Red Sox. Has he earned a few more trips through the rotation?
  • The Reds do have some problems with their lineup, but you can't blame Dusty Baker, writes Brien Jackson at Redleg Nation.
  • Just returned to baseball after watching the NBA and NHL playoffs? Luckily, DJ Gallo has a guide to what's been going on.
  • Bill Petti of FanGraphs with a fun look at the disappearing breed of hitters who walk more than they strike out.
  • Another Insider piece: Jim Bowden rates his best managers of the first half and makes a gutsy call in picking Bobby Valentine as the No. 1 guy in the American League. Over the weekend, while watching the FOX broadcast of the Mets-Yankees series, Tim McCarver said Terry Collins and Joe Girardi both have a strong case for manager of the year. Collins, I completely agree with. The Mets have had to start five different players at shortstop because of injuries, Collins has mixed and matched platoons and worked through a bad bullpen. But Girardi? Come on. He's got the easiest gig in baseball, basically writing out the same lineup card every day. And even with the Mariano Rivera injury, he had David Robertson and Rafael Soriano waiting in the bullpen. I'm indifferent towards Girardi as a manager (although that intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez in the first inning on Opening Day was one of the dumbest moves I've seen this year), and he'll get a little more test with Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia injured, but I don't see how you argue him as a manager of the year candidate.
  • Some thoughts on Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Trent Moore from Nationals Baseball.
  • Who is Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, the guy the Dodgers just reportedly gave $42 million to? Jon Weisman checks in with some reports from around the Web.

Do the Detroit Tigers need a second baseman more than a starting pitcher? Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real? Will the Cleveland Indians make a deal? Who should be in the Home Run Derby? Is Mike Trout worthy of MVP discussion? And why were accused of AL bias? Check it out in today's chat wrap.

Thank you for showing up, Boston Red Sox.

There are mini tests throughout a baseball season -- a series that maybe in the big picture is just another three games of 162, but hold revelations about a ballclub.

The Red Sox entered their weekend showdown with the Washington Nationals facing a challenging test against the three best starters on the best pitching staff in the National League. They were 29-28 and while they were in fifth place in the AL East, they were just three games out of first place. Despite the slew of injuries to hit their lineup, the Red Sox had scored the third-most runs in the majors.

Behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals left Fenway with a sweep as the Red Sox hit .208, struck out 30 times and went 3-for-26 with runners in scoring position. The frustrating weekend concluded with Bobby Valentine getting ejected in the top of the ninth inning after Roger Bernadina had doubled home Bryce Harper with two outs for the winning run. (Harper, in case you haven't noticed, goes first-to-home like a lightning bolt.) Valentine felt Bernadina should have been called out on a 2-2 pitch.

"Good umpires had a real bad series this series -- a real bad series -- and it went one way," Valentine said after the game. "There should be a review."

Valentine is staring at a fine after those comments. Even worse, he's now staring at a six-game deficit as the first-place Tampa Bay Rays swept the Miami Marlins in the battle of Florida.

The Marlins failed in their own test in front of their home fans, as the Rays outscored them 22-7 in the sweep, hitting .302 and drawing 14 walks. This is not the way to get more fans out to the new park. After clawing back from 8-14 to start to reach 31-23, the Marlins have now lost six in a row, are five games behind the Nationals and have a season run differential of minus-28 that is tied for fourth-worst in the National League.

It makes the series starting on Monday between the Red Sox and Marlins the most intriguing series of the week. It's time for the Red Sox to stop blaming the umps and start pitching better; it's time for the Marlins to start hitting and playing with more consistency.

A few things to watch in the series:

1. Boston's defensive alignments.

David Ortiz played first base in two games in Boston's only previous road interleague series this year in Philadelphia, so presumably he'll be back there. But a defense with Ortiz at first, Adrian Gonzalez in right, Kevin Youkilis and third and Scott Podsednik or Ryan Sweeney in center is a liability, especially with all the space in Miami's outfield. The Red Sox entered Sunday ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved at plus-35 (second in the majors to the Blue Jays), although they rank just 19th in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs). Either way, a Ortiz/Gonzalez alignment makes them a much worse defensive team.

2. Marlins at the plate.

The Marlins are 12th in the NL in runs scored and 12th in OPS -- and it's not all because their new park is a difficult place to hit. In fact, that has nothing to do with it. The Marlins are last in the NL in road OPS. The main culprits? Marlins catchers are hitting .188, their first basemen (Gaby Sanchez returned Sunday after a 19-game demotion to the minors) are hitting .197, their center fielders have a .346 OBP but a .312 slugging percentage. Sanchez needs to hit but the other middle-of-the-order bat struggling is Logan Morrison, with a .227/.315/.349 line. Benched Friday and Saturday for a mental break, Morrison returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 3-for-4 with two doubles. He has battled a bad knee all season, but the Marlins may have to make a decision soon on Sanchez and Morrison. You can't afford to keep punting offense at first base and left field.

3. Josh Johnson.

The Marlins' ace draws the start in Monday's ESPN telecast against Josh Beckett. After getting knocked out in the third inning on May 4 against the San Diego Padres, Johnson's ERA stood at 6.61 and opponents were batting .359 against him. In six starts since, he has 2.95 ERA and .252 average allowed, with his BABIP dropping from an extreme .448 to a more normalized .302. It wasn't just bad luck early on, however; he was getting hit. His season line-drive percentage is still 26 percent, which ranks second-worst among major league starters to Mike Leake.

Anyway, key for Johnson is his fastball location versus left-handed batters. Check out 2012 versus 2011, when he dominated for nine starts before landing on the disabled list.

Josh Johnson heat mapESPN Stats & InformationJohnson has been hit hard by left-handed batters in 2012. The heat map shows why.
There's a reason he has been hit hard this year: He's not hitting that outside corner like he did previously. He held lefties to a .209 average in 2011 (.258 BABIP) but they're hitting .331 off him in 2012 (.405 BABIP). Johnson's stuff is close to what it was; he overpowered the Braves at times in his most recent start with some high heat. But what do they say? Location, location, location. It's been better lately; let's see how he does against the Boston left-handed hitters on Monday night.

4. Is Clay Buchholz back?

Buchholz starts Tuesday versus Mark Buehrle and he has been terrific his past three starts, giving up four runs in 24 innings, including a four-hit shutout against Baltimore in his most recent start. He has a 19/4 strikeout/walk ratio after struggling with a 27/27 ratio through his first nine starts. The key to Buchholz's resurgence has been his changeup. "My grip was a little off," he told the media after his win over the Baltimore Orioles. "I was able to free that up a little bit. It’s been a pitch that we tried to work on for a long time and I noticed it wasn’t the same grip I had in past years and it’s coming back."

Indeed, over his first nine starts, batters hit .375 off his changeup; in the three starts since, he has thrown the pitch 69 times and batters are 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.

So watch Buchholz's changeup and watch this crucial mid-June series. Maybe it's just another three games. Maybe it's a big three games.

My bet? The Red Sox don't have to face Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann in this series. Beckett and Buchholz, who can be prone to the home run, should enjoy Marlins Park. The Red Sox take two of three as the AL East continues to show its superiority over the NL East (it went 9-6 this past weekend without any help from the Red Sox) and the Marlins will have to head to Tampa Bay next weekend with another big test to face.

Martin MaldonadoBenny Sieu/US PresswireMartin Maldonado thoughts on called K's? Where there's a whiff, there's a win.

We drown in numbers and statistics these days, but here's one that sums up the crumbling state of the Boston Red Sox quite eloquently: Following Josh Beckett's implosion on Thursday night, Red Sox starters have now allowed five-plus runs in 14 starts; Nationals starters have done so once.

Here's another way. Fifty-three American League starting pitchers are qualified for the AL ERA title. Here's where Boston's five starters rank:

32. Jon Lester (4.29)
38. Daniel Bard (4.83)
46. Felix Doubront (5.29)
51. Josh Beckett (5.97)
53. Clay Buchholz (9.09)

OK, ERA can be a little misleading early in the season. Here's where those five guys rank among AL starters in strikeout/walk ratio:

27. Beckett
32. Doubront
41. Lester
48. Bard
51. Buchholz

The Red Sox are 12-19 for a lot of reasons: injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey; a slow start from Adrian Gonzalez; a couple bullpen implosions; Bobby Valentine using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in a tie game.

Those are all factors, but despite the injuries on offense, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored; the bullpen has five losses, but 14 teams have more; and Valentine is more lightning rod than explanation.

No, the responsibility rests with the starting rotation. Bard and Doubront have perhaps predictably been mediocre, but they've actually been improvements over Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, so the blame falls on the supposed big three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz.

Beckett started in Fenway against Cleveland on Thursday, his first start since April 29 and first since the infamous "he cares more about golfing than pitching" story leaked to the media. Beckett actually had pitched pretty well since his five-homer disaster in his first start, posting a 2.93 ERA over his next four starts. While I'm happy to report that I didn't see any greasy fried chicken stains on his jersey, his evening was yet another May disaster for the Sox.

In the top of the second, with one run already in, Jack Hannahan hit a 2-2 changeup to right field for a two-out home run. Not surprisingly, the Fenway faithful let go with more than a few loud boos. In third inning, Jason Kipnis crushed a 3-2 cutter over the bullpen in right-center. After Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Beckett got ahead of Travis Hafner with two strikes but then threw four consecutive balls. Shin-Soo Choo doubled to right on a 2-0, four-seam fastball to score Cabrera. Michael Brantley fell behind two strikes, then lined a double into the gap in left-center on a 1-2 curveball, scoring two more runs and knocking Beckett from the bump in what would be an 8-3 Indians victory.

You can see the issues here: Even when he got ahead of batters, Beckett was unable to put them away. He used the whole tool box -- changeups, four-seamers, cutters, curveballs; the Indians hit them all. Six of the seven hits off Beckett went for extra bases.

I blurted out on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that Beckett is the most overrated pitcher of the past decade. That's probably unfair to a pitcher who has been good for a lot of years, a guy who had dominant postseason runs in 2003 and 2007 in leading the Marlins and Red Sox to World Series titles. Those playoff performances did inflate his reputation a bit, as his regular-season performances haven't been consistently at that level. He has received Cy Young votes just twice in his career (finishing second in 2007 and ninth in 2011). He hasn't exactly been CC Sabathia when it comes to durability, reaching 200 innings just three times and never topping 215. With the Red Sox, he's had two seasons of ERAs over 5.00.

Maybe 2012 is going to be one of those down years; Red Sox fans who saw Beckett and Lester collapse down the stretch expected leadership from Beckett, not reports on his golf swing.

Speaking of Lester, what has happened to the dominant left-hander of a few seasons ago? In 2009, he averaged 10.0 strikeout per nine innings, but that figure has dipped to 6.0 this season. His walks are up more than one per nine innings since 2009. His velocity is still fine; as Curt Schilling has pointed out, his command isn't, with Lester especially struggling in pitching to the outside corner against right-handed batters. Going back to his final 11 starts of 2011, Lester has a 4.16 ERA and a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 86/50. The stuff is still there, but we're going on 18 starts now of mediocre pitching.

Buchholz is an even bigger disaster, the worst starter in the majors so far. Unable to get the ball down in the zone, Buchholz has been pounded like a punching bag. Opponents are hitting .343 and slugging .613 off him. Essentially, the average hitter against Buchholz is David Ortiz. The Red Sox can't afford to keep sending him out there; he probably has one more start before a demotion to Triple-A or stint on the disabled list is necessary.

Eric Karabell made a good argument on the podcast: the Red Sox were 14-17 a year ago and only a historical collapse prevented them from reaching the playoffs. They're only two games worse now, he would suggest, so rationally they're far from out of it. Eric could also point out that Detroit and Arizona were both 14-17 after 31 games a year ago and won 95 and 94 games, respectively.

Eric is right, of course. The Red Sox aren't dead.

But with a 1-8 record in May and a starting rotation in shambles, they certainly look it.

Ron GardenhireHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoes this look like the manager of the worst team in baseball? Yes it does.
After a wild and wacky weekend around baseball, Mark Simon and I gathered to record Monday’s Baseball Today podcast Insider, with hitters pitching, Power Rankings and ridiculous emails as our backdrop!

1. Chris Davis bests Darnell McDonald in a crazy and lengthy extra-inning affair at Fenway Park. Should hitters be pitching at all? And what does our able producer think about the struggling Red Sox and their manager?

2. The Washington Nationals needed a big weekend against the rival Phillies, and they got it, though the news from the outfield was a bit mixed.

3. It’s a Battle of the Beltway! Which team posted the better spot in the Power Rankings between the Orioles and Nationals? Also, why do Mark and I differ so much on the Rays?

4. Our Simon Says segment focuses on the weekly leaderboard and other players struggling worse than Albert Pujols. By the way, didja know he finally homered?

5. Our emailers have thoughts about the All-animal lineup and rotation, and the most common final score!

So download and listen to Monday’s Baseball Today podcast, as we tell you who is most likely to throw a no-hitter today, and why a certain Phillies pitcher will have many eyes watching him.
On Thursday's Baseball Today podcast , Keith Law and I discuss both serious (depression) and non-serious (Bobby Valentine) issues. You’ll never forget which hand Liam Hendriks throws with after listening to our show.

1. Valentine’s lineup gaffe Wednesday might seem funny, but isn’t it somewhat embarrassing for the Red Sox organization?

2. The Yankees lose Michael Pineda for the season but an older guy is on the comeback trail.

3. Keith openly discusses his battles with depression and what Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff is going through.

4. It’s still only April, but at what point should we start to worry about struggling players like Albert Pujols, or take upstart teams like the Orioles and Nationals seriously?

5. Our emailers want to talk about two-sport starts (NFL draft is tonight!), sacrifice bunts and giving position players days off. Plus, we look closer at Thursday’s schedule.

So download and listen to Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, and come back with us on Friday as me and Law preview the weekend!
Joe Girardi has his little black binder. Bobby Valentine has his ... cell phone.

As ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes reported last night, Valentine's original lineup card against Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks had Darnell McDonald and Kelly Shoppach in the starting lineup. The problem: Hendricks is right-handed, and Valentine usually plays Ryan Sweeney and Jarrod Saltalamacchia against right-handers. Saltamacchia caught the error and pointed it out to Valentine, who filled out a new lineup card with Sweeney and Salty playing.

Valentine blamed his cell phone.

As Edes wrote, "I looked on this thing," Valentine said, gesturing to his cellphone, "and there was no history on him. It had his name, and 'against left-handed hitting.' My fault. That's why you make these lineups out early enough."

Hey, I'll give this to Bobby V: Liam Hendriks sounds like a left-hander, no? Or maybe he just looked at Hendriks' career stats, saw he doesn't strike many guys out, and assumed Hendriks was a soft-tossing lefty. (Memo to Bobby: Twins pitchers don't strike batters out. Even the right-handers. So be careful there.)

But more seriously: It's 2012 and a manager is looking on his cell phone for information? The Red Sox have a $173 million payroll and Valentine is checking his phone to find out about Liam Hendriks? Where are the scouting reports? Shouldn't some Harvard grad making $22,000 be giving Valentine a big fat binder full of detailed stats, splits and so on? Make fun of Girardi's binder, but at least he's not pulling out a cell phone in the seventh inning.

I've always wondered this: Those of us who obsess over baseball know who Liam Hendriks is. We know he's from Australia, we know he's a typical Twins-type prospect who throws strikes and isn't overpowering. Major league managers have a lot to deal with -- mostly worrying about their own team -- but you do wonder sometimes how familiar they are with the other 700-plus major leaguers.

Valentine's bullpen mayhem

April, 26, 2012

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.

Yoenis CespedesAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezYoenis Cespedes didn't snag this line drive, but made up for it later with his tying 2-run HR.
On Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast I’m joined by Keith Law, and starting pitching is clearly on our minds from Monday night.

1. Tim Lincecum is not off to a very good start, but is there truly cause for concern? And what does Lincecum’s future have to do with Madison Bumgarner’s new contract?

2. Justin Verlander tossed a whole lotta pitches to win Monday’s game, but at least he earned his first win! Keith talks pitch counts and what they mean.

3. An emailer asks about pitch counts for younger fellows like Stephen Strasburg, and whether they are necessary. Also, why were the stands so empty for Strasburg’s Monday outing?

4. Speaking of the fans, which teams have the best ones? Our answer might surprise you.

5. We take a closer look at Tuesday’s schedule, including the real reason why people should be watching the Miami Marlins, plus the old guy in Coors Field and why is Tyson Ross a starter?

So download and listen to Tuesday’s Baseball Today podcast. There was bias, but no bias cat. Meow.

Podcast: Power rankings debate

April, 16, 2012
Monday’s Baseball Today podcast was taped with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays playing a morning game in the background, but the big story in Beantown wasn’t the game, as Mark Simon and I discussed.

1. What was Bobby Valentine thinking calling out Kevin Youkilis? You know, I still can’t figure it out, but it doesn’t bode well for the future. Plus, we analyze the Jacoby Ellsbury injury and Cody Ross filling in. Can the Red Sox overcome?

2. It’s Power Rankings day! Are the Red Sox in the top 10? Are the Phillies? And where will Mark jump the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers?

3. How can the San Francisco Giants lose an All-Star closer and still be contenders? We explain, but we believe.

4. Mark gets us going with the first Leaderboard of the Week segment discussing an unlikely power source pacing the league in well-hit average.

5. Our emailers want to talk about the best announcers, Miguel Cabrera and the chalk line, and intentional walks!

So download and listen to Monday’s excellent Baseball Today podcast, and get ready for another fine show on Tuesday!
We closed out a full week of Baseball Today podcasts with Friday’s memorable edition, as Mark Simon and I kind of made things up as we went along, but in a fun and entertaining way!

1. First we talked about poor Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees, and wondered whether he’ll ever be relevant again.

2. What about Kendrys Morales of the Angels? We think he’ll matter soon to any Angels lineup lacking a bit.

3. More about movies and their occasional sports inaccuracy in our email segment!

4. What off-the-wall storyline would we like to see this season, something that has never happened before? And no, we don’t mean the Cubs winning the World Series.

5. And finally our ridiculous question of the day (which Mark again sung -- an appearance on "American Idol" is next for Mark!) deals with older players hitting as many home runs as their age. Fun!

So have a seat, put your feet up and download and listen to Friday’s cool Baseball Today podcast, because let’s face it, I was sitting with my feet up when we recorded it. Have a great weekend and we’ll still be daily next week!

SweetSpot TV: Justin Upton for MVP?

March, 1, 2012
  • Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan responds to the likelihood that baseball will be adding a second wild-card team. Joe perfectly sums up the problems I also have with the second wild card. In fact, I would argue the problems are so obvious, and the benefits so minor, that baseball will eventually eliminate the second wild card after a few years (or after Bud Selig retires).
  • Here's a report from ESPNBoston that says Red Sox players are iffy on the extra wild card. The quotes from the players exactly echo Joe's points.
  • Brandon Cloud has an in-depth look at pitching in Coors Field and points to an interesting piece of data I wasn't aware of: fastballs are more affected at Coors than breaking balls. Why? One reason is that all pitches travel faster at Coors; this means gravity has less time to affect the movement of the pitch (Ubaldo Jimenez had much more movement on his two-seam and four-seam fastballs on the road). Movement on breaking balls is affected as well, but not as much, in part because off-speed pitches are moving slower than fastballs. What does it mean as to what kind of pitchers the Rockies should want? Check out Brandon's piece.
  • Wally Matthews of ESPNNewYork writes about Bobby Valentine, who apparently has the Bombers on his brain.
  • Joey Matschulat has a nice rundown of the Jairo Beras situation with the Rangers. Beras is a Dominican teenager the Rangers just signed for $4.5 million, but there is a dispute over his age and thus his eligibility to be signed before July 2. MLB has launched an investigation.
  • Charlie Manuel says the Phillies need to bunt more. Crashburn Alley's Bill Baer has a response.
  • This made me chuckle: Somehow, MLB Network rated Brian McCann the seventh-best catcher in baseball. As Ben Duronio suggests, that's pretty low for a catcher who compares favorably to two guys named Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. There's no way to measure this, of course, but if McCann isn't the most underrated player in baseball, he has to be near the top of the list.
  • Speaking of catchers, Chip Buck of Fire Brand sends Jason Varitek off into retirement.
  • Tony Jackson of ESPNLA has a piece on Chad Billingsley, who is making some adjustments to his mechanics after a disappointing 2011.
  • Harper Gordek has his picks to SOAR and CRASH with the Nationals this year. He likes Wilson Ramos but isn't a believer in Edwin Jackson.
  • Charles Piece of Grantland has an excellent essay in defense of Ryan Braun. Maybe you disagree with Pierce's stance that Braun was a victim or that baseball ultimately played the role of an authoritarian SOB. But it's hard to deny this paragraph: "Can someone seriously argue that it is ethical to take a drug to make a performance possible, but unethical to take a drug that makes that performance better? Isn't making a performance possible at all the ultimate performance enhancement? If there had been a drug that would have given us five more seasons of Sandy Koufax at the top of his game, how would that have been a bad thing, everything else being equal? Sports are rife with drugs. Without drugs of one sort or another, the NFL season would never begin, and the baseball season would end sometime in June owing to a lack of participating teams."