Bobby Valentine: True SABR?

Though the Red Sox have finally, officially chosen Bobby Valentine to succeed Terry Francona, the debate rages in the press over his suitability for the job. In particular, many people question where he falls on the sabermetric spectrum, and what that would mean for the Sox.

It is assumed that any Red Sox manager must be okay with acting as a mere figurehead for Bill James Thought, waving a copy of his Abstract in the air like Mao's Little Red Book. Francona seemed to have an average level of autonomy, but some continue to assume that every sabermetric-minded front office looks on its manager the way Billy Beane looked at Art Howe. (I think everyone looked at Art Howe that way, except for Fred WIlpon.)

Strangely, both sides of the aisle believe Bobby V is not on theirs. Old school types think Valentine is a bit too cerebral for their tastes and believe he will just be a mouthpiece for Boston's front office. Statheads seem uneasy about him, at best, and yet they also fear he is simply a tool of Larry Lucchino et al. (Marc Normandin at Over the Monster thinks Valentine is One of Us, though he seems to be the exception rather than the rule.)

I think this speaks more to an uneasiness about Valentine The Personality than Valentine the Manager. Much of this is his own fault, because most of the baggage he brings with him, he packed himself. His tendency to rat out players to press and his inability to keep his mouth shut are the two biggest strikes against him as a leader of men. Still, the criticisms rarely go this deep. Stories about him inevitably lead with the infamous Disguise Incident and talk about his "clashes with front offices," without giving any other context. Knowing, for instance, that many of those clashes came with Steve Phillips, and many others came with Japanese executives who were intent on undermining him, might shed a different light on his behavior.

Still, the question remains: Is Valentine now or has he ever been a sabermetrician? Looking at the evidence from his Mets days, the conclusion I come to is, not strictly, but more of one than most people seem to think.

Was Bobby Valentine seen in such a way when he managed the Mets? If you do a Google News search for "Bobby Valentine" and "Bill James" over the time period when he managed the Mets, you get a grand total of five hits. In each case, the mention of the two men in one place are coincidental. Even accounting for the fact that not every newspaper is archived online, that's a tiny amount over the course of six seasons and change.

It is especially odd since Valentine was on record as being an admirer of his. Scott Gray's The Mind of Bill James mentions Bobby V as "a self-described James disciple." It even quotes him as saying "BIll's influence has been profound" while he still managed the Texas Rangers, which would put him ahead of the curve in appreciating James' analysis.

That should lead you to conclude that Valentine simply wasn't perceived as a sabermetric type back then, which is true as far as it goes but doesn't tell the whole story. Consider that over the same time period, the word "sabermetrics" itself receives a mere five hits. In fact, a similar search for "Bill James" and "Billy Beane" yields the exact same number of results. How is that even possible?

It's possible because Valentine last managed stateside in 2002, nine years chronologically but an eon when you consider how much the game has changed since then. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, "Bill James" was already a byword for "creeping egghead-ism" among the paleolithic set of sports scribes, but the notion that his ideas could penetrate any part of a team's way of doing things was too ludicrous to contemplate. The fact that there was no shortage of writers who disliked Valentine and yet none saw fit to tie him together with James is pretty telling.

In other words, the only reason he wasn't widely derided for being a Bill Jamesian type is because it hadn't occurred to anyone that any baseball manager--even crazy Bobby Valentine--could hold such notions. When Valentine lost his job with the Mets, James was still very much an outsider, not yet considered a threat to the establishment. The next year, two seismic events happened to change that: James joined the Red Sox front office, and Moneyball was published. Both occurrences infuriated baseball's Old Guard and established the dynamic that now defines the way the sport is discussed: the computer-chained statheads vs. the power of grission.

So was Valentine into sabermetrics before it was cool? Ironically, when we look at the numbers, it's hard to say. There's only so much a manager can do to demonstrate a philosophy, after all, and what evidence we have is inconclusive, at best. Aside from 1999 (when he had both Rickey Henderson and Roger Cedeno for a full year), his Mets teams ranked at or near the bottom of the league in stolen bases, which would seem to jive with a sabermetric POV.

On the other hand, it could also reflect the fact that his Mets teams were, on average, relatively old and not particularly fast. Rosters comprised of the likes of Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, John Olerud, and Todd Zeile should probably not do much running. His team's sacrifice totals are all over the map (everwhere from third in the NL in 1998 to next to last in 2001), which indicates he didn't have any strong feelings, pro or con, on the subject of BUNTZ. Or that it's a stat that fluctuates so much from year to year that it's not a good indicator of anything, really.

Circumstantially, the evidence points in the direction of Valentine as saber-friendly manager. If you ever watched a game he managed, you could tell he was obsessed with getting the best offensive lineup at any given time, conventional notions of roster lineup be damned. He tended to stack the high OBP men at the top of his lineups to maximize their at bats, only making the occasional concession to things like lefty-lefty disadvantages or speed.

As Mark Simon points out at ESPNNY.com, this often led him to employee nontraditional leadoff hitters like Benny Agbayani, guys who couldn't steal a base with a five second head start but could work a walk ahead of the likes of Piazza. The Normandin article cited above makes similar points, and contains a few other choice quotes from Valentine on the subject of OBP, years before Moneyball was published.

The bottom part of the lineup he often played by ear (other than burying Rey Ordonez firmly at #8 at all times), and he had no qualms about swapping out pieces early and often. Like a mirror-image Tony LaRussa, Valentine was fond of going to his bench in the fifth and sixth inning, making moves other managers would save for the eighth and ninth. (Incidentally, LaRussa was one of many managers Valentine was convinced despised him.) If he found himself in a close game at that early juncture and he felt he could get a better matchup, he would do it. Why wait for a future inning when things might already be out of reach?

Granted, if you're trying establish someone's sabermetric bonafides, Tony LaRussa is not the best comparison. Plus, these moves led many to charge Valentine made such moves out of ego, just so he could put his stamp on any given game and scream to the world LOOK HOW MUCH I AM MANAGING! (Again, hi, LaRussa.)

Even I can't tell you with a straight face that Valentine is not egotistical. And many of his platooning and early substitutions were the result of having rosters with many role players and not a lot full timers. HIs outfields in particular were games of musical chairs. Case in point: the starting outfield in game 1 of the 1999 NLDS, the first postseason game Valentine managed, was 40-year-old Rickey Henderson, Agbayani, and Shawon Dunston, none of whom finished the game.

Regardless of root causes, his willingness to tinker, to wring the most out of what he was given rather than throw out the same lineup every day and shrug his shoulders, is reflective of an inquisitive, open mind. I would say the same of his propensity to lean on young players; he seemed to have an affinity for guys who'd finally made it to the bigs, like Agbayani, Jay Payton, Melvin Mora, Timo Perez. When it came to his lineup, he went with what he felt would work that day, not with where his players were "supposed" to slot in. if that's not strictly sabermetric, I feel it's in the same neighborhood.

The more settled nature of the Red Sox roster means we probably won't see the kind of shuffling he used with the Mets, or anything else too radical. But I can also see his unconventional managing style infuriating the Dan Shaughnessys of the world, which is almost as important, as far as I'm concerned.

In all likelihood, whether or not he gets saber-cred, his Boston tenure will go much like his New York one: no one will like him all that much until he wins, and even then the love affair will be fleeting. The big difference is he'll have a front office and ownership with half a clue behind him now.

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