That didn’t take long.
The season is not even two weeks old, and already we have our first Bobby Valentine-related controversy. The Sox manager said on a Sunday night sports show on Boston’s WHDH-TV that Kevin Youkilis is not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.”
Valentine has already left tread marks from backpedaling so hard, saying before this morning’s Patriots Day matinee game that he “totally apologized” and that his apology “was very sincere.” With the Sox finally hitting their stride in taking the first three games of their series against the Tampa Bay Rays, a controversy like this one has the potential to become an unwelcome distraction for the team.
The reality, though, is that Valentine’s comments are accurate.
Youkilis has stunk this season, and does not seem to be the same fiery player that fans have grown to love.
While he has been better recently (4-for-10 with three walks, six runs scored and three RBI in three games against the Rays), Youkilis’ season totals are quite poor. Most concerning are the eight strikeouts in just 30 at-bats; while the third baseman has always struck out with some frequency, he has never fanned at this kind of pace.
Youkilis’ power numbers have also plummeted. Through his first eight games, he has no home runs and one double for a total slugging percentage of .233. His OPS is .498, easily the lowest among Sox regulars.
One would think, then, that with Youkilis struggling like this he would be visibly upset at every poor at-bat. He certainly has been in the past, after all.
And yet, we haven’t seen that yet from Youkilis. Maybe it is a sign of maturity from the 33-year-old that he has learned to harness his emotions a bit more, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. If he was slamming helmets at age 32, why would he suddenly change now?
While, admittedly, it’s early on in the season and there’s no reason to declare Youkilis a lost cause, the reasons for concern are there. The decline in performance has been noticeable, and if there is a good explanation, the notoriously impatient Red Sox fans would certainly appreciate hearing it.
This is where Bobby Valentine’s perspective becomes more interesting. He has only been with the team for a little under two months and doesn’t know these players especially well on a personal level. What he knows about many of them he gleaned as a result of his TV work for ESPN over the last couple of years.
It has always been Valentine’s modus operandi to comment on what he observes, regardless of whether he is in the broadcast booth or the manager’s office. Because he doesn’t know Youkilis well, Valentine has something pretty close to a fan’s perspective on this entire situation. He has the unique position of not having the same personal investment in his relationship with Youkilis as former manager Terry Francona did.
Valentine admitted as much, saying in the same press conference explaining his comments that he doesn’t “know what the reason (for Youkilis’ slow start) is because I haven't been here long enough.” This lack of experience lets him be a bit more blunt in his questioning of players, something this team could use after all the excuse-making of last season.
While it may rub some players the wrong way initially, in the long run this incident will be a positive for the team. While it “wasn't meant to motivate” according to Valentine, this may be a flashpoint in Youkilis’ season. Even if he succeeds purely out of spite for Valentine, Youkilis would nevertheless be a valuable and productive player.
With some time, everyone will cool off. They’re all adults; people say things they don’t mean, apologize and everyone moves on.
While the airing of grievances in public is rarely a good idea, Valentine really didn’t say anything too controversial. He seemed genuine in his explanation this morning that he meant to tell Youkilis that “your physical is about your swing, and your emotional is about your not being happy when you don't hit a ball off the wall.”
Youkilis will inevitably start hitting. He’s been too good for too long to suddenly lose his ability. Valentine will get to know the players better and will know how to properly motivate them. The Sox will recover from this incident, and these silly comments will become merely a footnote in the story of this season.