Imagine this scenario: An MLB team that slumped to a 7-20 finish last September once again is expected to gain a playoff berth, even though most of the squad remains unchanged from the previous year. The team has played the entire season without both its $20 million per year starting leftfielder and their expected closer, who has a career ERA of 2.07. Their opening day centerfielder—a player who led MLB in Wins Above Replacement last year—has only played in seven games so far.
Their number three starter set a new record as the only player in MLB history to begin a season allowing at least five runs in his first five starts, and their number three hitter is batting at a dreadful .257/.312/.396 line. Their third basemen to begin the year has missed close to 30 games, and is hitting only .225/.311/.359 when he plays.
A former MVP who’s 28 years of age currently has a batting average of .269 and has missed time to injury, while their staff ace is sporting a 4.53 ERA.
Their fifth starter pitched so poorly he was sent down to the minors and is now coming out of the bullpen there, and their starting shortstop—a position the front office didn’t address in the offseason—has a .289 OBP. To top all that off, the media surrounding the organization has continued their vendetta against the team that began last season.
And yet, the team is currently 35-33, only three games out of a playoff spot.
Bobby Valentine has guided the Red Sox to a respectable record in the midst of one of the worst periods of luck in recent Red Sox history. Through his astute managerial decisions and handling of the team, Boston finds itself in the race for the playoffs even though so much has gone wrong this season.
As Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford have played only seven games between them this year, the Red Sox have used a total of 13 different outfielders so far this season, which have made up 25 different starting trios.
Both of those figures are the highest in the majors.
Yet somehow, their offensive production from those spots is roughly the same as it was last year, and definitely above average for the American League. The Sox manager has done a commendable job of mixing and matching players with outfield positions.
And when Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Nava and most recently Ryan Kalish have shown they can hit, Valentine has had no problem putting his faith in them. In last night’s game, for example, Nava led off and went 4-5, while Kalish hit second and went 2-5 with two runs. Nava has hit .363 in nine games leading off this season, as the 29-year-old has a .449 OBP for the year as he’s received ample opportunity to play.
In addition to the outfielders, Valentine has managed the rest of the lineup exceedingly well.
He’s found success with multiple players at the leadoff spot after Ellsbury went down. As David Ortiz has hit extremely well this season, Valentine’s used him much more in the third and fourth spots of the lineup, rather than the fifth spot which he batted almost exclusively at under Terry Francona last year. He also hasn’t been afraid to drop down in the order both Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez, as they’ve struggled mightily this year.
Speaking of those two players, Valentine has been able to balance the playing time between Youk, A-Gon and rookie Will Middlebrooks.
Francona was one to stick with veterans even as they were struggling, but Valentine saw the rookie third basemen’s superior play and kept him as the starting third basemen even when Youkilis came back from the disabled list. It’s a situation that will likely be resolved before the trade deadline, but something that Bobby V has handled well.
The Sox manager has also gotten a great performance from his bullpen. He originally wanted Daniel Bard to begin the year as a reliever, but the front office vetoed that decision. It’s turned out that he was right, as Bard was one of the worst starting pitchers in MLB this season.
So Valentine had to use someone else as a closer, and installed Alfredo Aceves. Although he did perform quite terribly at first, he’s become very solid after his initial couple of weeks as closer, having converted 17 of 18 save opportunities since April 21.
After a slow start to the season, the Sox bullpen ranked third in the majors with an ERA of 2.37 in May, and currently leads MLB in reliever ERA in June, at 1.49.
They’ve accomplished that miniscule figure with the likes of Aceves, Scott Atchison, Vicente Padilla, Matt Albers, Franklin Morales and Andrew Miller. Not exactly a group of all stars, to say the least. But through playing the matchups well and limiting the workload of each reliever, Valentine has gotten the most of the pen. Their performance should only get better with the return of Andrew Bailey.
Managing isn’t complete without the clubhouse factor; a big part of the job is both making sure the players are on the same page and the ability to handle the media. With the exception of a comment Valentine made early in the season regarding Youkilis’ waning desire for the game, Bobby V has performed admirably.
The Beckett golf outing between starts became a non-issue just a week after it happened, and recent reports of a “toxic” clubhouse were laughed off by him and his players. Valentine has let David Ortiz emerge as a team leader, and the veteran has been able to communicate effectively to the team.
Sure, the man may not be perfect. But no manager is. Given the circumstances, Bobby Valentine has done a great job with this team. Once the Red Sox are back at full strength, watch out for a run that will put them right in the thick of the playoff race.