Bobby Valentine isn't very popular with the Fenway Faithful right now. A combination of things is the cause: the Red Sox are just 4-8 under his watch to start the year; he publicly called out Kevin Youkilis and then quickly backed off of his comments when New England woke up and read about it; and he's shown little ability to handle a bullpen.
It's the last of those issues that's the most worrisome. Valentine likes to talk, and there's little that will quiet him completely, but it's likely he and the players will come to some kind of understanding about what will earn him clubhouse scorn and what's within his rights to say. The Red Sox aren't going to lose 100-plus games this year, so the 4-8 issue is also a temporary one. The bullpen management, though -- that's an area where Valentine might end up costing the Red Sox the win or two they might need in order to get into the playoffs.
It's hard to gauge just how much of a loss is the manager's fault, but Valentine has done his best to provide teachable examples in the season's first few weeks. He yanked Mark Melancon from the ninth inning of the first game of the season after facing just three batters, two of which reached with hits. That by itself isn't earth-shatteringly bad, but for a manager whose main problem has been sticking with pitchers for too long, it was a sign that he didn't have much faith in Melancon to get outs. Given that Melancon's now in Triple-A to work out mechanical issues, that lack of faith is justified, but the fact he used a pitcher he didn't trust in a tie game in the ninth inning is perplexing.
If anything, Valentine could have used that quick hook in the last week. On Monday, Daniel Bard pitched well against the Rays for 6-2/3 innings. He had given up three walks and hit a batter, but he had also struck out seven, induced 14 swings-and-misses, and allowed just three hits. He walked Sean Rodriguez after notching two quick outs, and his pitch count sat at 92.
That's not a ton of pitches, but for a pitcher converting to starting from relief, and one whose arm slot started to drop in his previous outing around the same point, it's enough. Bard once again saw his fastball command vanish after his 90th pitch, but the Red Sox didn't have anyone warming in the bullpen. Instead, Bard faced Desmond Jennings and allowed a single on the fifth pitch, then threw four straight balls on fastballs to Carlos Pena. This brought on a visit to the mound, but not a pitching change. Bard was up with the bases loaded, with one out left in the seventh inning, clearly gassed, and he was left in to face Evan Longoria. Predictably, Longoria walked on another four straight missed heaters.
The Red Sox would lose that game 1-0. It's possible Longoria gets a hit against a reliever, but it's not a given. Bard walking the patient Longoria at a time where the right-hander was having trouble locating was a far-surer outcome. Valentine didn't put the Red Sox in the best position to win, and instead of sweeping the Rays in a four-game series, they had to settle for three-of-four and the start of a three-game skid.
In Bard's previous start, the loss of command in the sixth inning was his undoing. Valentine was warming Justin Thomas and Matt Albers, and decided to bring in Thomas. Thomas is a journeyman lefty with 20 innings in the majors to his credit, despite being 28 and with a 2008 debut. He threw 18 pitches -- just nine of them strikes -- and while charged with just one run, allowed both of his inherited baserunners to score. Using the southpaw against the left-handed Eric Thames made sense, but once Thames walked and righty J.P. Arencibia was up, Thomas should have been yanked so that Matt Albers could try his hand at inducing a groundball and double-play. It didn't happen, and the Red Sox ended up losing 7-3.
Valentine even admitted this was a mistake, but, coming back to Monday's game against the Rays, it was once again Thomas in relief of Bard, while Albers had to wait until the eighth to force Longoria into a double-play grounder. This was more defensible, given all of the lefties in the Rays lineup, but it never should have reached the point where Thomas was necessary.
In Wednesday's game against the Rangers, Valentine left the normally-dependable Franklin Morales in for too long. Valentine claimed he wanted to "keep confidence" in Morales, but how many balls did Morales have to throw before it was clear he didn't have it that night? Morales threw 29 pitches, just 11 for strikes, and was left in to face Mike Napoli with the bases loaded. Napoli destroys left-handed pitchers, was in a park that enhances doubles from right-handers like no other, and was facing a pitcher who had to throw strikes. The two-run double that followed was once again a predictable -- and avoidable -- situation, and it put yet another winnable game out of reach.
There might not have been anyone ready to replace Morales right then, either. Vicente Padilla had been warming, but sat down in favor of Albers. The lack of relief arms ready to enter the game has been a theme of Valentine's short tenure in Boston, as well. Jon Lester threw a complete game against Toronto that took him 116 pitches, and there was no one even warming in case of the expected emergencies that emerge in high pitch counts. Unlike with Bard, Lester got out of it, but it's obvious that Valentine has waited for trouble, rather than come prepared for it. Getting more pitches out of the starters is a positive, especially if it keeps the bullpen fresher than it's been in years past. That doesn't excuse Valentine from drawing up exit strategies for his starters, though, nor does it mean he should overextend a former reliever in his first month of starting in the majors.
It hasn't been all bad. Alfredo Aceves was named the closer, but he's warmed up or entered games that were tied, in extra innings, or even had the Red Sox behind, hoping to keep the deficit in check. The fact Valentine trusts his pitchers to get outs is likely a positive trait, but he's been too trusting, to the point of not even having backup plans warmed up in the pen. If the Red Sox are going to get along with a bullpen that's now missing Andrew Bailey and Melancon, Valentine is going to have to adapt his strategy to give the Red Sox the best chance to win each night. It's too early to say he can't, but he's making it hard for Red Sox fans to believe he will.