Was Bobby Valentine Disciplining Alfredo Aceves Last Night?

Alfredo Aceves #91 of the Boston Red Sox looks up at the scoreboard against the Minnesota Twins during the game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

When Boston's Bobby Valentine brought Alfredo Aceves back for a second inning on Tuesday night, was he trying to show the pitcher up? The evidence says no, but this sort of manager-pitcher tussle has happened before.

On Tuesday night, the Red Sox lost another game with erstwhile closer Alfredo Aceves on the mound, and Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk knows why:

With a 5-4 lead after seven innings, Valentine sent Alfredo Aceves out to earn a two-inning save against the Angels. Aceves got through the eighth unscathed, but he lost the game on an RBI single and a sac fly in the ninth ... If this were 1982, Valentine's handling of Aceves may have been pretty typical. But the fact of the matter is that hardly anyone is sent out for two-inning saves these days ... No, this was Valentine trying to show who's boss. Aceves thinks he deserves to close, so Valentine made him go prove it by giving him a more difficult assignment than any closer is asked to handle these days.

Let's not debate if the one-inning save is the optimal way to use a team's best reliever (it almost is certainly not), if the modern closer should feel his genitals shrivel when asked to pitch two innings (nope), or if Aceves, who up until this year was used as a swingman/multi-inning reliever, is incapable of pitching two innings. Rather, let's ask if it's possible that the manager was indeed trying to teach his reliever a lesson.

Valentine insisted that leaving Aceves, who had just been required to make his own way to California after a suspension for disciplinary reasons -- it was almost as if the Red Sox were expecting him to make it on foot in some baseball version of The Incredible Journey ("Can a dog, a cat, and a pitcher find their way home?") -- was just a matter of being short-handed. "There wasn't much choice," he said. "I don't know what else I could have done ... He was the only guy available to pitch."

Perhaps, but there is certainly ample precedent for a manager disciplining a pitcher by leaving him in to face adverse situations. In the 1930s, the Giants had a pitcher named Clyde "Slick" Castleman. Castleman would hardly be memorable except for the fact that his record contains an enduring mystery. If you look up his game-log from 1936, it contains this almost-inexplicable line:

Innings: 8
Hits: 18
Runs: 15

I said almost inexplicable. If you read the contemporary coverage, everyone at Crosley Field that June day knew that Giants manager Bill Terry was teaching Castleman some kind of lesson. They probably even knew why: perhaps a broken curfew, or some other infraction. In keeping with the more discrete sportswriting of the day, they didn't say so, but they did identify Terry's purposes. Castleman wasn't taking one for the team, he was taking it somewhere else for something he had done to annoy his manager.

My favorite example of this kind of revenge managing goes back even further, to the Yankees and the infamous Carl Mays, hurler of the pitch that caused the only on-field fatality in the history of the majors. Mays had a personality designed to agitate, and he had exacerbated this by (a) taking sides against manager Miller Huggins in a conflict with ownership, and (b) pitching in such a way in the 1921 World Series as to convince Huggins that he had been paid to throw the games.

Huggins hated Mays. "Any ballplayers that played for me on either the Cardinals or the Yankees could come to me if he were in need and I would give him a helping hand," he supposedly said toward the end of his life. "I made two exceptions, Carl Mays and Joe Bush. If they were in the gutter I'd kick them."

Nonetheless, Huggins couldn't touch Mays because he had the backing of one-half of a fractured ownership. However, in 1923 the ownership issues were resolved in Huggins' favor and he felt free to bury Mays. The four-time (to that point) 20-game winner remained on the Yankees roster, but he simply disappeared. Huggins wouldn't pitch him. When Mays confronted him in the clubhouse, Huggins said, "Why, Carl! Are you still with the team?" Finally, after highly sporadic relief work, Huggins gave Mays a start in Cleveland. Here is his line from that day:

Innings: 8
Hits: 20
Runs: 13

"He wanted work and I gave it to him," Huggins said after the game.

The Mays and Castleman cases are clear examples of a manager using his power to cow a pitcher. Tuesday’s Red Sox game is not quite so clear-cut. In an age in which closers pitch too little, other relievers have to pitch too much. That unbalanced workload, the result of holding one special pitcher to a few very special innings, throws unclaimed innings to lesser pitchers throughout the bullpen. Perhaps Aceves has pitched poorly enough that he should be considered one of those lesser pitchers, but that’s irrelevant. Having walked all the way from Boston (I’m just going to pretend that Incredible Journey thing actually happened), he was the only fresh pitcher in the pen.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist closers be held to one inning (and specialists to even less) and then fault managers for the distortions that result therefrom. Valentine is certainly culpable for many managerial crimes this season, but this was not one of them.

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