Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The case for Bobby V

The Blue Jays are hitting the home stretch in their exhaustive search for Cito Gaston's successor, with the announcement of a hire likely to come around the World Series.  Today comes a tweet from Bob Elliott of the Sun that Bobby Valentine is in the mix.  The former manager of the Rangers and Mets cuts a colorful figure, and former Jays/Mets/Yanks starter Al Leiter calls him "the most astute baseball mind I've been managed by," and "by far the most forward-thinking and innovative."

That ain't faint praise.

I've been pining from afar for Bobby V to come manage the Jays.  While I can definitely see the logic of continuity (promoting third-base/former bench coach Brian Butterfield, for example) or of adding a fresh face new to the MLB managerial ranks, I can't think of a better person to manage the team than Valentine.  Here's why.

1) His record of relative success:
Valentine owns a career W-L record of 1,117-1,072, and that's including some pretty bad Rangers teams.  The talent he managed in Texas was generally average, with a few stars like the latter-day Nolan Ryan, a young Rafael Palmiero, and Julio Franco.  When he got more stars and above-average talent in a higher-profile environment with the Mets, he led the team to 88 wins or more in his first four full seasons.  This included an NL Pennant and 94- and 97-win years.  He did all this while competing with the perennially tough Braves.  Valentine also overachieved during his managerial tenure in Japan, taking the historically bad Chiba Lotte Marines to a 2nd place finish.  My assessment: The record is respectable by any measure.
2) He takes pressure off of his players:
As a manager, Valentine is known for letting players play.  He respects their ability and self-discipline and doesn't hold grueling practices and meetings.  He will defend his players to the hilt, and he will even resort to a little nonsense, as when he famously returned to the dugout in disguise after getting tossed from a Mets game.  Toronto can be a demanding media environment; Valentine loves the media and will keep the press from hounding the players.  Vernon Wells, he of the contract which must not be mentioned, should be signing a petition to bring Bobby V into the clubhouse.

3) He's a cosmopolitan, and a very public figure:
I mean this with the utmost respect for Valentine's character and manhood - but Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, and he's a big-city kind of guy.  Leiter, in the above-quoted Wall Street Journal article,
remembers Mr. Valentine sitting in hotel lobbies, drinking tea and reading books—-an outlier in the insular culture of baseball. Because of Mr. Valentine's oddball personality, Mr. Leiter said he thought that some teams wanted to beat the Mets more because they were led by him.
Baseball acumen should be the number one consideration.  But that said, the Jays could use a personality (and one not so beholden to the team's glory days) to keep the media and the fans interested in a team that's had some difficulty at the gate.  This team barely registers on the radar of casual American fans.  It needs an identity to put it on par with the Red Sox and Yankees.  Valentine provides that.  Fan familiarity with his presence on ESPN shouldn't hurt, either.

3a) Culture and respect:
While Valentine won't have the draw of a Latino manager for  Caribbean and Central- and South American ballplayers, he has managed players from diverse backgrounds with success.  His familiarity with Japanese baseball could increase the allure of Toronto for Japanese ballplayers looking to score in the North American market.  That wouldn't hurt in a city with a huge Asian population and virtually no Asian ballplayers.

4) Forget about small ball:
A Japan Times profile notes that Valentine "shunned the use of the sacrifice bunt, a favorite tactic of nearly all Japanese managers, believing ... the sacrifice bunt [was] a waste of an out."

I like this very much.  The whole point in baseball is to not get out, and if Alex Anthopoulos values sabermetrics as much as we think he does, this should be a consideration when evaluating the candidates.

5) He has nothing to prove:
A young and/or new manager will be blazing a new path that will likely include lots of ups and downs.  For every Joe Girardi there's a Carlos Tosca, and even Girardi wore out his welcome quickly in a successful stint with the upstart Marlins.  Valentine would take the Jays job because he wants it, not because he has been fighting his way up the ladder.

6) Since when is experience a bad thing?
It's been fashionable (and successful) lately to pick from the Scioscia tree (Joe Maddon, Bud Black, current candidate Ron Roenicke). Plenty of managers have started with a blank slate and found success.  That said, this is not a team starting from the ground up.  It's a team with a lot of the pieces in place.  It's a team that needs a manager that gives his best players an opportunity to play (Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia: I'm looking in your direction!).  Valentine can be looked at as a guy who helped teams turn the corner quickly.  His body of work tells you exactly what he'll do, and that he's already learned a lot about the highs and lows of a 162-game season and a managerial position.

Valentine's eventually found himself in conflict with upper management for most teams he's managed.  That happens in most places in baseball, unless you're Bobby Cox.  Gaston had his detractors, too, and I join a lot of Jays bloggers who hated the way he handled young talent and played washed-up veterans.  While we respected his success and loved him for the job he did with the World Series teams, he left much to be desired.  It's time for a change.

There are going to be few candidates that satisfy everyone.  Valentine is a strong personality and a guy who sometimes sees things his way to a fault.  But he's also acknowledged from past experience that he doesn't want or need all the control in the world, which should jive nicely with Alex Anthopoulos' vision for the team.

There may be other very good candidates for the Jays, and I think Brian Butterfield deserves serious consideration.  He's a clubhouse favorite and displays all the signs of being a good teacher, but there will be inevitable growing pains with a first-time MLB manager.   This team should be on a shorter timeline for success than a new manager may be able to handle.

Alex Anthopoulos can hire whomever he wants, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt and fan support for having made some great decisions thus far.  But with the above thoughts in mind, I can't think of a better guy for the job than Bobby V.

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