Valentining Bobby Valentine, Victim of Three Biases

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays

Hindsight bias is bad, confirmation bias is worse, and naked bias is the worst of all. 2012 Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was the victim of all three with a vengeance during that disastrous Boston baseball season, and is still. I have been tempted to write about Bobby’s plight since last August, when the Red Sox management threw in the towel on the season and the long knives really came out in the Boston press corps. Now Valentine has been gone for six months, half the team has been replaced, and spring is dawning, yet hardly a day passes in which one of these ink-strained wretches  doesn’t take a pot-shot at the deposed manager, leaving the absolutely false impression that he could have done anything to forestall or mitigate the cataclysm that befell the Red Sox in 2012.

To  summarize the 2012 calamity briefly enough for those who don’t follow baseball and in enough detail to enlighten those who do, Valentine never had a chance. Inheriting a team that was already reeling from an inexplicable collapse in late 2011 that knocked it out of the play-offs on the last pitch of the season, he began 2013 with his bullpen in disarray due to an injury to the team’s closer in the dying breaths of spring training.  The team’s new set-up man, unhittable in the previous season with a different team, chose this critical period to essentially forget how to pitch, and as a result the Red Sox bullpen blew game after game in the late innings, triggering one of the worst team starts in memory. Then all of the four primary starting pitchers not only failed to reach their expected levels of performance, they out right stunk…for months, and for reasons raging from age to ennui to psychological collapse. Valentine, who was not allowed to name his own pitching coach, had to use the previously explosive bullpen early and often, and it performed extremely well, finally,.—but in games that were already lost. Then the injuries started, and never ended. The team’s super-star of the previous year, Jacoby Ellsbury, dislocated his shoulder, and was essentially lost for the year. All three starting outfielders were seriously injured and knocked out of the line-up, and so was the clean-up hitting third-baseman; worse, the Sox’s MVP second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, was injured and stayed in the line-up, leading to a mediocre season. Adrian Gonzalez, the supposed super-slugger whom the team was paying about 25 million dollars a year to hit 40+ homeruns and be near the lead leaders in on base percentage, stopped hitting home runs and getting on base, only recovering somewhat in both categories well after the season was doomed. Valentine somehow held the team near the .500 mark and one winning streak from play-off contention until late July, when both power-hitting rookie Will Middlebrooks and star DH David Ortiz went down for the season with injuries, right around the time the over-worked bullpen collapsed. The Red Sox then got a gift offer from the Dodgers that let them ship off Gonzalez, disappointing left fielder Carl Crawford and rapidly declining  pitching ace Josh Beckett and rid themselves of long-term contractual obligations approximately equal to the gross national product of Peru. The downside of that trade (now colloquially known in Beantown baseball circles as “the greatest trade ever”)  with almost two months left in the season, it was effectively over. With a depleted roster and a dispirited group of players, many of them veteran minor leaguers called up as injury replacements, the Red Sox lost 70% of their games from that point on, with Valentine periodically expressing his bitterness and frustration at the wreck of a campaign.

There was absolutely nothing Bobby Valentine, or any manager in the history of baseball for that matter, could have done to make last season successful.  That he was the convenient target of fan and media disappointment with the team’s second straight disaster is understandable, as is the fact that he had to be fired: this is what happens to the managers of teams with huge payrolls and high expectations that fail, no matter who is at fault. Valentine, a veteran of the game, certainly understands that. That a manager is accountable for a poor result is not in question, but for writers to misrepresent history and try to make the case that Valentine was blameworthy is unfair to the edge of libel.

Why are they doing this? As a group, baseball writers don’t like Bobby Valentine and never have. He’s cocky, arrogant, articulate, and, frankly, smarter than most writers, which they resent, and not hesitant about demonstrating it. Such individuals in all professions walk a professional tight-rope,  for they accumulate enemies rooting for them to fail. This was brilliantly evident when Valentine took over the Red Sox. Boston Globe Red Sox beat writer Pete Abraham, for example, spent the first two months of the season citing the team’s W-L record since the beginning of its September collapse of the previous year, making Valentine’s team look as if it was responsible for those losses as well as its own.

The baseball sportswriting establishment didn’t like Bobby: that was the bias. The team got off to a poor start for reasons unrelated to his management, but since the reporters disliked him, the failure were interpreted in print as proof of Valentine’s inadequacies: there was the confirmation bias. After disaster struck, the writers shifted to a completely fact-free narrative holding Valentine responsible for not being able to reach the play-offs with a crippled, depleted, over-payed, under-performing and disappointed group of players he didn’t recruit: that’s hindsight bias.

John Farrell, a fan favorite (he was previous manager Terry Francona’s right-hand man during the team’s glory days before 2011) is now managing the team: ironically, he had disappointed as the manager of another squad, the Toronto Blue Jays, suffering from far fewer disasters than the Red Sox. He is now perfectly poised to win Manager of the Year, since the 2013 Red Sox are deep and talented but still being assessed according last season’s wretched, injury-induced record.

Bobby Valentine might have worked wonders with such a team. Alas, he never had a fair opportunity, and now he stands as a model of how journalists  warp public perception and history through the power of the three biases.

I bet you can think of some other examples of what we will henceforth call the process of valentining.

Who else has been valentined?

9 thoughts on “Valentining Bobby Valentine, Victim of Three Biases

  1. If you’re saying Managers are treated by perception rather than reality, and it’s a popularity contest with reporters, you’re are 100% correct!

    Never liked Valentine as Mets manager, like him less when he backed out of the Marlin’s deal mid season causing major backpedaling by management, and was happy that the Red Sox failed under his management…There is just something unlikeable about the way he projects.

    Lebron James was mercilessly bombarded by the press for his 7 years in Cleveland and first 2 years with the Heat, for essentially being unable to win a championship, even though his personal performance and behavior was top notch.. Now everyone wants a seat on the Lebron bandwagon… for now.

    • I’d say that most of Miami Heat’s coverage from the two years before this year was Valentining. The writers didn’t like that star players that were friends took less than market money to play together. The media likes to talk about winners, rave about players who work hard, and lambaste good players who don’t look like they’re trying, but when the players themselves actually took some control to make winning happen? That was seen as wrong somehow.

  2. It’s not a hindsight bias when everyone knew the day Bobby was hired that the year was about to be a disaster. A much better Boston sports manager once said “You are what your record says you are.” And the record last year speaks volumes about Bobby’s “leadership.” Good riddance!

    • It’s hard to begin to describe what an absurd comment this is. “Everybody” knew, so in self-fulfilling prophesy, undermined the guy from the beginning. Everybody knew, did they, that the Left-fielder would be injured and useless, the the centerfielder and MVP runnier-up would be lost in the first week, that all three aces would have career worst years, that the closer would go down, the Bard and Melancon would implode, that Ortiz and Middlebrooks would be lost for good before August? You knew that? Really? Or are you saying that being robbed of his starters, his closer, his set-up men, his best sluggers and depth were immaterial, and Valentine wouldn’t have had just as successful a season if these high -priced stars actually played up to their expectations? The former is incredible, and the latter is just stupid.

      • That statement mistakes responsibility for blame. Any leader is responsible for success of failure. A leader who has to deal with overwhelming problems not of his own making and that were neither known nor anticipated when the job commenced cannot be blamed for the record, only whether he or she maximized the latter under the circumstances.

        Tim’s comment was so silly I didn’t even pay attention to the Parcells quote. Tim believes that the pilot of a plane that crashed because the wing falls off is a bad pilot. That is the cretinous reasoning.

        • I don’t see a problem with Parcells’ quote. The team as a whole takes responsibility for the team’s record. If your record is 4-12, then the sum of your coaching and playing was 4-12. Maybe you could have been 12-4, but you weren’t. You’re 4-12.

          It wasn’t about splitting up blame or responsibility amongst the various components of the team; it was a statement about the team as a whole.

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