Bobby Valentine failed from the start.
NEW YORK -- Before his final game as the Boston Red Sox manager Wednesday, Bobby Valentine walked around the field during batting practice to speak to each of his players, starting at third base and moving to shortstop and eventually making his way to the outfield. He offered handshakes and hugs in what they all certainly understood was a goodbye.
It may have been his best moment with the Red Sox, and it's unfortunate that it came at the very end, long after his future as manager had been decided. Typically, Valentine had mitigated any good feelings earlier in the day by saying on radio that his coaches undermined him -- an honest answer and completely unnecessary and senseless, because it changed nothing other than to slime people who could be looking for jobs in the days ahead.
We can all wonder why Valentine would say what he said, and join the legions of employees in the Red Sox organization -- those in uniform and those out of uniform -- who have asked the same question time and again, since the very first days of spring training. That's when Valentine's tenure as an effective leader of this team ended just as it began, on a practice field at the team's spring training facility.
The Red Sox players had not been happy about the hiring of Valentine, who had a reputation of being exceedingly critical, and as he took over the job, that was a perception he had to work against.
He's not the first, however. Terry Collins was known for an explosive intensity before he was picked as manager of the Mets. He worked hard to adjust -- and as he tempered that part of his personality, the players responded to him, with respect and hard play. Buck Showalter had a reputation among players as an overbearing manager, someone who was difficult to play for, and now the Orioles swear by him, deeply respecting his preparation and loving his humor and love for the game.
Valentine is very smart and, like Collins and Showalter, has a bottomless passion for baseball; maybe, if everything had played out differently, the players would have come to see that. Instead, right away, Valentine reinforced their preconceived notions.
According to sources within the organization, Valentine had asked for a change in the way cutoff plays were run, and when he walked onto a field early in spring training, what he saw almost immediately was that shortstop Mike Aviles was not where he wanted him. Valentine loudly and profanely questioned Aviles' aptitude, others in the organization say. What Valentine did not know at that moment was that the Red Sox players hadn't yet been instructed on where to go in the new cutoff alignment.
Aviles is highly respected, a grinder, and other players were bothered enough by the exchange that three leaders on the team -- Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez -- went to Valentine to express concern and provide context for Aviles' mistake. Gonzalez, sources say, asked Valentine that if he wanted to get on a player verbally, the first baseman would be OK with being a target, because he could take it.
It was a moment that others in the organization now look back on as a crossroad in Valentine's year as manager, because in that instant, he could have gone one of two ways.
He could have listened to the players, embraced what they were saying, called a team meeting the next day and built on the incident. He could have apologized to Aviles and then told all of them, in so many words, Mike, you should know that these three guys over here -- Ortiz, Pedroia and Gonzalez -- have your back and are really good teammates, and that's a great thing. And I'm really feeling good about what we have in this room.
"But it didn't go that way," a member of the organization said.
Valentine did express regret to Aviles. But the players perceived Valentine as being miffed by the situation, as if the players had overreacted to something he believed was innocuous. The players perceived that Valentine thought his authority was being challenged.
Right away, this incident badly damaged the fragile connection between him and the players, and was probably destroyed once and for all by his comments about Kevin Youkilis in April. At the time, Valentine didn't believe his remarks were all that meaningful, and were taken the wrong way by players.
But Pedroia responded forcefully, with words that were designed to support a teammate but effectively ended any chance Valentine could repair his relationship with his clubhouse, because the words defined the wall that existed: "I know Youk plays as hard as anyone I've ever seen in my life and I have his back and his teammates have his back ... I don't really understand what Bobby's trying to do, but that's not the way we go about our stuff around here. I'm sure he'll figure that out soon ... Maybe in Japan or something, but over here in the U.S. we're on a three-game winning streak and we want to feel good and keep it rolling."
It all went downhill from there, through Boston's joyless season, with stories of dysfunction and feuds reaching other clubhouses, like daily reviews of a Kardashian reality show.
In speaking with reporters Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, Valentine indicated he had two regrets from the season -- first, his comments about Youkilis, and second, how he hadn't gotten a handle on the team's bullpen issues in a more timely fashion. There were several instances in which he spoke in the past tense, tellingly.
Then Valentine reached out to his players, for the last time, connecting with them on the field. It was too little and far too late.
Valentine says being the Red Sox manager has been a great life experience, writes Brian MacPherson. For the Red Sox, the 2012 season is a wrap, writes Dan Shaughnessy.
The Red Sox again will ask about the availability of Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell. The last days of the Blue Jays' season have been brutal, with the players talking about the lack of leadership.
Ben Cherington took responsibility for what happened.
• Ozzie Guillen's time in Miami may end quickly, as well; the Marlins have been aggressively searching for a replacement for him.
Dave Hyde writes: Will Jeff Loria save the Marlins from himself? Ozzie's lone regret: His Castro comment. Greg Stoda thinks the Marlins should keep Ozzie.
• During one of the first days that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were teammates, back in spring training, Cabrera got into the batting cage and with swing after swing, he blasted line drives to right-center field. Fielder, an accomplished All-Star, watched in amazement. When batting practice ended, Fielder walked over to Cabrera and asked him -- sounding like a fan more than a peer, filled with awe -- "How do you do what you do?"
This is how Cabrera is viewed within the sport, never more than now, when Cabrera is the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown.
What a great response the Royals' fans gave to Cabrera. Cabrera has earned his crown, writes Drew Sharp. He is a perfect fit, writes Bob Wojnowski.
• Mike Trout is a tough act to follow.
• As our colleague Orel Hershiser said, watching the Oakland Athletics is like watching a college team, in how much fun they have and how cohesive they are. They have won 68 of their past 101 games, and the end to their season was classic A's, writes Susan Slusser.
The A's are baseball's version of Bigfoot, writes Scott Ostler. They answered all doubts, writes Mark Purdy.
The Rangers' collapse is complete, and now, they'll have to take the road through the wild-card game. Josh Hamilton talked about the fly ball he dropped. Yu Darvish will start the wild-card game against the Baltimore Orioles.
The Rangers lost seven of their last nine games to finish the regular season second in the AL West.
From Elias Sports Bureau: The Rangers spent the most days in first place (178) without winning the division title during the divisional era (since 1969). The '09 Tigers are second with 164, followed by the '07 Mets with 159.
• The Orioles weren't able to win a home game in the Division Series. The Orioles weren't able to put together some magic at the end, writes Peter Schmuck.
• The New York Yankees are rolling into the playoffs, as healthy as they've been all season, with CC Sabathia throwing well and Robinson Cano crushing the ball -- he's got 24 hits in nine games. The Yankees are a very dangerous team right now because of the way their lineup has come together.
The bubbly never gets old for the Yankees -- like Derek Jeter, writes Filip Bondy. The Yankees showed grit, writes Joel Sherman.
• The St. Louis Cardinals have no need to apologize after grinding their way into the postseason, writes Bernie Miklasz. The Cardinals celebrated their clincher.
• Rush hour will be really crazy in Atlanta Friday, as David O'Brien writes.
• The Washington Nationals locked up the No. 1 seed in the NL, writes Adam Kilgore. Davey Johnson felt numbness in his leg.
• The San Francisco Giants are facing Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds. Buster Posey won the batting title.
The Reds finished with 97 wins.
From ESPN Stats and Info, some notes on the season:
• Jeter is the second-oldest player to lead the majors in hits and sixth-oldest with 200-plus hits in a season.
• Bryce Harper's 22 homers are the second-most in a season by a teenager (Tony Conigliaro had 24 in 1964).
• Adam Dunn's 222 strikeouts are the most in AL history and second-most in MLB history.
• R.A. Dickey (20-6) is the first knuckleballer with 20 wins since Joe Niekro in 1980 and first Mets pitcher since Frank Viola in 1990.
• Cliff Lee is the first pitcher in the modern era to strike out 200-plus batters and have six or fewer wins in a season (Elias).
• Gio Gonzalez (21-
sets the Nationals/Expos franchise record in wins.
• Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are the first teammates to finish 1-2 in the majors in strikeouts since Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in 2003.
• Jim Johnson's 51 saves are tied for third in AL history and an Orioles' record.
• Craig Kimbrel's 16.7 K per 9 innings is the highest in MLB history (min. 50 IP).
• Fernando Rodney's 0.60 ERA is the lowest in MLB history (min. 50 IP).
• Boston's .436 winning percentage is the club's lowest since 1965.
• The Pirates had their 20th consecutive losing season (longest streak ever among the four major sports).
• The Phillies finish the season with a non-winning record for first time since 2002.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. As Terry Francona gets interviewed by the Cleveland Indians, his personal relationship with the folks in that organization -- Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro, specifically -- is a significant factor. After years in Boston working for owners with whom he was not close, Francona may get the opportunity to work with people he really knows well.
Will Francona go to an organization that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors for years to come? Will the Indians pay him a salary suitable for someone who was among the best-paid managers in the game? We'll see.
Sandy Alomar, Jr. will have his interview today.
2. The Blue Jays say they're prepared to overpay. We've heard this time and again, and over and over, their club ownership has pulled the proverbial rug from underneath the front office. The club ownership has been miserly, writes Cathal Kelly.
3. The New York Mets are limited by their budget.
4. The Chicago Cubs fired their third-base coach.
5. The Phillies fired some coaches, and there are more changes coming, writes Bob Brookover. Sam Perlozzo said goodbye.
Dings and dents
1. Matt Kemp is having surgery.
2. Troy Tulowitzki knows he needs to get stronger.
• The Indians had a terrible finish to what was a very frustrating season.
• The Chicago White Sox are set to address offseason questions. The White Sox will seek more ways to draw fans.
• The Twins' attention now turns to offseason fixes.
• Jered Weaver lasted only an inning in his final start. The Angels were hurt by their bullpen, writes Mark Whicker. Jerry Dipoto gets a pass this time around, writes Jeff Miller.
• Geoff Baker assesses the progress of the Seattle Mariners. Eric Wedge thinks the Mariners will get better.
• Shelby Miller shined in his first big league start.
• The Houston Astros are headed for a time of drastic changes. Houston finished 55-107, writes Zachary Levine.
• Bryan LaHair's season finished in a great way.
• The Pittsburgh Pirates lost their final game in a frustrating season. It was a sad ending, writes Joe Starkey.
• Justin Upton very likely will be back with the team, says their chief executive. Ken Kendrick says Upton makes the D-Backs go.
• The Colorado Rockies finished their worst season, as Troy Renck writes.
• Chase Headley won the RBI title.
By The Numbers
From ESPN Stats and Info
5: Hits for the Orioles in their final two games of the season combined.
6: Home runs in four career season finales for Evan Longoria (DNP in 2010 finale).
9: Consecutive multi-hit games to end the season for Robinson Cano, the longest multi-hit streak in the majors this season.
10: Different players to win the Triple Crown since 1920 (when runs batted in became official), inluding Cabrera this season.
25: Home runs for Ryan Zimmerman, the third time he's reached that number in the past four seasons.
42: Saves for Craig Kimbrel, tied for first in the NL for the second straight year. He's the first pitcher in Braves history with multiple seasons leading the league in saves.
Top 10 pitchers in the playoffs.
A number of the best starting pitchers in baseball this year, including Cy Young contenders R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Felix Hernandez, won't be pitching in the postseason, but we still have plenty of top arms to watch among the 10 teams who did qualify for the big dance. Here, in reverse order, are the top 10 starting pitchers on postseason rosters, based on how they might perform this month.
10. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants
I might have had Bumgarner higher on the list if he weren't showing possible signs of fatigue with a late-season fade this year, a surprising end to a season in which he appeared to be taking another leap forward into possible Cy Young contention. Earlier in the year, his fastball was maybe a mile an hour faster, but it also was coming out of his hand more easily and was harder for hitters to pick up. His slider had a little more tilt and a little more velocity as well.
Over his past seven starts, he has looked tired, losing some velocity and bite on the breaking ball, with results to match (5.89 ERA in that span). But he's also going to get eight days of rest before his first playoff appearance, and because he insists nothing is seriously wrong, that extra rest could be enough to get us a glimpse of the dominant pitcher Bumgarner, helped by that low slot and long arm action, was for the first two-thirds of the season.
9. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Cueto emerged as the Reds' ace this year, reaching career highs in starts, innings and strikeouts with largely the same repertoire he used in the previous two years. His fastball command was better, as was his overall control, and he's using his cutter slightly more often to keep hitters from sitting on the hard -- but often straight -- fastball. He can be hard for hitters to pick up and the possibility that he'll throw any of four pitches -- excluding the curveball, which he rarely uses -- in any count helps add to the value of the deception in his delivery.
8. Max Scherzer, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Scherzer led the American League in strikeout rate this year by fanning 29.6 percent of batters, and actually struck out a higher percentage of non-pitchers than the major league leader in strikeout rate, Stephen Strasburg. Scherzer has come a long way since he was in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system and looked like he'd end up in the bullpen because his delivery was so violent that he sometimes couldn't see the plate when he released the ball. He's cleaner now, throwing more strikes, setting hitters up with the best velocity he has shown as a starter and finishing them with the slider. Other than his teammate Justin Verlander, he's the most likely pitcher on this list to have a dominant start this month where he punches out a dozen or so batters.
7. Adam Wainwright, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
I'm still stunned that Wainwright, just a year off Tommy John surgery, threw 198 innings this year at a pretty high level. That's not quite what we're accustomed to from him, but not that far off either, especially if you believe his high BABIP this year was a function of bad luck or lack of defensive support. The best news for the Cardinals, and the reason I've got him stuffed on this list, is that big, beautiful curveball of his, a pitch I worried he might leave on the operating table. It's still his out pitch and it's still among the best in the majors. I wonder if he and teammate Carlos Beltran ever talk about that pitch. Probably not. Might be awkward.
6. Kris Medlen, RHP, Atlanta Braves
I'll admit to punting slightly on Medlen; you could make a strong case I have him too high, or too low, but I don't think you could make a strong case that I should have omitted him. Medlen has been pitching like an ace the past few months thanks to plus command of three pitches, including an out-pitch changeup that FanGraphs' pitch run values rated as the most valuable in the National League this year. Medlen's curveball was sharper this year, with better depth even than it had prior to his Tommy John surgery, and because Atlanta vacillated on his role and kept him in the bullpen early in the year, they have the good fortune to have Medlen fairly fresh heading into October.
5. CC Sabathia, LHP, New York Yankees
Sabathia's season was interrupted by two DL stints, including a minor elbow injury that may explain why his stuff was a little shorter this year. That said, his stuff is still better than most left-handers around the game, but not as hard or dominant as Sabathia's stuff was just a year ago, when he was nearly as good as Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. The slider is filthy, with big tilt and a late downward break that has even right-handed hitters swinging over the top, and the changeup remains extremely effective as hitters don't pick it up. But everything is down a tick this year, which may not matter that much in October but has to concern the Yankees a little bit going forward.
4. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Washington Nationals
When Gio is around the plate, which has been true more often than not this year, he's incredibly tough to hit, and he has also shown me (and Nats fans) that he's capable of being more aggressive and competitive than he was a few years ago when he first reached the majors. What impressed me most about Gio this season, however, was his ability to get outs with his fastball -- swings and misses, called strikes, and even weaker-than-expected contact.
He has had the sharp curveball for years and an adequate changeup, but the fastball coming in a little harder along with improved location around the zone made him a much better pitcher overall. And if you're wondering where I would have put Strasburg on this list, he would have been No. 2. I'm sure having two of the top four starters among all playoff teams wouldn't help your odds of winning a postseason series at all.
3. Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
Darvish has remade himself a little bit as a pitcher over the course of his one full season here in MLB, improving his command and control while shifting his repertoire to feature his cutter more. Since his last high-walk start on Aug. 12, Darvish made seven more starts, never walking more than two batters, punching out 59 in 53 innings with a 2.13 ERA. He can get hitters out with multiple pitches, including a slow curveball he throws for strikes, a fastball up to 96, and a hard true slider that is actually his best swing-and-miss pitch, but if the cutter makes him more able to set everything else up, let's go with it.
2. Matt Cain, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Cain often ends up underrated by advanced metrics that cast a somewhat skeptical eye on his ability to limit hits on balls in play and, in particular, to succeed as a fly ball pitcher who's not homer-prone. He does pitch up in the zone with a fastball that appears to "explode" but never sinks. That's largely an illusion, I'm sure, but one borne out in a way in the resulting statistics: hitters hit the ball in the air, but only rarely square it up well enough to drive it out. Yet traditionalists have similarly underrated Cain because of middling won-lost records or because they lost sight of him behind Tim Lincecum earlier in his career. Cain will work with all four pitches and actually mixed in more off-speed stuff this year, especially his short mid-80s slider, missing more bats than ever even while posting a career-low walk rate.
1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Verlander seems almost inhuman with his ability to hold upper-90s velocity through 120 pitches, touching triple digits late in those outings sometimes, while he can also get hitters out with any of this three off-speed pitches, including a changeup that you think hitters would welcome (just for a respite from the heat) but still seem to flail at when he deigns to throw it.
He has been absurdly durable, his arm works great, he repeats his delivery, he throws strikes and he can beat you pretty much any way he wants to. He was the best pitcher in the American League this year, and he was just as indispensable to the Tigers' division crown as the rather well-publicized Miguel Cabrera. If I could pick any starter in baseball to pitch in a one-game playoff for me today, it would be Verlander.
Reds now the team to beat.
The last week of the 2012 season will go down in history as a particularly stressful time in the American League. We're less than 48 hours from the end of the end of the regular season, the divisional crown is still yet to be awarded in the East and West divisions and the Detroit Tigers took until the 160th game to put away the Chicago White Sox. In the Senior Circuit, the Cincinnati Reds had a comparatively easy time, clinching the division title more than a week ago, guaranteeing Cincinnati a spot in the division series.
With the NL Central not being truly up for grabs since the beginning of August, the Reds haven't had much to play for other than playoff seeding and personal pride, the equivalent of putting your feet up by the fireplace compared to the bedlam in the AL.
If we're looking ahead to the playoffs, does one method of making the postseason bode better than the other? Unusual in baseball's mythology is that there are two opposite bits of conventional wisdom on the subject. Some believe that the fire resulting from a successful pennant fight forges the strongest steel and avoids complacency and rust. Others believe that the extra time to recover from the inevitable bumps and bruises of the long season is a team's best weapon. So which is it, if either?
To answer this, I went back through every playoff game to estimate the expected winning percentage for every team in every game, all the way back to the first official baseball playoffs of 1903. The National League and American Association did play a series of informal postseason games in the 19th century, but they were the equivalent of casual barnstorming, so we won't include them.
To estimate a team's expected winning percentage going into each game, I calculated the average of the team's actual win-loss record and the team's Pythagorean win-loss record. The reason I used this method is that it works -- the best predictor, historically, of a team's eventual playoff win-loss record treats the yearly actual and Pythag winning percentages equally. Technically, it's 50.1% Pythag, 49.9% actual, but what's a thousandth between friends?
I then looked at all teams that made the playoffs by an eight-game margin or more, all teams that didn't play any crucial games in the closing days of the season as a result. Based on the games they played in the playoffs, using the expected winning percentage and the odds ratio, you'd expect those winning teams to have a .516 winning percentage in their playoff games against their actual opponents. They actually managed a .542 winning percentage. This may sound like a rather small amount, but it really isn't -- it's actually a bigger boost than home-field advantage cumulatively provides over the course of an entire series. (For the math-friendly, it's a large enough improvement that we can reject the null hypothesis that there is no effect at the 95-percent confidence level.)
On the other end, I looked at teams that made the playoffs by fewer than five games. Their actual playoff winning percentage of .483 fell short of their expected winning percentage of .493. Again, a small, but real margin when we're talking about more than 600 playoff games involving these teams.
That raises the possibility that good teams are simply breaking the odds ratio, but upon checking that, I found it not to be the case. When you consider only teams with similar winning percentages, the teams that had the easier road to the playoffs consistently outperformed the ones with the rockier roads.
With the least stressful path to the postseason, the Reds, already a serious contender, get that little extra boost to their playoff chances. How often does a team have the luxury of playing conservatively with the health of their best player (Joey Votto) during a stretch drive? The Reds enter the playoff season well rested, with a deep bullpen, and essentially the entire roster that got them where they are today healthy and in attendance. You can't say quite the same for the Giants, who are still weaker without their best hitter this year, Melky Cabrera -- they still played well, but it's highly misleading to look at the record in isolation to evaluate Melky's performance -- or the Nationals, who lost Stephen Strasburg to their self-imposed innings limit.
In the end, a small advantage is just that: a small advantage. But with the best teams in baseball very evenly matched, an additional small advantage is extremely valuable. Through baseball history, 44 percent of playoff series have been decided in the final game, so anything that benefits your team to the tune of an extra win, an extra run, or even an extra hit is a pretty big deal. Just ask the 1986 Red Sox what one more good play at the right time would've done.
Neither the Reds nor the other two NL division winners, the Nationals and the Giants, should start selling their championship hats and T-shirts quite yet, but every game the AL's best spend beating up each other makes the World Series championship staying in the NL for the third straight year (last time was 1981) a little bit more likely.