There is no disputing that the Red Sox have had a good business model since the current ownership group took over 10 years ago. The success on the field — 93 wins per season and a pair of World Series titles — is proof in the pudding. Ditto the sell-out streak at Fenway Park and emergence of “Red Sox Nation” as a well-established brand.
Is a segment of that model now being compromised, or even replaced?
With Theo Epstein and Terry Francona at the forefront, the Red Sox organization maintained a steady-as-she-goes focus. It was analytically-driven, collaborative, and relatively free of disharmony and theatrics. The brief departure of Epstein, in 2005 — allegedly triggered by a clash of wills with club president Larry Lucchino — was a notable exception. But if personality conflicts and philosophical disagreements existed beyond the gorilla-suit episode, they remained quietly in-house. That was part of the Red Sox model. Notably, it extended beyond the boardroom and into the manager‘s office: Francona was professional to a fault.
Things have changed. Francona is now gone. So is Epstein. The steady-as-she-goes focus? Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently put it this way:
“The Red Sox have become the George Steinbrenner Yankees, and now they have their Billy Martin, a combustible manager as likely to throw the organization into further chaos as he is to bring championship glory.”
Change is inevitable within baseball, and given the Red Sox historic September collapse, maintaining the status quo probably wasn’t a viable option. That said, just how much change is needed when you have one of the most talented, and best run, organizations in the game?
Successful businesses need to adapt, but they also need to trust their business model. If the model was built with due diligence, being reactionary and wavering from it due to an unexpected downturn — in this case a one-month swoon — is typically not a good idea. If the model is sound, it should be expected to bear fruit, and incur relatively few losses, over the long term.
Does the hiring of Bobby Valentine — especially if it was a Lucchino-driven decision — represent a remodeling?
Valentine was asked, during a November interview with the Boston media, how open he would be to day-to-day input from baseball ops regarding on-field decisions and lineups — a major concern of many who follow the team closely. Valentine said that he would welcome it, but also that it would be “a growth opportunity” as he “hadn’t lived it.” He went on to say, “I’ve been outside of the information age of baseball for the most part.”
Contrast that with Torey Lovullo, who also interviewed for the position. A regular reader of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, the low-key Lovullo answered the question by saying “The way I view the relationship between the manager and the front office is that we’re one.”
Can Valentine and the Red Sox front office — particularly Valentine and Cherington — form, and maintain, that type of relationship? Can they work together as effectively as Francona and Epstein did for so many years? Does the Red Sox model, as it exists today, expect them to do so?
Cherington was Epstein’s first lieutenant and shares many of his visions. Conversely, the volatile Valentine and low-key Francona are seemingly polar opposites.
In Thursday’s Boston Globe, Red Sox beat writer Peter Abraham wrote about a 2002 incident in which Valentine, then the manager of the New York Mets, played infielder Marco Scutaro in left field “to make a point” to GM Steve Phillips. Scutaro went on to misplay a ball, directly contributing to a Mets loss and adding fuel to the well-documented Valentine-Phillips feud. The incident came two years after Valentine criticized the organization, including several of his players, in a public forum.
Valentine had no shortage of controversy in New York, which he has had to address not only during the interview process, but also with the Boston media. To his credit, he has admitted a certain amount of culpability and said that he has learned from his mistakes. The question is — and only Valentine knows the answer for sure — is he sincere? Can a 61-year-old leopard, one known for having a big ego, change his spots? More importantly, does Red Sox ownership expect him to? Therein lies the million-dollar question:
Have the Red Sox altered what has been a highly-successful model? Has a steady-as-she-goes, analytically-driven, and collaborative approach been replaced by The George Steinbrenner Yankees? Is a franchise led by one of the world’s savviest businessmen, John Henry, guilty of a misguided business decision?
Henry, as one would expect, does not feel that is the case. Presented with the idea following Valentine’s press conference, he offered the following:
“Every manager has a different style, and we like the style Bobby has. Theo and Tito were both strong personalities; you just didn’t necessarily see it. We don’t really see this as a change of philosophy. We aren’t driven by just scouting, but also by metrics, and I don‘t see that changing.”
One thing that has undeniably changed is the battle-tested dynamic that existed between the manager and general manager. For that reason, only time will tell if the team’s principal owner was accurate in his assessment. Either way, there will be a lot of pressure on Bobby Valentine this season, and the burden of that pressure comes directly from the people who hired him. They’re the ones tinkering — whether Henry wants to admit it or not — with the model.
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