What is Bobby Valentine trying to do here?
My answer to a question that is certain to be asked time and again about the enigmatic and contradictory Red Sox manager is this:
I have no idea. I don't. Not a concrete clue.
I've tried to find one. I've rattled it around in my skull for more than 24 hours, and I still can't grasp why he felt the urge to spit forth the following comment in an interview with Joe Amorosino of Channel 7 Sunday regarding struggling third baseman Kevin Youkilis:
"I don't think he's as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.''
The best I came up with is these two possibilities. Perhaps he can't help but be candid to the point of self-detriment and beyond that, doesn't have the internal alarm that blares, "You shouldn't have said that! Backtrack! Backtrack!" whenever we say something that doesn't come out quite as intended.
(Possible real-life example: "Whoa, you look way better in those yoga pants than in the usual pants you wear, dear.")
Or perhaps it came out exactly as he intended, and it was was a calculated attempt to light a fire under the struggling third baseman, though Youkilis had been 6 for his last 18 after a brutal start.
If one those theories was his intention, I couldn't tell you which one. The comments section is open for other theories, because the way I figure it, the most far-out conspiracy won't be any more foolish than the manager's comments. Valentine is guilty of curious tactics, but the man's motives remain a mystery.
Valentine is 62 years old. He has been in professional baseball in some capacity for more than 40 years. He must have learned a long time ago, presumably in his early days in the model Dodgers organization, that you do not publicly question a player's commitment or effort casually. That probably applies even more to a veteran player 10 games into a new season whom you happen to managing for the first time.
It's fair to wonder whether Kevin Youkilis is in his decline phase. He's 33 years old and throws his body around like baseball is a contact sport. He's endured one injury after another the past two seasons (including an apparently minor groin injury currently), and his slow start is part of more troubling trend.
He hit .197 from Aug. 1 on last year, and .195 without a home run in 41 at-bats this spring. He hasn't been a productive hitter since last July, let alone a middle-of-the-order masher. Maybe Valentine recognizes something in him that some of us either haven't seen or aren't ready to admit. That's possible.
But to call out Youkilis's commitment is reckless and counterproductive. Only the most gifted players make the major leagues without extraordinary dedication, let alone stick around for a substantial career. And in terms of pure gifts, Youkilis has to be near the bottom of the roster in that regard. Ryan Sweeney looks the part, but Youkilis plays it, a star at his peak, and largely self-made.
Whether it's his patience at the plate the first put him on the prospect radar, or the work ethic that reshaped his body and helped him exceed even the most optimistic projections for what he would become, it's fair to presume that there are few players on the Red Sox, and perhaps in the entire Major Leagues, who have worked harder at their craft than Youkilis.
The only good that can come from Valentine's words is if Youkilis suddenly goes on a tear and it's somehow perceived as cause and effect. And even that won't balance out the negative aspects. Ticking off de facto captain Dustin Pedroia, one player who is not going to lose a battle of public perception, is a fine way for Valentine to undermine himself. And his habit of "who, me?" backtracking and even apologizing after one of his comments blows up doesn't exactly ring of sincerity. For a smart guy, he sure plays the naive card a lot.
If Valentine really is issuing silly little tests and playing mind games, I dare submit that they're actually affecting his in-game managing as well. Let me ask you this: Why, in his right mind, would he leave a clearly gassed Daniel Bard out there to walk three straight batters in the seventh inning Monday? Heck, just a few days earlier, the Dodgers relieved reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning after he'd walked three straight.
Bard, who was essentially throwing like Kent Tekulve when he walked Evan Longoria to plate the game's only run, threw 111 pitches, 15 more than his previous career high, set in his first start this season. His previous high before that was 38 -- set in his major league debut on May 13, 2009. And yet Valentine pulls a Grady on him in his second start.
Why'd he do it? My hunch is that the manager left him out there because following his first start, Bard said he would have liked to have the opportunity to work his way out a jam. Instead he was relieved. Valentine gave him no relief this time, instead teaching him a lesson at the expense of victory.
That's my theory, anyway. Ten games into the season with this guy, and piecing together theories out of the contradictions is the best we can do. Better get used to it, I guess.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.