Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tony LaRussa: The Most Overrated Shaky Manager in Baseball
By Blogger

Much thanks to Zach for the intro. I hope to live up to it...

One of the problems with analyzing baseball managers has to do with what I like to think of as the Joe Torre Conundrum. Despite everything a manager may do to give his opposition chances to win, his team can still prevail and, thus, we feel we must defer to success and declare that the evidence indicates that the manager is good at his job. Joe Torre uses his relievers in ridiculous doses and at ridiculous times, but Mariano Rivera has always been so good, and the Yankees have otherwise been so talented, that it's been covered up. Is Joe Torre a good manager? The won-loss record says so, as does anecdotal evidence from his players. However, who is going to bitch and moan about Joe Torre, the man with four World Series rings? Only recently, once it became clear the Yankees were a vulnerable and flawed team, did players on the way out the door start slinging mud in Torre's direction. They were deferring to success. Once the success disappeared, so did the deference.

So, now we turn to one Anthony LaRussa, Jr. He's won eleven division titles, made it to the World Series four times so far, and won the whole thing once. Two prominent books have focused on him and his beliefs about baseball. I think it's fair to say that he's widely regarded as one of the most refined baseball minds around. However, no manager gets as much love as he does while displaying such a poor grasp of in-game strategy and foresight. The power of charisma is a dangerous thing, people. I'm almost willing to argue that LaRussa will cost the Cardinals a trip to the Series this year. I'll get to that in a bit.

But first, a story about watching the 2005 Cardinals play... In July, my dad took me to southern California for a weeklong road trip. While there, we made sure to get a look at Petco Park. The Padres were playing the Cardinals that night, so we were excited to see some good ball. Jason Marquis and Jake Peavy didn't disappoint, each giving up only one run early and pitching strong into the late innings. However, LaRussa's shakiness showed up in a succession of puzzling moves and non-moves late in the game. In the top of the 8th, with Peavy still on the mound, Abraham Nunez led off with a walk. Mike Mahoney, the Cards' eighth place hitter, sacrificed him to second. With Marquis's spot up next, it seemed a foregone conclusion that a pinch hitter would step to the plate, and LaRussa would hand the game over to the bullpen. I mean, why sacrifice if you're going to leave your pitcher in the game to hit, right? Instead, Marquis ambled into the batter's box, I told my dad this move would come back to haunt them, and Marquis promptly grounded out to first. Granted, Nunez moved to third on the play, but Marquis may as well have struck out for all the good that did. David Eckstein then struck out to end the inning. In the bottom of the 8th, Marquis mowed down the Pads 1-2-3. In the top of the 9th, Trevor Hoffman set down the Cards without much trouble. In the 9th, having thrown well over 100 pitches, I figured Marquis was done, but there he was, still out on the mound, with the Padres 3-4-5 hitters coming up. Brian Giles popped out. Marquis still in. Ryan Klesko doubled. Marquis still in. Joe Randa was intentionally walked. Marquis still in. Robert Fick lined one into right center. You stay classy, San Diego. Jason Marquis: 132 pitches and the L.

The LaRussa apologist might argue that Marquis was hitting over .350 at the start of the game, so letting him hit as opposed to the AAAA players on the injury-depleted bench was a reasonable risk. However, the fact remains that Marquis is a pitcher. He was not in the game for his bat, and there was no way LaRussa should have trusted him to hit in that high-leverage situation. Both So Taguchi and Hector Luna substituted into the game later, and either would have been preferable to having Marquis swing away. After that inning, Marquis gave LaRussa another chance for redemption by getting through the 8th without issue. Had LaRussa removed him to start the 9th, hardly anybody would have questioned him. Instead, he didn't even have anyone warming up, and let Marquis lose the game while pitching on fumes.

What this one-game observation illustrates is LaRussa's propensity for index card management. He and pitching coach Dave Duncan are known for having an information-intensive approach to the game. However, according to various accounts, including Will's book, information-intensive for LaRussa partly means keeping surface-level statistical information on index cards that he consults before games. In other words, "Marquis is hitting .350." Let him hit! Never mind that he ended up with 87(!) at bats on the year and couldn't have had more than 50 in July. The point is that statistics are malleable and can be twisted to serve purposes more precise or more applicable statistics would combat.

Which brings us to Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. Chris Carpenter was on the mound in the 7th inning, having held the Astros to one run that far. The thing about playoff baseball that makes it different from regular season baseball is in how managers handle their pitching staffs. Because teams have to play no more than three days in a row, they switch to four-man rotations (instead of five), and have the option of using relievers more liberally, knowing that an off day is never far away. Tony LaRussa must have been watching Ozzie Guillen's White Sox and not realized that the bullpen never came into play because the Sox starters never actually struggled. The Sox bullpen would get busy, figuring they'd better be ready to jump into the action, but trouble never materialized. Back to the NL... since Game 5 was do-or-die for St. Louis, and if they won they'd have an off day before coming back to Busch Stadium for Game 6, one would expect a manager with boundless baseball wisdom to throw everything he had into winning Game 5. EVERYTHING AT HIS DISPOSAL. Instead, when Chris Carpenter ran into trouble in the 7th, with runners on first and third and one out, when any manager worth his salt would have had bullpen help ready, perhaps even starters getting warm, Carpenter was left by his lonesome. Any manager who knows what he's doing would have turned Berkman around to his significantly weaker side in such a crucial at-bat. I was screaming at him to remove Carpenter and his 107 pitches. I called Liz, my Cardinal fan friend, hoping to get her on the Fire LaRussa bandwagon when the wheels would predictably come flying off. I couldn't reach her, and I hung up as the ball popped into the second row of the left field seats and the crowd exploded. She called me after the game, and I sheepishly explained why I'd called. She didn't care; she was happy. LaRussa owes Pujols a beer or two. Cripes, I can't get over how mind-numbingly idiotic his handling of the bullpen was.

It's not Grady Little. It's not even Dusty Baker. It's Tony LaRussa. He's been doing it for years, and his teams have rarely been bad. While he'd have you believe he has a strong hand in his teams' successes, I'd argue that Sandy Alderson and Walt Jocketty have far stronger claims to credit. The man has seduced two different writers, George F. Will and Buzz Bissinger. He has convinced a good deal of the country that even with Edmonds, Pujols, and Rolen striking fear in the hearts of pitchers everywhere, the team wins because of The Fundamentals(tm) and Doing The Little Things(tm). He has a reputation of being a winner, but he's never won anything without a FANTASTIC roster. The 1989 Athletics, with the confluence of Rickey, Jose, McGwire, Stewart, and Eckersley, was a team for the ages that had the good fortune of facing a relatively cream puff NL Champ. The 2004 Cardinals had one of the scariest offenses in recent memory. Put it this way: has a LaRussa team ever actually surprised anyone? The 1983 Chicago team finished third the year before. The 1987 A's had the stink of underachievement and youth yet to mature about them, so 1988 wasn't exactly unexpected. The 1996 Cardinals were a reloaded team that was very different from the one that had finished fourth the year before. Compare to Bobby Cox, who, despite playoff disappointment after disappointment, has made a habit of exceeding expectations by molding his teams into winners with Post-Its and Silly Putty.

A prediction... When the Cards get bounced by Roy Oswalt's gem in Game 6, look for LaRussa's postgame lament that the Astros simply executed better, made their pitches, and got hits when they needed them. Don't expect a mea culpa on leaving Mulder in to face Biggio with runners on first and second and nobody out in the 6th. The index card said he was 0-14 lifetime against Mulder.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can say all you want, but the LaRussa has brought this team into the world series. Whatever about predictions.

12:47 AM  

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