Thursday, November 02, 2006

It's Italian For "The Russa"

Okay, one more baseball post before I let this glorious season pass on into eternity. I know there's an election in a few days, but I'm a native St. Louisan, so baseball trumps it.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes Tony La Russa a great manager. As anyone who's ever read this blog can see, I'm often highly critical of him. So are the fans in St. Louis--they've never fully warmed up to TLR the way they did Whitey Herzog, who is considered the managerial gold standard in the Gateway City.

The criticism is not without merit. Whereas Whitey was a beer-driking, steak-eating Midwesterner who delighted in sharing his strategic thinking with the media, Tony is an animal-rights activist Californian who you suspect might eat soy and rarely tries publicly to justify a managerial move. When Whitey did something odd (as he often did, including stationing closer Todd Worrell in left field a couple of times), he would explain it afterwards in a way that, even if you didn't agree, you had to admit made some sense. Tony leaves baffling moves (having the cleanup hitter try to bunt for a base hit, batting Juan Encarnacion fourth, etc.) largely unexplained, causing those who watch the team daily to accuse him of overmanaging.

Nevertheless, La Russa's record is undeniable. He's won more games than any manager alive today. He's now one of only two managers to win World Series championships in both leagues. He's managed ten division-winning teams. He's won four manager of the year awards. If you Google the phrase "managerial wins" (which I just did), you'll find that six of the first seven entries that come up are specifically about him.

So what gives? Why is La Russa so good? First, I'll talk about what I think it's not, and then we'll look at what it is.

What it's not: Strategy. Tony La Russa is not a great strategist. There. I said it. Let the mountains fall down and the planets explode. I know this is contrary to everything you hear the sportscasters and sportswriters saying. But that's because most sportswriters are drunk, and most sportscasters are hired for having nice voices or pretty faces rather than for their understanding of sports.

The Common Baseball Wisdom is that La Russa is a master strategist, squeezing each percentage out of ever move he makes (and boy does he make a lot of moves). La Russa encourages and cultivates this portrait, which has been propagated by George Will in Men at Work and Buzz Bissinger in Three Nights in August (both of which are delightful, must-read books, by the way). Here are the facts:
  • La Russa's strategy is often downright baffling
  • La Russa rarely deigns to explain said baffling strategy.
  • La Russa wins a ton of games.
  • Ergo, the sports commentators assume it must be brilliant strategy even though they don't understand it, because he wins.
But if they were a little smarter, they'd trust their first instinct. La Russa's most befuddling moves are confusing because they're usually wrong. It's not "genius" to have cleanup hitter Larry Walker try to bunt for a base hit (like in the 2004 Series) when he's the only guy on the team hitting for average. It's not good strategy to place huge strikeout hitters in the four and five holes in the lineup (like he did frequently through the post-season). It's not wise to pull a pitcher who's throwing well just to do the lefty/righty thing.

Herzog used to say that the best manager could strategize his team into an extra three or four wins a season, at most. That seems like a modest estimate, but I think it's possible even that is overstated. Some (like the guys at Baseball Prospectus) have even crunched numbers that lead them to believe that the absolute best thing a manager can do during a game is stay out of the way, since not even batting order has a substantial impact on a team's overall output. According to some of these analysts, most managerial contributions to a game will actually be harmful. In any case, it's clear to me that it's not strategy (despite his reputation) that make La Russa great.

What it is: LaRussa, perhaps more than any manager in the Major Leagues, gets the absolute most out of nearly every one of his players. Whether superstar or third-stringer, players give LaRussa everything they have. All one has to do is see how players thrive under him as opposed to other managers they play for.

Some examples: Chris Carpenter (who never had an ERA under 4 before coming to the Cardinals and is now in line for a possible second Cy Young award), Woody Williams (who made an All-Star team with the Cardinals and was otherwise mediocre both before and after playing for La Russa), Mike Matheny (who was in the majors for six years before he was acquired by the Cards and immediately started winning Gold Gloves), Jim Edmonds (who began putting up the biggest numbers in his career offensively and defensively in mid-career after being traded to the Cardinals), Jose Canseco (who was never the same player again after being traded by Oakland in 1992), Fernando Vina (who, though he did make an All-Star team before coming to St. Louis, had the best three-year period of his career and won his two Gold Gloves under TLR), Dennis Eckersley (who's career was badly fading when La Russa and Dave Duncan turned him into a closer and bought him a ticket to the Hall of Fame--all while TLR played Deuling Mullets with him throughout the 80's), and many others. That's not even to mention guys from this championship team who played way over their heads like Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, So Taguchi, etc. People forget that even future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, a 13th round draft choice, was not considered to be anything special even within the Cardinals' organization until after he was already playing for La Russa on the big league roster and started tearing the cover off the ball.

So why do players play so well for La Russa? I don't really know, to be honest. Whatever it is, it's rare and it's important. It's probably the kind of thing you'd have to be a fly on the wall to know--interpersonal stuff that the public never gets to see. Certainly pitching coach Dave Duncan deserves some of the credit for the pitching turnarounds. But tons of position players have also had their best years under La Russa. Tony shows faith in his players and goes to the wall for them. He defends them in the media. He orders retaliation when one of them gets beaned. He protects them with the umps. Somehow, some way, Tony La Russa has conducted himself in such a way where many of his players would walk through a wall for him.

The lesson is that managerial strategy is overrated. Joe Torre's terrible strategy looked awful in St. Louis in the early '90's when he had no players. Give him Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens, and suddenly he's got four rings, even with the same lousy strategy. A manager has to protect his players and handle the media, which is no small thing. If he has some talent on his team and does those things right, they can win. Tony La Russa has done that better than just about anybody. It's not strategy; it's knowing how to take care of a team. The St. Louis Cardinals are fortunate to have one of the best.

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