Thursday, July 29, 2010

Because He's La Russa...

  • ...he gets away with stuff:

Because he has a record that puts him in the pantheon of managers in baseball history; because he's always had a reason for doing the things he does; because he's got a law degree and is considered not only one of baseball's best and smartest managers in history, but one of the smartest people, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is allowed to get away with things for which other managers would be roasted and probably fired.

There are the usual criticisms: he overmanages his bullpen; he reinvents the game with his decision to bat the pitcher eighth (there's an interesting column about this by Tyler Kepner in today's NY Times); he's had embarrassing public dustups with players; he's defended the guilty in a blind, ludicrous way; and he's repeatedly lost in the playoffs with superior teams.

These criticisms do have merit; but for the most part, La Russa's teams are going to play the game correctly, win regularly and be contenders without fail. If he has championship-level players, he'll have them competing for a championship; if he has players that are able to be manipulated and molded to what he and pitching coach Dave Duncan are trying to do----although lacking in star talent----they'll still hang around contention and possibly break through as they did in 2006.

I've gone over his successes with marginal talents like Jeff Suppan and the rebuilding of the likes of Chris Carpenter; his failures with Rick Ankiel and J.D. Drew; the public disputes with Ruben Sierra, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds; and his absurd defense of Mark McGwire when McGwire was repeatedly denying use of performance enhancing drugs. My point isn't about La Russa himself, but what La Russa's success and reputation allows him to do during games that other managers either wouldn't have the guts to try or would possibly get fired if they did.

Last night, La Russa made a bizarre decision in allowing lefty Trever Miller to pitch to David Wright with 2 outs in the bottom of the 12th inning knowing how Wright murders lefties----link----and that Wright cannot catch up to a good power fastball anymore. Mike MacDougal was warming up in the Cardinals bullpen and La Russa elected to roll the dice by allowing Miller to pitch to Wright. Miller is exactly the type of lefty upon whom Wright feasts. Wright grounded back to Miller; MacDougal pitched the bottom of the 13th and retired the Mets in order; the Cardinals won the game.

It was still the wrong move even though it worked.

Had Wright homered off of Miller, La Russa would've been questioned about it, bristled at the audacity of anyone who dared second guess the great Tony La Russa, intimidated the reporters and said that he left Miller in because he was running out of pitchers; didn't know MacDougal that well; and he trusted the big ballpark to keep Wright in the yard even if Miller made a mistake.

Success or failure has little to do with strategy being "correct"; La Russa had reason to do what he did and it worked. It was still wrong.

This brings out the bottom line with a manager----whether or not his decisions work and if the team wins. In the end that's all that matters.

La Russa has been a success because he's had a reason for doing the things he does----even if they don't make obvious sense----and because they've worked. Is Charlie Manuel a good strategic manager? Is Joe Girardi? Is Lou Piniella? Is Terry Francona? Is Mike Scioscia? Is Joe Torre?

They all have their hiccups; their flaws; their strengths. They've survived because of the simple fact that they've won. Scioscia is widely regarded as the "best" manager in baseball while his teams have had as many playoff meltdowns as La Russa's have. Many times it's been because of gaffes by Scioscia. One glaring example is the squeeze bunt against the Red Sox in game four of the 2008 ALDS.

The game was tied in the top of the ninth inning, the Angels had Reggie Willits on 3rd base and one out. Scioscia called for a suicide squeeze with Erick Aybar at the plate. Aybar couldn't get the bunt down and Willits got caught in a rundown and tagged out. It was a ridiculous decision in those circumstances. This exemplifies Scioscia's strengths and weaknesses. The strengths----he trusts his players; is willing to gamble; follows his own template without deviation----are as much of a reason for his label as the "best" as those same qualities that are a foundation for failure. The Angels had a strategy of using speed and aggressiveness and stuck to it after they'd acquired a power bat for the middle of the lineup in Mark Teixeira at mid-season. The adherence to "what we do" as in the Angels strategy is part of the reason they're brilliantly run and consistently successful. Scioscia is a big reason for that and he's never getting fired no matter what he does.

But the "best" manager in baseball? It's all contextual; a circular entitly.

Earl Weaver was a great manager not because of his success; not because he was entrenched as the Orioles manager forever; but because he adjusted based on his personnel. La Russa does that; Scioscia doesn't.

Are they wrong? Are they right?

I think Jim Tracy is the best strategic manager in baseball, but his Colorado Rockies are in freefall; he had no success with the Pittsburgh Pirates in two years as their manager. Is it because of him? Was his elevation to the manager's office for the Rockies was spurred their blazing hot run last season that led them to the playoffs? Or was it other factors? Was it the change from Clint Hurdle to the more subdued and cerebral Tracy? Was his failure with the Pirates a lack of talent and that the Pirates are, well, the Pirates? Or was it that everything clicked at the right time?

Bobby Valentine is a superior strategist to just about anyone in baseball, but can't find a job in the majors because of his personality and that people don't want to deal with the "Bobby V package"; it's understandable.

A manager can do the right things on and off the field and still be on the chopping block. He can do the wrong things----as Joe Maddon often does----and still win because of talent.

Much was made of Joe Torre's calm leadership during the Yankees run under his watch and as I said weeks ago, he deserves credit for the success, but he also warrants blame for the failures. Many other managers could've won with that Yankees team in the late 90s.

The 2001 Diamondbacks were so laden with veteran leaders that they could essentially have functioned without a manager (and they sort of did with the empty uniform Bob Brenly).

So, which is it?

Is La Russa a genius because of his courage as a gambler? Because of his intelligence? Or does his job security because of his success allow him to have that courage and gamble?

It feeds into itself; and it's a perk of having won and being perceived as "knowing" what he's doing even if it's wrong or fails.

It's a perk of being La Russa and he takes full advantage of it.

  • The Phillies are insane if they trade J.A. Happ for Roy Oswalt:

The latest rumor (take these for what they're worth regardless of the source) is that the Phillies are the last team standing in competition for Astros righty Roy Oswalt.

Without issuing the cheap shot that will be fired by everyone regarding the overall absurdity of the Phillies trading He Who Shall Not Be Named (otherwise known as Cliff Lee) in the interests of maintaining financial sanity and re-stocking the organization with prospects, I have a different----more logical take----on the whole morass.

I'm not of the camp that believes the Phillies should allow outside influences and said cheap shot artists to affect their decisions one way or the other. If they feel Oswalt is their best option to win now, they can't worry about what people say about He Who Shall Not Be Named and how ridiculous it was to trade him in the first place.

That said, are they out of their minds?

They're going to trade J.A. Happ---a future annual 15-game winner provided he's healthy----and absorb the Oswalt salary for this year, next year and possibly 2012 if Oswalt demands his 2012 option be exercised to okay a trade to the Phillies? And it's not only Happ they're trading; the latest is that the Astros are going to get Happ and other prospects.

Factoring in the salary of Oswalt; the way the Phillies farm system has been gutted in the past two years; that the Shane Victorino injury will prevent them from trading Jayson Werth to bring in the prospects to get Oswalt (as one of the plans suggested), and the Phillies are digging a hole deeper than former BP CEO Tony Heyward and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich could formulate with their flapping mouths and notorious ineptitude. A hole they won't be able to climb out of in the coming years.

I'll hold off on really lambasting the Phillies and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. until a deal is completed----ESPN is reporting that a deal is done and requires Oswalt's approval before being official----but if the Phillies trade Happ and prospects for Oswalt, they're absolute fools no matter what Oswalt does in a Phillies uniform.

  • Viewer Mail 7.29.2010:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Stephen Strasburg and John Tudor:

John Tudor. Now that's an interesting name from the past. But back to Strasburg, of course the Nationals were right to be cautious with him and scratch his start. Not only is he a talented young pitcher, but he's their box office, their biggest asset. Why mess around and have him "play hurt?"

I'm trying to imagine the reaction if Strasburg hadn't said something or if the Nationals had pitched him regardless of shoulder woes and he'd really gotten hurt. I think the reaction would quite possibly have been somewhat negative.

Jeff (Street Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE Strasburg and the Nationals fans:

It's obvious that the good folks in D.C. still don't understand the finer points of baseball. The people who came to the game last night were pissed off 'cuz he didn't start?

They just don't get it.


It's times like these that I wish Tim Russert were still alive. He'd kick these newbie fans' asses for sure.

In fairness to the Nationals fans, there's not that much of a reason to go see the Nats at this point aside from having a look at Strasburg. All fan bases have their non-baseball, event-types who'll only go because they're going to be seen there and have the ability to say that they were there. Plus, it's Washington DC----I don't believe much in the way of conviction goes on around there unless you're talking in a court of law when the scandals come out and the sacrificial flunkies are made to take the blame for their boss's activities that were outside the law.

Anonymous writes RE Ichiro Suzuki:

Ichiro a diva? Perhaps, but if you actually read any of the interviews he's given, it seems pretty clear that he does care what happens to the team. I think part of what Americans see as selfishness is simply a cultural emphasis that doesn't translate well.

For instance--"Ichiro should dive for more balls in the outfield." Ichiro has stated more than once that he doesn't do that often for two reasons: first, because diving rarely makes the difference between catching and not catching; and second, because diving is more likely to injure him, costing the team his services.

Or another good one--"Ichiro should steal more often." Considering that last year was the first time in his career that he finished outside of the top 5 in the AL, that seems a bit harsh. Ichiro's thoughts on the matter? Better (if you're not sure you can take it) to hold back and remain on the bases than get thrown out and cost the team both a lead runner and an out. His 80%+ career success rate speaks for itself.

I understand why people who attack me refuse to leave a name, but when someone writes something reasonably intelligent, I don't get the need for anonymity.

Of course Ichiro cares about what happens to the team, but there's a fine line between selfishness and helping the team and it's often indistinguishable to outside observers; but the players know. You can have a player who says he's helping the team by getting base hits when it's known that the assertion of "helping the team" is on equal footing, in his mind, with padding his stats.

No one can question Ichiro's defensive credentials----he's a terrific outfielder with a fine arm; and the diving is negligible; it's necessary when it's necessary and if he needs to dive for a ball, he should dive for a ball; but he's so fast and so good that he doesn't generally need to dive. I'll give him a pass on that one.

The stolen bases? Also negligible. I'm against arbitrary basestealing just for the sake of it----it's one of my issues with Jose Reyes over the years; sometimes he steals only to shove it in the face of the opponents when he's far better off staying where he is; he's cut down on that.

My definition of a selfish player is one who could do more to help the team even if it means sacrificing individual achievement; what makes Ichiro worse is that he's acting selfishly with his reluctance to try to hit for power and instead accumulating singles under the pretense of helping the team and has the "cultural emphasis" shielding him and explaining away his behaviors.

The "cultural emphasis" you allude to is convenient when questions are raised about his apparent lack of passion and penchant for slapping the ball the other way to get to his 250 hits; but he's ignored said "culture" points when collecting vast amounts of money from the Mariners while using pending free agency and a threat to leave as a lever to force out manager Mike Hargrove because Ichiro didn't like him.

Hargrove wasn't a great strategic manager, but he handled the clubhouse and was respected; can that be said of his full-time successors John McLaren and Don Wakamatsu? McLaren was the epitome of the longtime bench coach in over his head when given the big job; and Wakamatsu has had disciplinary issues throughout this whole season. Hargrove was unafraid of getting in a player's face for such transgressions. So how's that worked out for the Mariners and Ichiro? He's got his money and a manager he approves of....and the team's awful.

In the end, with Ichiro it's about Ichiro. While he's on a team that's winning, he subtly alters his game to win; for some players, when things are spiraling and the team cause is lost, it's every man for himself; and Ichiro is one such player. There's no justification for being a pure singles hitter and a diva and making $17 million a year. None.

He's been in North America for almost ten years----is he not completely assimilated? Or is he only assimilated when trying to get paid and stat compile his way into the Hall of Fame while playing for an annual loser?

I was a guest with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Friday. You can listen directly here----link----or click on Sal's site and download it from I-Tunes.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


Jeff said...

Scratching my head too on the Phillies-for-Oswalt move. Uh... really?

Oswalt is no Lee... and we're gonna be hearing a lot about that for a while.

As for TLR... he's said it before, sometimes he just goes with his gut. I gotta think there's something there you and I don't know. I've learned not to second-guess him, even when he fails.

PS, From where you are can you hear my lament for the services of Joel Pineiro? He gave it a good ride... sad to see him hurt like this. The Angels are in trouble.

Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

To Jeff ~ Angels...Yep! But ~ I think Arte Moreno will mandate a turn around sooner than letting his product lag. He's a good owner. Their system is still very strong. Nothing a winter re-grouping can't help. And we knew this year was part of some major transitioning for them. Just sayin'.

LaRussa ~ His work in Chicago never gets talked about. I know a lot of "readers" weren't even born yet...but still. He put those crazy uniformed American Leaguers back on the map with Kittle, Hoyt (LOL), Luzinski, Ozzie Guillen and some other characters.
LaRussa never backed down from a bean-ball war. I've always liked that about him. He is great...but I just was never a fan of his.

Damn that Amaro is one strange...strange...strange cat. I don't get his thinking when you look at the whole Lee/Oswalt saga.
JA Happ...Gone! I can't fault the move on it's own merit in so far as making the playoff push. It's more of a case of what is that Amaro doing? Strange way of doing business. Oswalt is taking shots and has disk problems etc. It can work out for Phila...but can very easily blow up in their face. Happ was a good live arm.