FanPost

So, just how good is Tony LaRussa anyway?

As a Cardinal Manager, TLR has won 1133 regular season games (as of 9/16), six NL Division Series, two LCS, and one World Championship.  His teams have made the playoffs in seven of his thirteen seasons and have only suffered through three losing campaigns.  He was National League Manager of the Year in 2002 and he is certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame.  In spite of his success he remains a polarizing figure among Cardinal fans in general and at VEB in particular.  Some think he represents the pinnacle of success of the Cardinals franchise and others believe he has squandered a terrific run of talent.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. 

 

Attempting to evaluate the impact any manager has on his team’s success, especially in any kind of detailed way, is a daunting undertaking.  Trying to evaluate all the managerial decisions during over 2000 games would be a task worthy of a multi-volume work.  I am not qualified to do that and I still have a day job, so I’ll see if I can arrive at any meaningful conclusions by using a couple of macro measurements.  I will preface my remarks with my own bias that I think a manager’s contribution to the success or failure of a team is typically over emphasized.  I am a strong believer that the manager’s primary contributions are in the areas of recognizing talent (i.e. playing the correct players) and nurturing a winning atmosphere. 

 

I will attempt to see if any meaningful conclusions can be drawn from two main areas:  Pythagorean win expectancy and the amount of on-field success in relation to the team payroll.  I think most VEB readers are familiar with Bill James’ Pythagorean algorithm and I found a reasonable explanation and refinement here http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=342 courtesy of Clay Davenport and Keith Woolner at Baseball Prospectus.  The algorithm essentially states that if you divide the square of a team’s runs scored into the sum of the squares of runs scored and runs allowed (RS*RS)/((RS*RS)+(RA*RA)) the solution will be a winning percentage projection accurate to within approximately four wins of the actual total.  I decided to look at every instance of NL teams Pythagorean Wins deviating from their actual wins by more than four to see if the manager might possibly be due either the credit or the blame.

 

DISCLAIMER:  I am not making any argument that any of the following data proves anything.  I am merely trying to promote discussion on the topic of just exactly how we evaluate manager performance.  So, please don’t abuse me too badly if you think this is all just a bunch of hooey.  If you have other thoughts I would love to hear them, but please try to support whatever opinion you express so that we can all hopefully learn something.

 

Pythagorean Wins

 

Since TLR became Cardinals manager in 1996 there have been 356 “team seasons” of which 89, or exactly 25%, have experienced season win totals that differed by 5 or more wins from their projected total.  The Cardinals have experienced three seasons outside the Pythagorean win projection during TLR’s tenure.  The first was in 1997 when the team came up six games sort of its projection during its 73-89 season.   From 1998-2003 the team was within expected parameters, but the 2004 team that went 105-57 was only projected to win 100 games.  Unbelievable as it may seem to Cardinals’ fans, the 2007 team was actually TLR’s best managing job as measured by Pythagorean Wins.  While we all found the 78-84 record disheartening, the projection for that team was a record of 71-91.

 

As a sanity check, I decided to evaluate all of the 89 seasons that were outside of Pythagorean projections to see if there were any trends that seemed meaningful.  I looked for managers who consistently underperformed the projection as well as those who exceeded it on a regular basis.  I know this is completely unscientific, but I still found the results interesting.  For lack of a better term I will call the teams and managers whose actual records were five wins or more short of the Pythagorean projection as “underachievers” and those whose actual records exceeded the projection by five wins or more as “overachievers”.

 

When you look at the list of underachievers it is littered with managers most people would regard as below average managers.  The single worst season in the 1996-2007 period belongs to Tony Muser and the 1999 Kansas City Royals who only managed to win 64 games despite a projection of 76 for a total of -12.  The closest pursuer was current Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge with a -11 total in 2006.  There was a four-way tie for third worst at -9 between Don Baylor of the 2002 Cubs, John Boles of the 2001 Marlins, Buddy Bell of the 2001 Rockies, and Larry Dierker who managed the feat twice for the Astros in 2000 and 1997.  Other notables on the bottom end of the scale were John Gibbons, Jimy Williams, Grady Little, Davey Lopes, and Alan Trammell.

 

The overachievers list is headed by Joe Torre’s 2004 Yankee team whose 101-61 record exceeded projections by 12 games.  Bob Melvin’s Diamondbacks managed to overachieve by 11 games in both 2005 and 2007.  Other top overachievers were Dusty Baker, Bobby Valentine, Dave Miley, Mike Hargrove, Tony Muser, Ken Macha, and Ozzie Guillen. 

 

As you can see, Tony Muser made the list for top underachiever and overachiever.  He was one of several managers who managed single seasons on both ends of the spectrum, so I decided to look for models of consistency.  There are five managers who have more than one season of underachievement with no offsetting seasons of achievement.  They are Buddy Bell (-9,-5,-5), Clint Hurdle (-5,-5), Davey Lopes (-7,-5), Alan Trammell (-7, -6), and Eric Wedge (-11,-5).  As a footnote, Wedge’s 2008 Indians club is currently at -4 so he may join Buddy Bell as the only three-time loser.  Consistent overachievers include Joe Torre (12,5,5,5,5),  Ozzie Guillen (8,5), and Ron Gardenhire (7,5). 

 

During the years of this analysis there were only three managers who guided the same club for the duration:  Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre.  I lived in Atlanta from 1990-1995 and had the opportunity to watch Bobby Cox in action for virtually every Braves game during that time.  While the Braves were extremely successful, I was never particularly impressed with Cox’s managerial expertise.  He never really seemed to be able to figure out matchups very well and was not particularly effective in managing his bullpen.  His cumulative record from 1996-2007 exceeded Pythagorean projections by +4, with a high of +5 in both 2000 and 2003 and a low of -6 in 2006.  TLR’s record is very similar as his cumulative total is +6.  Neither Cox nor LaRussa’s performance is statistically significant.  However, Joe Torre’s record of overperformance is truly significant. 

 

Torre’s cumulate total over 12 seasons is an astounding +37.  The statistical variance for this metric over this time is 13.85, so Torre has exceeded the variance by 167%.  The second best team was the Chicago White Sox with 17, followed by the Reds with 16, the Padres with 15, and a tie between the Angels, Giants, and Nationals with 14.  The worst teams were the Royals (-32), the Rockies (-27), the Cubs (-26), and the Tigers (-25). 

  

 

 

Team Payroll

 

As far as salaries go, it seemed only fair to me that a manager can only achieve a limited amount of success given the hand he is dealt.  I don’t think any managers of the Washington Nationals or the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be getting Hall of Fame consideration any time soon.  Joe Torre serves as a fine illustration of the effect of payroll on managerial success.  From 1996-2007 Joe Torre’s Yankee teams made the playoffs every year, won 28 divisional playoff games, 27 league championship games and won four of the six World Series they participated in.  When Torre accepted the manager’s job for the Cardinals in August of 1990, he inherited a team with the eighth highest payroll in MLB and fourth highest in the NL.  Unfortunately for Joe, and for Cardinal fans, the BOB would be in the bottom half of MLB payroll the next five years, including 24th in a 28 team league in 1993.  As we are all painfully aware, Joe Torre, Hall of Fame Manager, wouldn’t even sniff the playoffs during his Cardinal tenure. 

 

Joe’s last season as Cardinals manager was the first for the Cardinals current ownership group and was also the first for as General Manager for Walt Jocketty.  After 143 games and a 62-81 record Walt cut Joe loose and Mike Jorgensen finished out the season.  The Cardinals weren’t the only team in MLB with a new ownership group at that time as the Oakland A’s had changed hands.  The A’s owners wanted to run a leaner ship and emphasize player development.  TLR had just completed his third straight losing season as the A’s manager and wanted a commitment from the new ownership group to spend more money on player acquisition and retention.  TLR found the commitment he was looking for, but he found it from the Cardinals.  After languishing in the bottom half of MLB in payroll under the post-Gussie brewery ownership, the Cardinals jumped into the top ten in 1996 and made their first playoff appearance since 1987. 

 

Is it really that simple?  Is spending money all you have to do to get in the playoffs?  The answer is kinda, but not really.  We have all seen franchises make dumb moves on overpriced free agents that cripple the franchise.  The real answer is sort of the opposite.  Spending money doesn’t guarantee a spot in the playoffs, but not spending it can come close to guaranteeing a spot in front of the TV come October.

 

Since TLR became manager in 1996, NL teams in the bottom half of the league in payroll have actually made the playoffs ten times for almost 21% of the available slots.  2007 was the only time in the last twelve years that two teams in the bottom half actually advanced to the LCS.  Other than that, 21 of the 22 LDS matchups have been won by teams in the top half of the league in payroll.  The only exception was the 2003 world champion Florida Marlins.  In the remaining seven series the bottom half teams went a combined 2-21 against top half opponents.  That adds up to 21 of 24 LCS participants from the top half and 10 of 12 League Champions from the top half.  For those of you with statistical bents, the correlation between payroll and wins in the NL from 1996-2007 was .502.  Most would consider that a strong correlation.

 

During the DeWitt/Jocketty/LaRussa era the Cardinals spent $827,002,528 on payroll and were outspent by the Dodgers ($969M), the Mets ($960M) and the Braves ($949M).  In close pursuit were the Diamondbacks ($713M in two fewer years), the Cubs ($795M), and the Giants ($780M). All payroll figures are from the USA Today Salaries databases.  According to 2008 figures that I believe are from the start of the season, each of the teams ahead of us will continue to outspend the Cardinals and the Cubs will outspend the BOB by nearly $19M.  If the Dodgers hang on in the West then all four of this year’s playoff teams will come from the top half of the salary pool.

 

You can see from the numbers above that some teams spend more wisely than others.  While the Braves are no longer the annual leader in NL payroll they were during the ‘90s, they have parlayed their almost a billion dollars into a pretty decent trophy case.  They made 10 straight playoff appearances since TLR took over the Cardinals and have won more NLDS games during that time (22) than any other NL team.  The sorry news for the Braves, and their fans, is they have only won five of those ten NLDS series, have only won thirteen NLCS games in five tries while going 1-4 in LCS matchups and only won two measly World Series games for their billion dollars. 

 

Don’t feel sorry for the Braves.  The Mets have outspent the Braves and have a grand total of three playoff appearances, a single league championship, and the ignominy of being abused by the Yankees in their only World Series appearance.  And then there is the Dodgers.  What a pathetic mess, as their billion dollars has so far purchased them a single win (one game, not a series) in the NLDS. 

 

The Cardinals are certainly a shining example next to those drunken sailors.  While spending well over $100,000,000 less than the top three, the Birds have managed to win six of seven NLDS opportunities.  Even though I am personally bitterly disappointed at the 2-4 record in the LCS, the fact remains that the Cardinals have won more LCS games than any NL team and are tied for the most World Series appearances with the Braves and Marlins.

 

I guess this is all mildly interesting stuff, but I am not really sure what it says about TLR.  It says he has won a lot of regular season games.  TLR’s 897 wins from 1996-2007 is second in the NL to the Braves (941) and fifth overall in MLB behind the Yankees (985), the Red Sox (916) and, ironically, the A’s (901).  For what its worth, the A’s did it while spending $340M less than the Cardinals.  In the 1996 LCS we lost to a Braves team that outspent us by 24%.  The 2000 Mets outspent us by over 26% and the 2002 Giants outspent us by a mere $3.7M.  When we beat Houston in 2004 we had a nearly $8M salary edge, but when we lost to them in 2005 we had a salary advantage of over $15M.  However, we made up for it in 2006 by beating a Mets team with a $9M advantage and actually winning the World Series! 

 

While the Cardinals have experienced a very nice run of success since 1996 it is very difficult to parcel out the credit for that success.  I would start with the ownership that has been willing to outspend other cities that are in vastly larger markets than St. Louis.  I am amazed that we have outspent Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco.  Especially Houston and Philadelphia as they are both more than twice the size of St. Louis and don’t have another team in their market.  Along the same vane you have to give some thanks to the ownership of the teams that have outspent us, particularly New York and Los Angeles, and have very little to show for it.  All that being said, some credit must certainly be due Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa.  While I don’t think either one of them is necessarily the best in baseball, they were an effective team that got quite a lot out of the ownership’s investment.

 

I think, just like in any sport, you have to give a lot of credit to the players.  Management can obtain all the right guys, but if they can’t stay healthy and perform then the team can’t win.  Just look at the last two years.  For all the various contributions that have led to the success of the team, none has been better than the collection of opinions that led to the selection of Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft.  The Cardinals only averaged 83 wins and had one division championship in TLR’s reign before Albert made the team in 2001.  Since then, they have averaged 92 wins, made the playoffs in six of eight seasons, made the LCS five times, and the World Series twice.  Let’s get him some help for 2009!

 

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