Excerpt: Evaluating Baseball's Managers on Tony La Russa

What's a guy have to do to get on this cover?

A week and a half ago we did a mini-review of what Chris Jaffe's forthcoming Evaluating Baseball's Managers had to say about Cardinals managers. Now, the long-promised excerpt: a look at our very own Tony La Russa's managerial career.

Excerpt housework: the tendencies database Jaffe refers to is defined and discussed at this link; the book covers the years 1876-2008. In the interest of full disclosure, I have received no compensation or freebies on the occasion of publishing this excerpt, although I do have a copy of these exact words in .doc format.

Blog housework: Some reasoned thoughts about the Matt Holliday discussion when I'm feeling reasoned about it, or as news breaks. To be brief: I would love to have Matt Holliday, who represents the best-case scenario for the 2010 Cardinals, but if eight years—eight years! He will be 37! I will be 30! Rylee Rasmus will be eight!—and $128 million doesn't do it for him I can't imagine he'll find any welcoming market except New York.

I can't think of many players who are Ten Year guys—more than seven seems like a commitment the Cardinals should be making exclusively to players with Musial-derived nicknames.

Evaluating Baseball's Managers — Tony La Russa

by Chris Jaffe

Tony La Russa

W/L Record: 2,461-2,146 (.534)

Birnbaum Database: +1,012 runs

Individual Hitters: +240 runs

Individual Pitchers: +455 runs

Pythagenpat Difference: +138 runs

Team Offense: +297 runs

Team Defense: -118 runs

Team Characteristics: LaRussa likes the decision-making parts of the game - pinch hitters, bringing in relievers, bunting, stealing bases. However, he avoids intentional walks. His teams are pretty well rounded as they either score above average in nearly all the categories in the Birnbaum Database, or at least fare only slightly worse than a typical team.

Appropriately for someone who finished law school and passed the bar exam, LaRussa has a reputation as one of baseball's smartest managers. The Tendencies Database can test that. For example, look at one part of the job - filling out the lineup card. Thanks to Retrosheet, information on batting orders exists for all teams in the last half-century. Based on that, one can see how LaRussa fares versus other skippers.

There are three main parts of any lineup. The top two slots of the order are supposed to get on base. After them, the team's best hitters are supposed to drive them in while batting in the heart of the order, generally slots three to six. Finally, the worst hitters usually end up at the bottom of the order, where they will collect fewer plate appearances. Baseball-Reference.com makes studying these Retrosheet-generated splits much easier by providing combined offensive data for these three groups for all teams.

On base percentage is the best metric to measure top of the order hitters because their main job is to get on base. Specifically, for reasons mentioned in last chapter's Sparky Anderson commentary, take the cumulative OBP of the two top slots and divide it by the team's overall OBP. For the remaining two sections, the stat of choice is tOPS+, a Baseball-Reference invention that compares the OPS for a given split compared to the team's overall OPS. If a team with an 800 OPS had an OPS of 1200 from the heart of its order, they would have a tOPS+ of 150 because the split was 50% better than the squad as a whole. For the middle of the order, a higher tOPS+ indicates the manager did a good job filling out his lineup card. A lower tOPS+ for the bottom of the order is desired because that means he made sure his worst hitters were in the appropriate slots. Put all three of these splits through the Tendencies Database, add the results together, and determine who is best at creating batting orders.

However, a snag affects this plan. Everyone puts their best hitters in the heart of the order. That is not the case in the top or bottom of the order as some managers put speedsters who cannot steal first in the leadoff slot or walk machines at the bottom of the order, but every manager treats the middle the same. Ranking tOPS+ for the 3-6 hitters simply determines which clubs had the most impressive offensive core. There is little reason to give someone credit for realizing Barry Bonds should not bat eighth.

That split tells us little about managers, but the others can be quite illuminating. Add them together and see who has done the best job with a pencil and empty lineup card. This is not a perfect system, but it works tolerably well.

Best job creating a batting order
Bill Virdon 1.455
Tony La Russa 1.511
Sparky Anderson 1.610
Red Schoendienst 1.612
Earl Weaver 1.663
John McNamara 1.663

Virdon bests LaRussa, but they both have a comfortable lead on anyone else.

Also, LaRussa has a pet strategy with his batting orders that further shows he knows what he is doing: batting the pitcher eighth. While this confounds baseball tradition, a study in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Andy Dolphin, Mitchel Lichtman, and Tom Tango revealed that placing the pitcher eighth in the batting order creates runs for a team. Those researchers have some problems with LaRussa's lineups (they think the fourth- or fifth-best hitter belongs in the #3 hole, where LaRussa puts Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols) but they agree with his signature batting order maneuver.

Do not let his genius reputation fool you, though. At heart, Tony LaRussa is a redass. Normally people associate the term "redass" with a manager like Larry Bowa, who knows only one gear - full steam ahead, which can wear a team down. LaRussa performs an internal balancing act between his heart and head. In other words he continually fights an internal battle between the burning desire to push for victory in every game with the recognition of long-term interests. Essentially, he embodies a redass version of the serenity prayer - he has the desire to push for it every game, the willpower to hold back as needed, and the intelligence to know when to push and when to hold back. One story about LaRussa demonstrated the stress this inner war placed on him. In mid-2007, LaRussa told reporters he was not about to retire because there were still games "when you've got a five-run lead, when it's tense and I can't swallow. I've got a headache, and I'm afraid I'm going to throw up. You only feel this stuff because you're anxious about the outcome." That is what happens when a person continually reins himself in.

LaRussa wants his players to feel the same drive. If one lacks that passion, even if it is a star like Scott Rolen or J. D. Drew, LaRussa cannot abide him. He sent both packing, and has had as many feuds with players as any prominent manager in recent times. In dealing with a particular player these feuds may be shortsighted, but they send a message to the rest of the team. If Scott Rolen is not safe, everyone else knows they need to play relentlessly. This ensures LaRussa's teams give their maximum effort.

In this regard, a parallel exists between Tony LaRussa and Joe McCarthy. The former Yankees skipper also strongly emphasized proper conduct while possessing a deep desire to win. Even as a rookie skipper, McCarty dumped all-time great Pete Alexander for his approach to the game. Furthermore, McCarthy, like LaRussa, also experienced head-vs.-heart conflict. McCarthy handled it by drinking his way into alcoholism. More recently, authorities arrested LaRussa in early 2007 for driving while intoxicated. It is difficult to cope with the internal pressure for decades.

Nonetheless, both managers consistently had their teams play as well as possible. In 30 years, LaRussa ran only one last place team, while overseeing eleven first place squads. In fact, in full seasons his teams have had the best record in the league more times than they had losing records (seven to six). Such an achievement requires talented players, but it also demands a manager who handles them appropriately. LaRussa has done a good job finding the best roles for his players, making sure everyone knows their job, and performs their best.

The most striking example of LaRussa's ability to get the most out of his players occurred in Oakland, where he assembled the greatest bullpen in baseball history from 1988-90. In that three-year period, Oakland's relievers posted a combined ERA of 2.60. In contrast, the best single season ERA by any other AL relief unit in that span was 2.82 by the 1988 Brewers. The chart compares Oakland's bullpens to the rest of the AL in defense-independent stats walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed from 1988-90. Oakland's domination is obvious.

 

Bullpens BB/9 K/9 HR/9
Oakland 3.04 6.51 0.52
The Rest 3.67 6.10 0.75

 This relief corps's performance was especially remarkable because its core members were poorly regarded prior to arriving in Oakland. The club had three bullpen mainstays in those years: Dennis Eckersley, Rick Honeycutt, and Gene Nelson. Both Eckersley and Honeycutt appeared to be washed up starters before LaRussa moved them to the bullpen. Honeycutt was so poorly thought of that Oakland acquired him for a player to be named later. Nelson previously played for LaRussa in Chicago, and had done adequately, but no more than that. The Sox shipped him along with another player to Oakland for a forgettable middle infielder. The A's augmented this bunch with more of the league's unwanted. Oakland swiped Joe Klink, who had a great year for them in 1990, from Minnesota for a minor league player-to-be-named-later. Mike Norris, a starter for Billy Martin in the early 1980s A's, was an internal reclamation project who also prospered in 1990. LaRussa converted Eric Plunk from a flop starter into a solid reliever.

With these castoffs, LaRussa constructed a bullpen that was not only spectacularly effective, but extremely influential. He used more specialized roles for his relief pitcher than had been common, subsequently affecting how other teams construct and utilize their bullpens. This opens up several thorny questions. Some contend that LaRussa's impact on contemporary bullpen usage is a mark against him. Specialization may have done more harm than good because it causes contemporary relief aces, nominally the best arms in the bullpen, to be used far less than the firemen of yore. However, one should not automatically assume that LaRussa was as influential in this area as conventional wisdom makes him out to be. As noted earlier in this chapter, Bobby Cox also helped create hyper-specialized relievers.

To examine the issue further, first one needs to tackle the issue of LaRussa's influence before assigning credit or blame. When the record is examined, the 1988-90 A's bullpen appears to have been a way-station between how relievers were used and how they have since been handled. Relief aces were already throwing fewer innings as managers like Cox reduced innings per appearance. For instance, whereas four closers threw over 100 innings in 1985 and five more did so in 1986, none tossed that many in 1987 - only three broke 90 innings. Still, the A's amplified this trend. Nothing breeds imitation like success and Oakland's glory run provided the most successful bullpen in baseball history. Innings per relief outing dropped by 20% in the AL from 1987-93. That was the sharpest reduction in league history, and it came when LaRussa's bullpen was at its height. Still, reliever roles were not as starkly defined then as they later became. Eckersley entered the game in the eighth inning twenty times a year from 1988 to 1990, far more than a present day closer would. LaRussa pointed the way forward and others went even further along.

Since LaRussa had an impact, that leads to the next question: was his influence benign or malignant? As critics of the 21st century bullpen usage rightly note, current relief aces throw considerably fewer innings than their pre-Eckersley ancestors. Instead of throwing 100 innings or more, contemporary closers are likely to toss around 60. It seems counterintuitive that an approach that limits the usage of the bullpen's most important player would be beneficial.

While true, the old-fashioned system featured a noticeable downside. If a team brought in its fireman to throw a few innings, he could not pitch for the next day or two. The current approach increases managerial flexibility, allowing closers to be available to close more games. Also, by minimizing the quantity of innings, managers can maximize quality of innings thrown from the most important bullpen arm. In a study in his book Winners, Dayn Perry argued modern closers are actually better leveraged than their predecessors. This flies in the face of a main criticism of current bullpen usage. People remember how Goose Gossage or Mike Marshall came into the seventh inning of tie games with the bases loaded and help the team out while moderns hold three-run leads in the ninth. Both scenarios existed, but neither described a typical outing for relief aces before or after Eckersley. Many seventh inning appearances from the 1970s did not come in highly dangerous scenarios and current closers hold plenty of one-run leads.

Ultimately, however, a moderate uptick in improved leveraging does not necessarily account for a considerable drop in innings. Though it has its advantages, the Oakland bullpen lessens the relief ace's importance.

However, paradoxical as it might sound, the new model bullpen does a better overall job utilizing the entire relief corps. The old version made sense provided a club had one trustworthy reliever, but normally a gigantic difference in quality between the two top arms in a bullpen does not exist. Thus if a manager spreads out the most important innings between them, and does it in a way that allows them to be called on more frequently, that helps his team's overall performance in close and late situations. Reserving roles by inning might be arbitrary and reductionist, but it has the advantage of ensuring that pitchers know their particular roles. If ever a team should have adopted this reliever strategy, it was LaRussa's Athletics. Since they featured numerous relievers pitching great, spreading out the key innings amongst them was sensible. LaRussa's handling of the Oakland relief corps was both cause and effect of their incredible quality.

Though that great bullpen was the most obvious example of LaRussa adeptly handling his talent, it was not the only one. A more recent example came with the 2008 Cardinals. St. Louis experienced a terrific stretch in the mid-2000s built around a core of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Chris Carpenter. By 2008, only Pujols remained (well, St. Louis still had Carpenter but he was too badly injured to be of any value). The team especially lacked dependable starting pitchers. They featured mediocre journeyman Kyle Lohse, and reclamation project Joel Pineiro backed up by two converted relievers - Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer. Their most reliable hurler was Adam Wainwright, a 26-year-old with only 32 major league starts in his career. That was a prayer, not a stable starting rotation. LaRussa made it work, and the Cards ended the year with an unexpectedly strong 86-76 record despite playing in the NL's toughest division.

LaRussa has made a career of getting more than one would expect from his starters. He had numerous quality staffs despite rarely having elite starting pitchers. Chris Carpenter had a great stretch, but it was brief before injuries felled him. Besides, though Carpenter had been promising, he had never established himself before joining St. Louis. Tom Seaver is the only established great pitcher LaRussa has ever had, but he was at the end of his career when he came to LaRussa's White Sox. LaRussa is more likely to get good production from veteran pitchers who never wowed anyone before. The prototypical LaRussa success story was Dave Stewart. A struggling reliever before LaRussa got a hold of him, Stewart posted four consecutive twenty-win seasons for the A's. LaRussa also oversaw revivals from Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Kent Bottenfield, Mike Moore, Floyd Bannister, Garrett Stephenson, Todd Stottlemyre, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, and Bob Welch.

However, LaRussa has not had much success with young pitchers. The White Sox featured a flock of young arms emerge under him, almost all of who had disappointing careers. While drug addiction took their toll on Cy Young winner LaMarr Hoyt, and Britt Burns's career foundered due to a degenerative hip, Richard Dotson, who went 22-7 in 1983 at age 24, blew out his arm. Ross Baumgarten earned some Rookie of the Year votes in 1979, but won only seven more games in his career. Super-prospect Todd Van Poppel was a disaster in Oakland. Bud Smith came up with the Cards in 2001 and despite throwing a no-hitter, was out of baseball by his 23rd birthday. Matt Morris was runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1997, and survived an arm injury to win 22 games in 2001, but then faded out. Rick Ankiel suffered an epic mental meltdown in the 2000 playoffs, and his pitching career never recovered.

Tony LaRussa is not only baseball's best manager since Joe McCarthy, but he is on the verge of doing something unthinkable - passing John McGraw on the all-time wins list. LaRussa merely needs to survive four more seasons, averaging 76 wins per campaign. His teams won 78 or more games in each of the last nine years.

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