Before we get to the meaty, La Russa-related stuff, some minor league highlights from the off-day:
- Casey Mulligan! The high minors! A week or so ago, in my report-card omnibus post, I mentioned that I was hoping the Cardinals would promote Mulligan, who has destroyed the low minors but done it with stuff that has yet to excite a single major league, minor league, or boy scout. Such is the pull of the VEB front page that yesterday Mulligan got his first action in AA; he responded by striking out two in a scoreless inning and a third. As one of the few survivors of the Great Righty Relief Purge of 2009, he'll be able to move up as long as he keeps fooling people. He's only got two levels to go.
- Backstage reason: Jeff Luhnow tweeted recently to say that 25 players would be moving around the system to ready teams for the stretch run. In addition to Mulligan I noticed Cuban defector and great baseball body/famously bad scouting report ("The King of Jam Shots") Ryde Rodriguez had returned to Quad Cities after a productive stint in Batavia.
- Speaking of people who could stand to move around the system: Peter Kozma, the 2007 first-rounder who had the severe misfortune of being drafted before Rick Porcello was off the board, celebrated Casey Mulligan's Springfield debut by going 0-3. He's now hitting .220/.281/.295 in his 309 AA at-bats, this after a .760 OPS over most of a season in low A and all of 18 games in high A. He's 21.
For the most part I've appreciated the Cardinals' aggressive movement of prospects through the system in the Jeff Luhnow era, but there was no evidence Kozma was ready to hit at a AA level before he was promoted and there's even less evidence now. Now his 2009 season won't be a high-A learning experience—it'll be something from which he needs to recover. A player who's best remembered for not being another player doesn't need that kind of pressure.
Now: an as-time-and-thought-permits look at Tony La Russa, through as many lenses as I can find. Today's insight comes courtesy of the Bill James Book of Managers, which was released in 1997, after the first La Russa Cardinals rode an offense completely dominated by the Gant/Lankford/Jordan outfield to postseason success.
It's a remarkable book, if you can find it; like the best of Bill James's work it is the voice and the relentless pursuit of insight—and, of course, the humor—that drives it, not the numbers, which could and have eventually become obsolete. Here's a pull quote from his introduction:
The discussion of baseball managers... [is] the most disorganized, unproductive, and ill informed discussion in the world of sports. And [while writing my other books] I wasn't helping.
It's an important point to make. Think about how much we know about team offense—how much more we know than we did twenty years ago. Or defense; five years ago defensive statistics were an afterthought, either proprietary like UZR and Baseball Prospectus's Davenport fielding runs or useless like range factor and fielding percentage. Heck, it's not until this year that defensive statistics have been evoked, in baseball writing, on a day-to-day basis. Baseball is such a compartmentalized game that our understanding of it, on an individual and team level—now that we're looking—continues to advance at a breakneck pace.
But there's no such movement in our understanding of managers. James notes we've been reading about successful managers since we've been reading about baseball—Harry Wright, among the most important figures in the creation of the first real professional baseball team, was of course their manager in addition to their star centerfielder—and there's a huge section of the theoretical baseball shelf devoted to managerial autobiographies and biographies devoted to talking about how colorful they are as a group, wondering what makes each of them tick. But from Harry Wright on there's been no advance in understanding what managers do on a day-to-day basis.
Some more great James prose, which could, with some minor changes and a thorough re-pronouning, stand as paragraph one in a biography of our own Tony La Russa:
A manager earns his daily bread in the gunsights of 30,000 rifles. The manager meets the press each day and greets us with an icy calm that could easily be mistaken for terror. Although, as a group, they know virtually nothing about math, they look constantly for what they call percentages, and find them in the most improbable places. Good managers, with few exceptions, are notable for their intelligence and personality. They are forceful men, often loud, often crude, sometimes hilarious. They are manipulative, cunning, intense, and selfish. All good managers have a strong need to be the center of attention. They are rarely, if ever, trusting, naive, or open.
Well. James spends much of the book—when he is not dredging up great anecdotes and attempting to classify managers by lineage (La Russa is a descendent of Ned Hanlon, the father of inside baseball)—trying to establish some "baseball card stats" for managers, useful numbers that might be employed when discussing managers. In that sense the book's failed; it's out of print, and nobody I know of has yet attempted to add the numbers to anybody's Baseball Reference page, let alone discussed them in a mainstream sports article.
But the book's effort to detangle the idea of the manager from what James describes as the "one-dimensional" view that predominates—he sucks! he's a genius!—and to dampen the importance of the last-move-I-saw in discussing managers is, I think, its most important lesson. There are a lot of things we can see a manager do; they are, unfortunately, not always the most important things a manager does.
La Russa, on balance, has not had his most brilliant season in 2009. Carrying thirteen pitchers has proven to be a burden the bench can't bear the bullpen needn't; Todd Wellemeyer never did get it turned around, and from what's slipped out unconfirmed in the matter it seems he let his personal feelings get in the way of his baseball sense when it came to Chris Duncan.
But he's successful now—or the team is—and he's been successful nearly his entire career. Of course that's not a perfect argument, and it falls apart at the extremes; Todd Wellemeyer is also tied for first in the NL Central this year. I don't know what to make of it; I think La Russa does a fine job of seeing talent when it falls outside his blind spots, and I think that his constant nodding toward percentages is, consciously or subconsciously, a fantastic way to rationalize to his starters the necessity of giving the backups regular playing time. I think he's shown, time and again, that he believes it is—more than the day-to-day moves, more than dialogue with the fans or the press or the other managers—his job to keep his players playing as well as they can, and to put them in situations in which they can do that.
But I don't know any of that. I do know that if managers have any influence at all, La Russa's record is a good example of significant and constant positive influence.
One of James's most self-assured comments on the job of managing comes buried, a little, in that introduction. He says this:
There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager: The manager must be able to command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything else is negotiable.
That's an interesting thing to assume, whether it's true or not, because assuming it gives you a framework for evaluating the role of the manager. For instance: Sometimes the manager's continued ability to command that respect runs into conflict with the team's ability to win baseball games; there is an obvious example of this tenet, and right now it plays third base for the Cincinnati Reds.
As La Russa becomes more and more a central figure in contemporary Cardinals history—another James nugget comes in his section on nineties managers, which suggests that with free agency changing the makeup of teams on a yearly basis the modern manager "has increased responsibility, or if you prefer, increased opportunity, to establish the tenor of the team"—he has become influential enough to displace players who are objectively valuable to the Cardinals in the interest of his continued ability to do his job well. That's the major problem, right now, with evaluating managers—La Russa is almost certainly valuable to the Cardinals, but is he worth Rolen's three wins this year, or the .3 win difference between Rolen and Glaus to this point in the challenge trade?
Here's my best guess: sometimes a good manager loses enough of his team that it is unfeasible, practically, to rebuild it in his image. La Russa has fallen near that line on occasion, as he did with Rolen, because his is a very involved style—the team has to be on board completely, or not at all. He's not Joe Torre. He's batted the pitcher eighth, he's pitched a guy an inning at a time, he's abolished the starting rotation. He's dumped players, including my two Favorite Cardinals Of All Time, for vague, backstagey reasons when they've stopped buying into his system.
Sometimes that's hurt the team—Holliday for Wallace in the long-term, trading Anthony Reyes for Rule 5 spending money, running Wellemeyer and Kip Wells and Brett Tomko into the ground. Sometimes it's helped the team. Managers, like players, have strengths and weaknesses. A manager that put less pressure on the team might still be playing with Anthony Reyes and Dan Haren in his rotation; he might also have panicked in 2006. Evaluating a manager, in 2009, still involves a lot of mights.
As I read more about what it is to be a manager I hope to do some more of this high-rent book reporting. If anybody has any recommendations I'd love to hear them.