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blame and recrimination: the bats cave

i've been mulling a post that rob haneberg had up at the birdwatch last week (and y'all should read it). he charted the postseason scoring tendencies of tony la russa's teams going all the way back to his days at the helm of the (now-champion) chicago white sox. it's not a pretty picture: including the 2005 season, TLR's teams have been shut out 11 times in 91 postseason games, about twice as often as the average team over that span. they also have been held to 1 run 11 times, which is about average. so 22 times -- a quarter of the postseason games he has managed -- la russa's offenses have pretty much lost the game all by themselves. he's 0-22 in those contests.

that's partly just a function of the postseason: you have to have superior pitchers to make the playoffs, hence superior pitching tends to dominate once the playoffs commence. but then, la russa has almost uniformly brought superior offensive teams into the postseason, making their high rate of failure all the more striking. his worst postseason offense finished 4th in a 16-team league in scoring.

rob says, "I'm not looking to blame anybody so much as understand the path LaRussa's teams have taken." i'm not as generous; let's just assume it's la russa's fault somehow.

well no, let's be a tad more even-handed. let's consider a range of explanations that might account for this pattern, the two chief ones being

  1. la russa's simply unlucky -- his teams stop hitting in the playoffs because they get hit by injuries, run into hot pitchers, and/or just fall into slumps at inopportune times
  2. something about la russa's managerial style causes his teams to stop hitting in the playoffs

and if we think it's the latter, what exactly does la russa do to "cause" these slumps? some popular arguments include:

  1. he rides his players too hard in the regular season, increasing the chances of october burnout
  2. he stays too long with struggling veterans
  3. he gets too passive, waiting around for the big inning
  4. he gets too aggressive, wasting precious outs on one-run strategies
  5. he sets an anxious tone that causes players to press -- as salvomania so eloquently put it in last weekend's discussion thread, "micromanaging, obssessive-compulsive, dugout-stalking, tension-inducing, psychological warring that sucks the life and joy out of the game and turns a team into grim robots resigned to their role as pawns in the Genius's misguided machinations only to crack from the strain and mental exhaustion when the stakes are highest.

it's gonna take a lot of research to investigate all of the items on that list, even more to put them all into context. so for now i'm going to stick with the more manageable half of the question, viz.: maybe tony has simply been unlucky.

it's plausible; 91 games is a small sample, and a little bad luck can go a long way toward skewing the results. i'm a-gonna stick with the possibility that la russa's teams might have run into exceptionally hot pitchers in the postseason, causing them to stall out more often than usual. i'll look at every pitcher who has held his teams to 0 or 1 runs in the postseason. it's not that many guys; little more than a dozen. in particular i want to know: how did these guys fare against other teams during the same postseason? brian gunn and i were debating this very thing last week, when roy oswalt -- after looking invincible against the cardinals -- proved vincible aplenty against his next postseason foe. to what degree do we credit oswalt's great pitching for shutting down st louis, and to what degree do we fault the cardinal bats for failing to adjust? here's an attempt to put that discussion into broader context, and to see if we can't inch a little closer to understanding why TLR's teams seem so reliably to stop scoring come october.

so let's get started. here's how the shutdown pitchers have done against stl, and against ev'yone else. point of info: the won-lost records refer to how the pitcher's team fared, not the pitchers' individual w-l records:

pitcher/year vs TLR club vs other oct foes
oswalt 05 1.29 era, 0.857 whip, 2-0 5.40 era, 1.575 whip, 1-1
backe 05 1.59 era, 0.882 whip, 1-0 3.72 era, 1.135 whip, 0-2
lima 04 0.00 era, 0.667 whip, 1-0 n/a
backe 04 2.84 era, 0.789 whip, 1-1 3.00 era, 1.167 whip, 1-0
pedro 04 0.00 era, 0.714 whip, 1-0 5.40 era, 1.550 whip, 2-1
lowe 04 0.00 era, 0.571 whip, 1-0 2.92 era, 0.811 whip, 2-0
schmidt 02 1.17 era, 0.692 whip, 1-0 5.74 era, 1.723 whip, 1-1
reuter 02 4.09 era, 1.545 whip, 2-0 6.23 era, 1.538 whip, 2-1
schilling 01 0.50 era, 0.611 whip, 2-0 1.48 era, 0.659 whip, 3-1
hampton 00 0.00 era, 0.813 whip, 2-0 7.15 era, 1.941 whip, 0-2
smoltz 96 1.20 era, 1.000 whip, 2-0 0.78 era, 0.870 whip, 2-0
glavine 96 2.08 era, 0.769 whip, 1-1 1.35 era, 1.125 whip, 1-2
maddux 96 2.51 era, 1.186 whip, 1-1 1.19 era, 0.794 whip, 2-1
david cone 92 3.00 era, 1.333 whip, 1-1 3.48 era, 1.645 whip, 2-0
rijo 90 0.59 era, 0.913 whip, 2-0 4.38 era, 1.378 whip, 1-1
hershiser 88 1.00 era, 0.722 whip, 2-0 1.09 era, 1.014 whip, 1-2
boddicker 83 0.00 era, 0.889 whip, 1-0 0.00 era, 0.333 whip, 1-0
flanagan 83 1.80 era, 1.000 whip, 1-0 4.50 era, 1.750 whip, 1-0
davis 83 0.00 era, 1.167 whip, 1-0 5.40 era, 1.400 whip, 1-0

here's the first thing that jumps out at me: since 2000, half the pitchers who mastered the cardinals got roughed up by other postseason opponents. the only guy who could truly qualify as "dominant" is curt schilling; the rest are good pitchers having good seasons. but while those pitchers looked unhittable against st louis, they were very hittable vs other playoff teams -- and that undermines the notion that TLR has been merely a victim of circumstance. let's total it up:

vs TLR club vs other oct foes
overall 1.29 era, 0.894 whip, 26-4 3.09 era, 1.170 whip, 24-15
2000 and after 1.18 era, 0.822 whip, 14-1 4.29 era, 1.295 whip, 12-9

the "overall" line suggests that TLR's teams have been getting beat by good but not great pitchers. you can give his teams a pass on a few of these guys -- notably hershiser, boddicker, schilling, and the three atlanta pitchers. but i'd like to know how that 3.09 overall era compares to the aggregate postseason era for all games dating back to 1983; that would tell us how tough these pitchers really were as a group. (if anybody knows a quick n dirty way to make the calculation, please advise.)

but the "since 2000" line is truly depressing. the cards have been getting knocked out of the playoffs by beatable pitchers, plain and simple. there may be mitigating circumstances in a given year -- viz. this year, where oswalt clearly didn't have it against the white sox. but year in, year out?

like rob, i don't know how to explain it, and i'm not necessarily blaming la russa . . . . but ain't it the damnedest thing?