The Upside of Tony La Russa

I don’t like TLR. I don’t think he’s a particularly good manager. He’s stubborn and wrong-headed, his bullpen management is puzzling, and he bunts way too often. Of course, this is true of most managers. It’s rare to watch a game where both teams don’t make some inexplicable move that flies in the face of common sense and/or advanced baseball statistics.

Perhaps TLR’s biggest sin is the leeway he’s given. On his own, he’s no worse than a run-of-the-mill bad manager. He makes too much money to make the same mistakes as everyone else in baseball. He seems entirely invulnerable from criticism, even when he does insane things like leak a private trade request from Colby Rasmus to the media that wasn’t actually a trade request.

But I’ve been entirely too pessimistic on this blog lately. I’d like to try and write a positive post about the Cardinals, because outside of Ryan Franklin (and TLR’s misplaced faith in him) the team has been really quite good lately. So I’m going to do the hardest thing I can think of: I’m going to talk about the good things TLR brings to the Cardinals.

First off, there is Dave Duncan. I generally don’t believe that coaches at the major league level have a huge effect on the performance of their players. Most major leaguers are fully developed, most coaches think alike and use similar systems… And most of the time there’s no data to back up the impact a coach has on individual players. Duncan is somewhat of an outlier. He’s helped several pitchers resurrect their careers, and even overseen the transformation from journeyman to ace a few times. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what he did for Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter. A cursory look across the usual stat-head baseball sources reveals that, for example, fangraphs and Tom Tango, author of The Book via a link to 3-D baseball acknowledge that statistics are consistent with the existence of a Dave Duncan Effect.

Keeping Duncan and losing TLR doesn’t seem like a possibility, so we have to count him among TLR’s positive attributes. Admittedly, it’s really fun to watch Cardinal pitching, and to speculate about which pitchers Dave Duncan could “turn around”. Without TLR, we wouldn’t have that.

Second, TLR is willing to take certain chances that are rare in baseball. They don’t always work, but they show a creativity that is sorely lacking in other managers. TLR’s creativity may lead to mistakes, but I’d rather see a team fail because the manager was thinking outside of the box rather than because the manager was conforming to established thought.

The pitcher hitting eighth? Fantastic idea. I’d like to see it more often. The Book, which I seem to be citing a lot in this post, agrees that it’s the best position to put the pitcher in the lineup. TLR was the first person to try it and the only one who dares return to it, even though it’s the right thing to do. That’s worth something.

Skip Schumaker to 2b? It turned out to be a disaster, but I really respect the Cardinals and TLR for trying. I don’t respect them for sticking to the experiment even though it failed, but I’m glad they tried. Schumaker was a hitter with marginal value in the outfield but a plus if he could play 2b. If it worked, it would have been a coup. Given Schumaker’s willingness to try, his athleticism, and the dearth of 2b options over the last couple of years… I think it was a bold attempt, and there are few managers who would have pursued such an unorthodox move with enthusiasm.

Lance Berkman back in the OF? Okay, the jury is still out on this one. He doesn’t look good out there. He’s been party of 2-3 really bad plays. When we signed him to play RF, we essentially punted defense for a good hitter with the potential to be great. And his hitting has been great. It’s worked so far. He’s made up for his defensive shortcomings by being a much better hitter than Jon Jay or Nick Stavinoha, or whoever else we might have put out there.

There have been other good unconventional things that TLR has tried. The Batista/McClellan fakeout during the Friday rain delay comes to mind. That was a great move, and it’s rare for me to think that any move is particularly great.

Of course, this is all offset by TLR’s problems. Whenever I start to reflect on the good aspects of TLR, I go back and look at this article, Joe Posnanski’s excellent take on the 20 inning game last year: For baseball’s great overmanaging artist, this was his Mona Lisa . La Russa is terrible at times, and he’s unapologetic about it.

But, just once, I felt like looking at his positive qualities. Even if one of those qualities is Dave Duncan, and the other is a fortunate side effect of his hubris.

He certainly makes baseball in St. Louis more interesting.

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