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.

Middle Infield: A Work in Regress

A few days ago, the Seattle Mariners announced that Brendan Ryan would be their starting shortstop. Jack Wilson would move to second base. Ryan, of course, was the Cardinals shortstop last year. Wilson is a former Cards farmhand. He was traded 10 years ago for LOOGY Jason Christiansen. This was Walt Jocketty’s second worst trade as Cards GM, which says more about Jocketty’s success than Wilson’s talent.

Ryan is a very similar player to Wilson. They are both phenomenal fielders and poor hitters, though they show unexpected flashes of adequacy at the plate that can probably be explained by sample size and luck. It’s strange to see them paired up. They will combine to form a terrifying vacuum of offense in the lineup and on the field.

I want to poke fun at the Mariners middle infield. I want to call out the strange decision to let Jack Wilson and his clone get at-bats in the same game. I’m not sure I like their thinking that other infielders can play 2b even if they aren’t experienced there. It didn’t work terribly well with Chone Figgins, and Wilson hasn’t played there in the pros. But I can’t focus on any of these things in good faith because I look back at the Cardinals and they’re doing something even worse:

Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot.

Whenever I start to think about opening day, whenever I start to get excited that baseball is going to begin, I remember that our middle infield consists of Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot. They are memento mori. They remind me that I, too, will die.

Skip Schumaker is not a 2B.

To be honest, I thought the experiment was interesting. I was glad the Cardinals were willing to experiment with the defensive spectrum. I’m still glad the Cardinals are willing to experiment with the defensive spectrum. Lance Berkman in RF scares me, but it’s an exciting gamble.

But Schumaker is not a 2B. We tried. It was a worthy attempt. He’s a hard-nosed, athletic player who didn’t hit well enough to be a corner OF but played infield in college. I don’t blame the Cardinals or Tony La Russa for trying to make him a 2B. If it worked, it would have been great. But it didn’t. After two years, he’s still defensively one of the worst infielders in the majors. Total Zone numbers put him at -6 runs in the field last yar. UZR puts him at -15.4. Fielding Bible +/- had him at -9. He had 16 errors.

I’m wary about fielding statistics. Sometimes they disagree with each other. Sometimes they aren’t consistent year-to-year. But every single one agrees that Skip Schumaker is an absolutely horrible infielder. It’s a consensus, and no one who sees him play would argue against it.

Of course, if he hit well I’d be happy to ignore all those numbers. Defensive statistics aren’t as good as offensive statistics and it’s easy for a good hitter to thrive as a bad fielder, even at a position like 2B. Jeff Kent was a bad 2B and it was foolish to complain about his defensive issues. Dan Uggla is awful but his OPS is in the .800s.

Last season Schumaker had a line of .265/.328/.338. Those aren’t the numbers you want if you’re putting up with a terrible infielder. Those are the sort of numbers that are somewhat easily replaceable, even on the infield. Those are the sort of numbers that would get a guy released if he was an outfielder. And Skip Schumaker is an outfielder.

Schumaker, however, is only half the problem. The Cardinals are replacing the defensive wizardry of Brendan Ryan with the defensive shoddy workmanship of Ryan Theriot. Theriot comes to the Cardinals from the Cubs by way of the Dodgers.

Theriot hit .270/.321/.312 last year, which is to say he was a worse batter than Skip Schumaker. He’s a better fielder, though, and if he was going to be the 2B at least that would be something to feel good about. However, Theriot will be the starting SS for the Cardinals. He barely played at SS last year, but (to be fair) it wasn’t entirely his fault. He was moved off SS for 2B for Cubs rookie Starlin Castro.

Castro, however, wasn’t a terribly good SS. Total Zone has him at -12, UZR at -3. So it wasn’t like Theriot was supplanted by Ozzie Smith. Castro, however, hit well enough to stick and the Cubs never tried switching their positions. The Dodgers never even let Theriot get an inning at SS so the totality of the circumstances doesn’t suggest Theriot was an exceptional defensive SS. And when a starting position player has a .633 OPS, he should probably be exceptional.

That’s the Cardinals middle infield. Schumaker and Theriot. A slap hitting OF and 2B at 2B and SS respectively.

I want to look forward to the season. Sometimes it’s hard.