Craig Paquette: A Look Back

On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate.  When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston.  The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era.  The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July.  Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36.  He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.

Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway.  Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression.  He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play.  Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF.  Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him.  In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk.  On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30.  Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?

As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette.  La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons.  During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons.  And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.

Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals.  He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base.  Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465.  That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.

I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette.  At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on  La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me.  It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated.  My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.”  Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.

Now I realize how spoiled I was.

Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals.  Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about.  But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.

There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.

Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo.  Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.

Sure, there were plenty of mistakes.  Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso.  And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?

Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).

Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette.  Damn, that’s depressing.



The Hollow Manager

When Mike Matheny was hired to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, he had never managed a game above the little league level. Or at least that’s how the story goes. I can’t find any verification that he ever managed a game at the little league level, either.  Most of the articles from around the time of his hiring describe him as an “assistant little league coach”, which seems to put him a level below the guy who decides whether the team gets to go out for ice cream after the game.  But it doesn’t matter.  Even if Matheny was making the lineup and pitching changes for the 12-and-under TPX Warriors, he came into MLB with no meaningful professional experience.

At the time, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing. I still don’t, at least in theory.  When Mike Matheny was just rumored to be a candidate, I wrote this blog post discussing his surprising appearance among a list of expected names. I defended his potential hiring, because he’s always been a good clubhouse guy and I thought it was ridiculous to pay a ton of money for a good “tactical” manager because unlike on most sports, the tactical moves a manager can make are limited enough that anyone can probably learn to do them.

Maybe I was half right.

We are now two months into Mike Matheny’s third year as manager of the Cardinals and I think I need to start a petition to expand the field of “profanity” so I don’t have to repeat myself so often. I honestly haven’t watched enough other teams lately to say, definitively, that Matheny is the worst tactical manager in baseball, but I’d believe it.

This might sound harsh or spoiled, since the Cardinals were in the World Series last season, but I don’t think it’s wrong. I stand by my earlier assertion that managerial tactics aren’t that important, so even the most bumbling manager isn’t going to implode a good team, which is why (along with some astronomically weird situational splits) the Cards were still incredibly successful last year. However, a bad manager can cost a team a couple wins over the season with his late-innings substitutions, and that number might just be important to a team on the cusp.

Despite everything I hoped, Mike Matheny never learned how to manage. Perhaps even worse than that, though, is that he did learn what managing should look like. Years of playing under Tony La Russa taught him several lessons: a manager meddles with the lineup. He looks at platoon matchups and player history, and makes substitutions that keep players fresh and puts them in the position to succeed. A manager isn’t afraid to cut back the playing time of a star or prospect who is struggling, hurt, or not giving his all.  He is quick to make a pitching change, but will let a starting pitcher he trusts work out of a jam.  And late in the game, he will use the double switch to control the lineup.

Tony La Russa did all these things and, while sometimes I would disagree with him, for the most part he did them well. The Cardinals experienced unbelievable success under La Russa, and Mike Matheny was around for a lot of that. So he emulates La Russa. He repeats the actions he has watched with precision but without purpose, like a teenage boy who has seen every Jackie Chan movie and thinks he can fight because his moves look the same in the mirror.

Over the last two months, the Cardinals have rarely utilized the same lineup two days in a row, rare for most teams but a staple of the La Russa era. But these changes were haphazard, never moving the struggling Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig out of their established roles, or based on sample sizes so small they would make even the stingiest caterer blush. Like La Russa, Matheny gives plenty of playing time to his bench, but never in a manner calculated to see them succeed. A few weeks ago, Bernie Miklasz detailed his usage of Daniel Descalso, who has gotten most of his time at SS, and in high leverage situations, both of which set him up for failure. Descalso isn’t a contact hitter or a shortstop, but he is constantly dropped into those roles at critical moments.

Matheny has treated several rookies on the team with the JD Drew and Colby Rasmus special, reducing playing time in favor of established veterans and Matheny favorites. I never liked TLR’s approach with Drew and Rasmus, but I at least understood where he was coming from. They were stubborn, set in their ways, and often looked like they weren’t hustling because they’d had every level of the game handed to them on a platter. TLR forced them to earn at bats they had already earned because he thought they needed the adversity. But using that tactic on Kolten Wong, who seems to grind and hustle as much as the grittiest fan favorite? I’m reminded of Mr. Burns on the Simpsons, demanding Don Mattingly trim his sideburns time after time.

And then there are the pitching changes. Despite going to the pen often, Matheny still hasn’t figured out how to use Randy Choate, who has faced righthanders about as much as lefthanders in 2014, echoing the 2013 World Series, which is basically Exhibit A in the case that Matheny doesn’t understand why La Russa came walking out of the dugout so often.

Maybe the biggest sign Matheny doesn’t understand what he is doing, though, has been his use of the double switch. These days hardly a game goes by without an important piece of the offense getting pulled in the late innings so that Matheny can rearrange the lineup. And with the team battling a shaky bullpen in low scoring games, it’s left them high and dry on multiple occasions.

Remember the infamous twenty inning game of 2010?  Position player Joe Mather took the loss in a brutal 2-1 battle of attrition against the Mets. Tony La Russa was ravaged by fans and the media for a double switch that pulled Matt Holliday from the lineup and allowed the Mets to pitch around Albert Pujols for the latter half of the game (and took out one of the team’s best bats).

We haven’t had a twenty inning game yet in 2014, but Matheny makes similar thoughtless double switches so often that it’s no longer remarkable. And worse, sometimes they’re done without any reason. On Thursday, Wong was removed from the game simply to push back the pitcher’s spot from 9 to 2, even though the pitcher wasn’t due to bat in the next inning. There was no tactical advantage in the double switch at all and, as a result, Shane Robinson was sent up at a critical moment rather than Wong.

Of course, this problem would be remedied with a better bench—lately the bats coming into the game aren’t much better than the pitchers they are theoretically replacing—but you should never be switching out guys in the 2-5 spots in the lineup unless there is a decided tactical advantage to doing so.

Mike Matheny knows what a manager is supposed to do, but he still hasn’t learned how or why. He plays the part, but only because he’s memorized the lines. It worked for two years, thanks to one of the best front offices in the game and a heaping portion of luck. But if the Cardinals continue to struggle this season, it’s only a matter of time before everyone grows tired of his hollow Tony La Russa act.


Experiences in Old Sports Games: Not Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball

I’m late on making this post because I threw out what I wrote last night.  The subject of my post was going to be Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball for the Commodore 64, both because I can’t stop picking baseball games and because I was using the post as an excuse to rant about Mike Matheny.

See, for a long time I disliked Tony La Russa.  In 2000, he started Rick Ankiel against the New York Mets in the NLCS, giving him a little-needed second chance to implode.  In 2001, he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman and it arguably cost the Cardinals the division.  I realize it was foolish to get so hung up on a single bad move, but using Tabaka there may still be the single worse bullpen call I’ve ever seen (bringing in Boggs on May 30 of this year comes close).  So after 2001 I was done with La Russa and couldn’t wait for him to leave.  Of course, he didn’t leave, the Cardinals won a shit-ton, and my hatred of La Russa lessened all the way to the point that I finally want him back.

This is the 17th result for a google image search for "Jeff Tabaka", which says everything about his career and also the result of bringing him into that game.

This photo of Lance Berkman is the 17th result for a google image search for “Jeff Tabaka”, which says everything about his career and also the result of bringing him into that game.

Basically, the post I had written up Thursday night was only half about Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball. I discussed how it innovated the presentation of fly balls within the game.  Rather than render every hit as a ground ball, or use a shadow texture to indicate the height of the ball, the interface marked the spot the ball would eventually land.  This made fielding much easier, and allowed for a greater variety of hit types.  This innovation and the fantasy draft, like the bullpen innovations of Tony La Russa himself, was imitated by everyone who came afterwards and is now a standard part of the genre.

Tony La Russa also innovated the use of the conga line on the basepaths.

Tony La Russa also innovated the use of the conga line on the basepaths.

The other half of my post was about how I missed La Russa, and how sick of Mike Matheny I was.  This was coming off games 4 and 5 of the NLCS, in which he put on a bad managing clinic.  It was like watching Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough: the performance was so terrible that if I wanted to teach someone how to be godawful, it would be shown in class on day one.  However, after last night I just couldn’t go through with the post.

Denise Richards could play a nuclear physicist in the same sense that Matt Adams could play shortstop.

Denise Richards could play a nuclear physicist in the same sense that Matt Adams could play shortstop.

It’s not because my mind has changed about Matheny.  I still think he’s lost out there and carried by a very talented team and front office.  Most managers are.  But it seemed light the pinnacle of Being A Spoiled Cardinals Fan to put down so many words about the manager’s mistakes on the same day that the team advanced to the World Series.  My team is about to appear in the fourth World Series out of the last ten, and I wasn’t about to write a post critical of the team while that was happening.

Yeah this looks like the face of a guy who would make the ~1,500 words I wrote on Thursday completely meaningless.

Yeah this looks like the face of a guy who would make the ~1,500 words I wrote on Thursday completely meaningless.

So in place of the post I was going to put up yesterday, I’m just going to end on a picture of Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran celebrating a World Series trip together, posted on twitter by Beltran’s wife, @ivanalenin.


Even if you hate the Cardinals, you should be cheering for Beltran to get a ring.  He’s arguably the best post-season hitter of all time, and while he shouldn’t need to bolster his Hall of Fame credentials, the truth is he’s going to need as much help as he can get.

The Strange Case of Mike Matheny

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but something’s been going on over in the sports section of STLtoday.  It began a week ago, with reports that former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny would be interviewed as a possible replacement for Tony La Russa.

Perhaps this didn’t come as a huge surprise to a lot of people.  Matheny was a well-respected leader on the team many years ago. He was hard-nosed and competitive.   Even then, there was talk that he would make a good coach or manager some day.  But on closer examination, it was a little unusual.

Matheny hasn’t been a manager in the minors, like Ryne Sandberg, Chris Maloney, or even Joe McEwing.  He hasn’t been a coach with the current Cards club like Jose Oquendo or Joe Pettini.  And he certainly doesn’t have the big league pedigree of Terry Francona or Joe Maddon.

Matheny’s coaching experience, as far as I know, is limited to a few years as a spring training instructor and a series of videos for Protege Sports.  Does that mean he’d be a bad manager?  Of course not.  I’m actually an advocate of signing an inexperienced manager because someone without a history is going to cost less.  And I don’t think that the manager is terribly important.  As long as he gets along with his players and doesn’t make too many horrible mistakes, he probably has less effect on the success of the team than the backup catcher or mopup reliever.  There’s no reason to break the bank on a manager.

I’m in a pretty small minority with that viewpoint, however.  So it was a bit unusual to me that the Cardinals, fresh off a WS victory, would consider replacing a high profile manager like La Russa with a complete rookie.  I didn’t think too much about it, though.  I honestly thought that they were interviewing Matheny as a courtesy or a curiosity.  At that point, I assumed that Oquendo, Sandberg, and Francona were the real candidates.

Then STLtoday featured an article which detailed Matheny’s interview with the Cards.  This piece highlighted his positive attributes, addressed his lack of experience, and was quick to point out Matheny’s bonds with Dave Duncan, Yadier Molina, and of course Albert Pujols.

Once again, this was only slightly unusual at the time.  But now, almost a week later, there haven’t been any similar articles about the other candidates.  There have, however, been stories considering the merit of hiring an inexperienced manager as well as a Bernie Miklasz article contemplating Matheny as a potential choice.

If you’re as cynical as me, you realize that STLtoday might be floating a trial balloon.  They might be preparing Cardinals fans for what they already know or suspect: Mike Matheny is the frontrunner to replace Tony La Russa.  We’ve certainly seen it before.  Rasmus’s departure came on the heels of various stories about his difficulty with the Cardinals coaching staff.  McGwire was floated as a potential hitting coach in the news before he was hired.  Are we seeing that same thing now?  And why?

Why Matheny?  Why would the Cardinals–who have spent the last 16 years demonstrating that they value the position of manager far too much–hire a completely inexperienced skipper?

Two possibilities come to mind:

1. This may be an unfortunate response to a crisis of leadership.  The Cardinals have been Tony La Russa’s team for so long that they might not know how to live without him.  Perhaps they hope to keep his reign alive as long as possible by hiring a figurehead manager, and allowing Duncan and McGwire to make the real calls.  This isn’t a particularly flattering analysis for Matheny, but it is something that should be considered.  Matheny is a blank slate, and perhaps the Cardinals want to shape his future with the help of La Russa’s old coaches.

Of course, if this was the goal, why not hire Joe Pettini?  He’s filled in for La Russa numerous times.  He probably knows La Russa’s style better than anyone but Duncan.  He’d be the natural fit if you wanted to ensure maximum continuity.  Which leaves me with…

2. This is Mozeliak’s power play.  And it’s really goddamn interesting.  When Walt Jocketty was dismissed following the 2007 season and replaced with Jon Mozeliak, I assumed the new GM was nothing but a puppet for Tony La Russa.  Jocketty left over disputes with management.  Mozeliak was an org team player.  Throughout his time with the Cardinals, he’s been at La Russa’s beck and call.  He traded Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus.  He acquired Matt Holliday, Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman.  The media made no attempts to conceal where these moves truly originated.  La Russa wanted these players (or he wanted them gone) and Mozeliak made it happen.

Now La Russa’s gone.  There’s a power vacuum.  And I think this is a surprising move from Mozeliak to come out of the shadows and establish that he’s no longer just an apparatus of a larger-than-life manager.

How do I figure this?  A little tidbit that has come out into the public  eye since this search began.  Mike Matheny has been working for Mozeliak, in the GM’s office, for the last year or so.  Think about this quote from the above-mentioned Miklasz article:

“He’s also served as an adviser to Mozeliak. An unofficial assistant GM, if you will.”

Interesting, right?  Pettini and Oquendo are acolytes of La Russa.  They worked on the field with him.  McEwing and Sandberg are managerial prospects from the White Sox and Phillies, respectively.  Terry Francona would bring his own people in.  But Mike Matheny?  He’s been working with Mozeliak.

There is still no predicting who will be the Cards’ manager in a few days.  But I think that Matheny’s sudden ascension to front-runner shows that Mozeliak is ready to make the Cardinals his team.  For better or worse.








The End of the Tony La Russa Era

Tony La Russa retired today.  He decided to leave baseball on a high note, stepping down as the manager of the Cardinals after leading the team on a thrilling, improbable streak to a world championship.

This move leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings.  Sometimes I like La Russa.  Sometimes I hate him.  Even when he’s winning, he can be infuriating.  Even when he’s losing, he can be fascinating.  No other manager sticks Skip Schumaker at second base, then leaves him there even after he’s proven he can’t play the position.  But, then again, no other manager is willing to try batting the pitcher eighth.  I still think that’s a good idea.

No matter how I feel about La Russa at the moment, there is no denying that he shaped the face of the St. Louis Cardinals.  For better and for worse.

He took over as manager in 1996.  That was back when Bill Clinton was campaigning for a second term, the Macarena was a hit song, and Hailee Steinfeld–the actress who played Mattie in 2010’s “True Grit”–wasn’t even born.

La Russa took the team from the fading embers of the contact-and-speed Ozzie Smith era to the electrifying tape-measure Mark McGwire era.  It wasn’t a graceful transition, and ended up alienating Smith as well as a legion of Cardinals fans.  There are still those who, to this day, yearn for the slaps and steals of Whiteyball.

La Russa guided the team through the days of the MV3: Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen.  But he also broke up the band.  His bizarre feud with Scott Rolen cast a dark shadow over what should have been a pleasant run at a title repeat in 2007.

The next few years were rough, but La Russa remained as the Cardinals built a new sort of team.  Pujols remained, but instead of being surrounded with elite hitters, he was paired with a couple of aces.  Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright were not always healthy at the same time.  But when they were, they made the Cardinals a team to be feared.

And now the Pujols years may be coming to an end.  It’s too soon to be sure, but there’s a fair chance that next season is an entirely new beginning.  If so, Tony La Russa took us all the way from the end of Whiteyball to the end of the Pujolsball.  That’s sixteen years.

It’s almost impossible to judge the skill of a manager.  There are too many factors.  If we want to be traditional–look to wins, postseason appearances, and titles–La Russa may be the best manager the Cardinals have ever had.  In his sixteen years, the Cardinals made the postseason nine times.  They went to three World Series.  They won two of them.  Only a Yankees fan could find those results unacceptable.

Of course, La Russa was gifted with incredibly talented players during his time with the Cardinals.  Lankford, McGwire, Drew, Edmonds, Pujols, Kile, Rolen, Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday, Berkman…  Just to name the standouts.   La Russa also had the benefit of the best pitching coach in baseball.  I’m not sure Dave Duncan isn’t the one really responsible for La Russa’s success in St. Louis.  There is no one like him and I suspect he will be missed even more than Tony in 2012.

Considering the folks surrounding La Russa, it’s damn near impossible to give him full credit for everything he did for the Cardinals.  But he shouldn’t be overlooked.  Chances are, La Russa had a finger in acquiring many of the players I listed above.  He was more than just a manager.  He exerted control over the team far beyond the confines of the dugout.

That was part of the reason Walt Jocketty–another talented person who lent his skill to La Russa’s legacy–left in 2007.  The Cardinals weren’t his team.  They were Tony’s team.  And they were handed over to John Mozeliak.  Outside of the surprising Chris Duncan trade, Mozeliak has largely been seen as an apparatus of La Russa’s influence.

When La Russa wanted Matt Holliday, Mozeliak got Matt Holliday.  When La Russa wanted Brendan Ryan gone, Brendan Ryan was gone.  After Tony expressed a desire to improve the “character” of the clubhouse, Mozeliak brought in Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, and Nick Punto.  When Colby Rasmus wore out his welcome, he was shipped off for veteran pitching depth.

Things are going to change now.  Tony La Russa is no longer in charge.  What does that mean?  Is that good?  Is it bad?  I don’t have the answer for that.  When you look at the decisions La Russa made–and the fact that he was being paid millions to make them–it’s hard not to think the team is better off without him.  But when you look at his tenure in St. Louis–the years between 1996 and today– it was, overall, an amazing time to be a Cardinals fan.

I often disagreed with Tony La Russa.  I often hated his decisions. I often wanted him gone. But the Tony La Russa era was far more than the sum of its parts.  It’s very possible that I will never see a more prosperous stretch of Cardinal baseball.

So I want to thank Tony La Russa for the last sixteen years.  I don’t know if he’s responsible for any of it.  But I also don’t know if that matters anymore.

Elaboration on an Abomination

I wish that I could convince myself that what I am about to write is simply hyperbole.  I don’t want to feel this way.  I don’t want to be this reactionary and short-sighted.  But it’s impossible.  I can’t stop thinking it.  Tonight may have been the worst-managed baseball game I’ve ever watched.  Feel free to correct me.  Tell me about a game that was managed worse. It would make me feel better.

Tonight I watched the St. Louis Cardinals make a series of awful decisions that cost them the lead in the World Series.  And it sucked.

Earlier this evening, I made a very quick post about Mike Napoli’s stats versus righthanded and lefthanded pitchers.  It was brief, and I only made it because I couldn’t fit my point into a single tweet.  Basically, Napoli’s had a strong platoon split for his entire career.  He hits righthanders fine, but he crushes lefties.  This season especially, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball against lefthanded pitching.  Leaving in noted lefty Marc Rzepczynski to face Napoli with the bases loaded was painfully foolish.  It’s reminiscent of allowing Lohse to face Howard in game 1 against the Phillies.  La Russa loves matchups, and he’s been manipulating them like crazy throughout the playoffs.  Here, he sat in the dugout and watched as a mediocre lefty faced a batter who eats lefties for breakfast.  The result was predictable.  4-2 Rangers.

If only that was all we saw tonight.  Instead, we also witnessed Ryan Theriot pinch-bunt.  Bunting isn’t a great move in general.  There are few situations where it improves the chances of scoring a run.  Most of those situations involve a pitcher at the plate.  There’s no reason to insert a player into the lineup specifically to bunt.  That’s insane.  I thought about citing statistics to prove how insane that is.  I don’t think that’s necessary.  The insanity is self-evident.  And I wish it was the most insane thing we saw.

No, the most insane move of the night was bringing Lance Lynn into the game to intentionally walk Ian Kinsler.  This was the calling card of the catastrophe.  It was how we all know that something was truly wrong.  There’s no explaining it.  Bringing in a pitcher, issuing an intentional walk, then pulling that pitcher should never happen.  Never.  I can contrive an elaborate situation to justify almost any managerial move–even the pinch bunt.  Not this one.  Clearly, the Cardinals management was lost in one of the most important games of the year.

Then to top it all off, in the top of the ninth the Cardinals send Allen Craig while Pujols (who can hit the ball a long way) is batting and Neftali Feliz (who can barely find the strike zone) is pitching.  It wasn’t just predictable that Albert would swing at a ball out of the zone and Craig, slow as his tortoise, would be thrown out at 2b.  It was damn near fated.  Craig can’t run.  Feliz is probably one of half a dozen pitchers in baseball  that Pujols can’t be trusted to make contact with.  Why?  Why hit and run there?  Craig crossing the plate doesn’t win the game for the Cards.  It doesn’t even tie the game.  The only reason to hit and run is to prevent the double play.  DPs have been a problem for the Cards, but consider this:

Albert Pujols has struck out 704 times in his career.  He’s only hit into 232 double plays.  That’s actually a lot of double plays and not that many strikeouts.  But the K is STILL far more likely than the GIDP.

Neftali Feliz has struck out 164 batters in his career.  He’s allowed 150 ground balls.  That’s right, Feliz is more likely to strike out a hitter than allow him to make contact and produce a ground ball.

There’s no reason to just expect a DP.  There’s no reason AT ALL to hit and run.

After the game, the excuses came fast and furious.  There was something wrong with the bullpen phone.  Albert himself put on the hit-and-run.  The speed at which this team covers for Tony La Russa is phenomenal.  If Allen Craig could run as fast as the Cards spin their failures, the team would be coming home up 3-2.

I really don’t know what else to say about what we saw in game 5.  It was atrocious.  It was like watching a car accident, except car accidents are usually over much quicker.

One week ago, the entirety of sports media was fawning over La Russa’s brilliance.  I wonder how many of those same writers dare question him after tonight?

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down

After 161 games, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves are tied in the NL Wild Card race at 89-72.

I haven’t posted in over two months.  There are reasons for that.

Some of my reasons are good: I was in the process of studying for, then taking, and finally agonizing over the bar exam.  I was also writing a novel.  Posting my thoughts about baseball on the internet took a back seat to other things.  It’s really too bad, as there have been so much drama and intrigue over the last few months.  The Colby Rasmus trade alone, along with the performance of the involved players after the move, would have given me plenty to write about.

Some of my reasons are bad: I haven’t been following the team as much as I did earlier in the season.  It’s been forever since I’ve paid this little attention to a Cardinals team.  I’ve been distracted, but it’s been more than that.  Up until this month, the Cardinals have been a frustrating mess that I simply couldn’t deal with.  Because of this, I felt rather unqualified to make any intelligent observations about them.

I’ve been watching over the last few weeks, however, and I’ve seen a Cardinals team with a new lease on life.  Over the season, they have turned victory into defeat.  Tonight, they turned defeat into victory.  That’s been this year in a nutshell.

No matter what happens, the comeback to tie for the wild card was amazing.  But, at the same time, it is something of a disappointment.

The fact that the Cardinals managed to get this far only underscores everything that went wrong.  Where would this team be with a healthy Adam Wainwright?  Where would they be if not for the persistent, random injuries to Matt Holliday?

And where would they be if not for some atrocious management early in the season?  One game is one game, and the Cardinals gave away several games this season.  If not for Tony La Russa’s fanatical devotion to Ryan Franklin, game 162 might just be a tune-up for the playoffs.  If not for a mind-boggling infield of Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker behind a groundball pitching staff for half the season, many of us Cardinals fans would already have our NLDS tickets in hand.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.  The Cardinals deserve to be in the playoffs.  The Cardinals front office and management staff…maybe not so much.  But it doesn’t matter.  It’s almost like a whole new season.  One day, two games, and everything will be decided.

Or not.  If the Cardinals and Braves both win or lose, we’ll see game 163.  Wouldn’t that be something?

Whiskey Tango Franklin

There are a whole lot of things I could write about Sunday’s game against the Braves. Most of them have already been covered earlier at some point in this blog. Ryan Franklin is a bad pitcher, Ryan Theriot is a bad shortstop. Trying to wring anything more out of these subjects would be agonizing. I think everyone knows my opinion about the two Ryans at this point. Frankin is a long reliever and Theriot is a second baseman. Relying on them in critical innings or at shortstop respectively has led to predictable disaster. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Et Cetera. Et Cetera.

But that’s not all that happened. The Ryan-fueled collapse wasn’t the biggest loss the Cardinals suffered on Sunday. David Freese was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his hand. Once again, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a third baseman.

Freese getting injured and missing significant time was almost as predictable as a Ryan Theriot error or a Ryan Franklin walk-off loss. Yes, HBP injuries are unexpected. Yes, it has nothing to do with his ankle. But we’ve seen this before. Think back to June 17, 2001, when J.D. Drew lost 6 weeks to a broken finger when David Wells drilled him in the hand.

These two injuries, combined with the bizarre career of Nick Johnson, almost make me want to believe that avoiding the DL is an innate talent that certain people simply lack. But I won’t go that far. It’s far more likely that this is just confirmation bias rather than some incredibly mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta that allows the victim to play baseball and live a normal life but makes HBPs, foul tips, and bad baserunning far more dangerous.

Whether or not an injury to David Freese can truly be unexpected, the injury still happened. And it caught the Cardinals off guard. In fact, combined with an earlier precautionary exit from David Freese, TLR was forced to move Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since–

Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s not why Albert Pujols had to take his surgically reconstructed elbow across the diamond, where he actually has to use it. That’s not why a player who hasn’t played 3b in nearly a decade was put there during a tie game.

All of that happened because Tony La Russa pinch hit Jon Jay for Tyler Greene. AFTER both of the injuries. The decision was made to pull Greene from the game with the full knowledge that someone would have to play out of position at either 2b, SS, or 3b. (And Ryan Theriot was already playing out of position at SS.)

It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen from TLR. And that’s saying a lot, because I can still remember the day he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman, and when he double switched Matt Holliday out of the lineup during a 20 inning debacle. There’s a reason Albert Pujols is not the Cardinals’ 3b. It isn’t like we’re keeping him at first because of the fantastic options we have at third. He’s a 1b because he’s been diagnosed with a bad case of Fucked Up Elbow. And last I checked, throwing across a baseball diamond is not part of the recommended physical therapy for Fucked Up Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, TLR has backed himself into this corner before. On April 22, 2008, an injury to Cesar Izturis coupled with typically poor bench management by the Cards front office left the team with a deficit of infielders. That time, however, TLR made the right decision. He put Pujols at 2b.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the right decision. But if you start from the assumption that “moving Pujols off 1b” is a critical part of the solution, 2b is the best place to stick him. Throws at second base rarely require much force, and it’s probably the second best position on the diamond for a player with a halfway reconstructed elbow. Yes, Pujols wouldn’t have any range at 2b, but neither does Skip Schumaker and that never seems to bother La Russa.

If TLR moved Pujols to 2b for a couple innings, I might have made a few jokes. It would have been funny. It would have made a few fantasy baseball teams with very low playing time requirements juggernauts. But it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous for the Cardinals’ season, or Albert Pujols’s career.

And now, of course, the team has to make do without David Freese. From the sounds of it, the Cards are activating Allen Craig rather than calling up Matt Carpenter. What does this mean? It means we’re going to have to fill three spots in the lineup (and the entire infield defense minus Albert) with the following players: Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig.

How terrifying is that?

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.