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Tony LaRussa Retires

November 1, 2011

Tony LaRussa managed the St. Louis Cardinals to their eleventh World Series championship (second under his watch, and his third with the other one coming with the 1989 Oakland Athletics) and then promptly left the game of baseball. Got to hand it to him, he is walking out on a high note and who can’t respect that. The only reason I am writing about LaRussa is he managed the A’s for a long while, from 1986 through 1995. During his tenure in Oakland he managed the A’s to a 798-673 record (.542) including four American League West titles, three American League pennants and one World Series Championship.

You can’t deny that LaRussa is a decent manager, you don’t get to where he is without it, but he also was far from the picture perfect skipper the media has made him out to be these past few days. A friend of mine and I have argued about the role managers play in determining a team’s success – LaRussa is who sparked that argument. For all of LaRussa’s tinkering (in 1993 with the A’s LaRussa set a still-standing American League record 424 pitching changes – remember that is in American League baseball) how much role did he really play in the A’s winning? How could a manager not win with the collection of talent the A’s had from 1986 through 1992? Once that talent evaporated the A’s slumped in 1993 to 68-94 (.420) and found themselves in the AL West cellar, before posting two strike-shortened years of 51-63 (.447) and 67-77 (.465) in 1994 and 1995 respectively. John Charles Bradbury of Kennesaw State University, studied the effect managers have on both performance (looking at individual players) and attendance, in talking about performance he wrote,

“determining managerial responsibility for player performance is difficult to measure. This study examines how major-league baseball players perform under different managers and estimates that managers have little effect on performance”

Meanwhile, Chris Jaffe – who wrote a book on managers that I have not yet read but now intend to said in an interview at AZSnakePit when asked what impact do managers really have (it should be noted Jaffe does highlight LaRussa in this interview as well),

“In general, a few/couple games.  Most managers aren’t that wildly different from each other.  That said, it could potentially be more.

Well, sort of.  What I mean is that a manager can be worth more based on how he interacts with the team. In and of himself he isn’t worth more than what I said above, but he can make a substantially larger impact than that.  Get the right man in the right situation, and you can see a Billy Martin-esque improvement.  Alternately, the wrong man in the wrong slot can kill a team. “

Needless to say the body of evidence seems to be that by and large there is little impact that a manager has over the course of 162 games. I completely respect the way LaRussa tried new things. He can be credited with the modern closer role which (while not the most optimal) has forever changed the use of bullpens. In 1993 with Oakland he also tinkered and tried to go with different pitching rotation style that I discussed in depth on this blog, using three pitchers per game in specific slots. While his methodology for it wasn’t what I would consider the best reasoning or application – and though Dave Duncan seems to be more responsible for this idea than LaRussa – this sort of out of the box thinking, like his frequent hitting the pitcher 8th (something sabermetric studies have long supported) made LaRussa unique.

Despite Jaffe disagreeing with me in the article saying he felt LaRussa was one of those special right managers at the right time, I think he wasn’t. He was fine, better than average certainly, but he was self-righteous. Despite being one of the initial leaders in the statistical revolution, pondering issues like cERA and believing that it could help provide some sort of edge in a game, and despite playing tiny small sample sizes in determining pitcher/batter matchups, when the stats passed him by instead of adapting Tony just got angry and lashed out. Instead of seeing sabermetrics as an extension of his own quest for discovery and unraveling secrets in the game he said things like this arrogant quote in response to why he played Lance Berkman in left field one day,

“It’s my tribute to Moneyball. I’m not a big Moneyball fan. I have this little place, don’t have a big place. So what we do is we take the square footage between the right field line and center field and the square footage and from left field to center field, divide that by pi and we multiply it by bullshit, and then we pick the dugout. The field that’s closest to the dugout and that’s where Lance plays.”

It is this sort of attitude that resulted in so many people, including myself, disliking LaRussa so intensely. The arrogance was uncalled for and while he has revolutionized the game, playing matchups to a point of hilarity at times, creating the ninth-inning save and inflating the salaries of countless relief pitchers, to me he will be more remembered for his whining from his high horse – something that eventually filtered down to his players as one can argue that was the example set for Colby Rasmus by LaRussa and his preferred star Albert Pujols who whined and ducked questions when he didn’t want to answer them. A lack of responsibility and initiative is a recurring theme for LaRussa – blaming everyone but himself and professing ignorance when in Oakland he allowed the Steroids Era to truly begin with the massive hulks of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, body masses that couldn’t get past fans in Boston chanting “Steroids” in the 1990 American League Championship Series everytime Canseco stepped to the plate. An ignorance that persisted not only throughout his tenure in Oakland but even when he went to St. Louis and McGwire had androstenedione discovered in his locker, LaRussa who apparently was such a manager of men didn’t even know these fairly obvious intimate pieces of their character and how it affected their play on the field. Yet in most of the retirement write-ups these significant moments in history are glossed over, in favor of the quirky pitching changes, or the emergence of Dennis Eckersley.

Tony LaRussa didn’t deliver the 1989 World Series Championship (and I say that fully realizing many if not most of the members of that very World Series winning team may disagree), the players did. That amount of talent would’ve won regardless. LaRussa will end up in Cooperstown and in the absence of strong metrics to determine how much a manager really is worth I’m fine with him gaining entry, but let’s home he takes some humility there because we have yet to see that from him.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 10:31 pm

    guys always get cozy little send offs when they retire. all manufactured fluff from a media that called him a genius only because everyone else was doing it.

    tlr’s coverup of steroids is obvious. no quibble there.

    and an average manager’s influence decision-wise is debateable, but larussa’stactics were copied by everyone, which means he was no average manager.

    –agreements end here–

    Is the refusal to bow down to statistical analysis why you don’t like tony? the moneyball quote was intended to be funny, not to undermine your views of the game. view it as political humor: it may be a jab to “your side,” but the intention isn’t arrogant.

    nobody requested AP for an interview that day. he’s been in front of media after worse losses than that before. one incidentout of dozens is, as you would say, too small a sample size to judge him on.

    can you explain the tony’s arrogance thing to me? the examples you gave are easily debunked. is it that old SI cover? the media’s (incincere) reverance of him? the willingness to do things differently? what?

    • November 1, 2011 11:38 pm

      I disagree with your strong anti-media bias. The A’s reporters at least have been very gracious to me, and while they are sometimes limited in what they can say to ensure that information is not restricted to them going forward I think they as do most sports writers, write what they see, what they hear and of course what will sell. So rivalries are perhaps exaggerated, etc but I don’t think vendettas exist or anything of that nature or that all is forgiven and erased when one has retired. But I do think that ultimately in a retirement story, the positive will come out above the negative for any figure and that’s the case here.

      I don’t like LaRussa because he most certainly was arrogant as he felt he knew more than everyone else and that he was always the smartest person in the room – Joe Posnanski in a positive piece about LaRussa highlights it (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/joe_posnanski/02/25/larussa/). I think however this line from a Washington Post piece expresses it best: “Very few people were neutral when it came to La Russa — they either loved him or hated him. He was either a dugout genius who ran a game better than anyone else in baseball, or he was an arrogant tyrant who would go to any lengths to gain an advantage, however tiny. He was either a fierce loyalist when it came to his own players, or a blatant enabler. In all honesty, all of those characterizations were true. No baseball journalist sets out to write about the manager all postseason long, but in La Russa’s case it was unavoidable: On any given night, he was the story.” If you love him, you see that comment as jovial joking, if you hate him you don’t.

      My issue with LaRussa is I feel he overmanaged the game. He made needless changes to “take advantage” of slight edges that to me were him falling victim to believing small sample sizes. If Mark McGwire went 0-for-3 against someone but Lance Blankenship went 2-for-2 t doesn’t mean Blankenship is better suited for the situation than McGwire yet that was a calculus that LaRussa often bought into. With respect to the role of statistical analysis, LaRussa wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He’d buy into these ridiculous and meaningless statistics like pitcher vs. batter matchups and catcher’s ERA which show a curiosity and inquisitiveness about how to gain an edge yet then disparaged other advanced metrics that didn’t have their genesis with him. That he could not accept other people’s innovations and only accepted his own is the height of hubris.

      Regarding how LaRussa managed his stars, I honestly can’t remember his tenure with Oakland and how his players worked with the media, I would’ve been six to fifteen years old when he managed the A’s. Also even though I digested Baseball Weekly and Baseball America and everything I could find on a fledgling internet as a teenager, it isn’t like today when you can find quotes, clips, etc within seconds. But with St. Louis and particularly with Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols LaRussa has protected them which is fine he is the manager. But he also needs to lead, he needs to make his stars lead by example. Its the World freaking Series. The World Series is all small sample size and in that small sample size on the biggest stage Pujols didn’t comment and that to me shows cowardice. This is the time when the world (or at least the Americas and Far East) is watching. Plenty of guys have hit 3 HRs in a game, two have in the World Series and virtually all baseball fans know it is Albert Pujols and Reggie Jackson. In the thirty years I’ve lived on this planet 259 players have done that in the regular season – name them. I imagine you can’t because like or not the games are “bigger” and “matter more” when its the championship and that is when Pujols chose to ignore the media that in part has aided in his attaining his fame and fortune. If you are a manager, you make yourself accountable and you hold your best players accountable and LaRussa didn’t do it.

      Regarding your last line: “Can you explain the Tony’s arrogance thing to me? The examples you gave are easily debunked.” It is an opinion, as I noted above with the quote from the WaPo, your opinion colors quotes, so that was you see as leadership I may see as arrogance. What you may see as managing a game, I see as needless tinkering. So it isn’t easily debunked, it is accepting that one views things through the prism based upon their viewpoint. His willingness to do things differently is something I wholeheartedly support and lauded in my piece, highlighting one of his greatest failures as being something I admired despite its failure – the problem and where his arrogance fully lies, is in not being able to accept anyone else’s creativity or willingness do to things as possibly better than or even equal to his own.

      I know we often come from distinctly different points of view, but I appreciate you commenting on my blog and bringing your opinion to the table despite our philosophical differences. It’s a very welcome addition to this.

      • elmaquino permalink
        November 2, 2011 7:34 am

        glad to do it.

        what i never got was why multiple moves to gain little edges were SO bad–to the point of peiple hating the guy. you and i may never agree on this, but I’ll always wait out a pitching change to get that extra 1%.

      • November 2, 2011 12:58 pm

        You’re mistaking my assessment for having a problem with multiple moves. I don’t have a problem with multiple moves, even though it does grind a game to a halt rather quickly – it is the problem is that he is making sort of BS moves. LaRussa is constantly noted for making moves based upon pitcher vs. batter matchups (different from platoon splits). Those are absolutely meaningless. I can’t imagine one hitter has ever faced one pitcher enough times to actually deduce something from it – perhaps there is some crazy example of a pitcher and hitter in the same division for so long together. who knows – but I doubt it. That is where I have a problem. He makes moves to play stupid matchups, that isn’t an extra 1% thats about as sound as making a decision based upon a coin flip.

  2. Ben permalink
    November 2, 2011 1:46 am

    Tony L was about as nice in person as he looks to be on television, but he was part of the last dominant Oakland team. A lot of that might have had to do with talent, steroids, or owners who didn’t mind losing money–the point is we won a lot of games. Dissect all you want, I’ll take the memories–and Tony in the dugout was part of those memories. At least and until the next World Champion A’s team.

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