Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No Postseason Shower's More Delicious Than Tony La Russa's Tears

Tony La Russa is a good baseball manager. He takes teams to the postseason; he gets unexpected performances out of seemingly mediocre players. He has won championships. You could fill a railcar with sportswriters bound for ovens he designed, and they would nevertheless still lazily anoint him as humanity's closest thing to a baseball godhead. As I've said before, I hate the guy.

My antipathy for the man owes more to his press than anything he's done. But he's never repudiated his press and has instead encouraged it. There's something detached about him (a trait his followers attribute to some serenity from a higher perspective) that seems to suggest that it would be gauche for him to toot his own horn, but he wouldn't dream of pushing away someone tooting his for him. He's become his presentation, with only rare-to-nonexistent demurral. Since baseball beat writers who pretend to poetry and a spiritual understanding of what happens between actions on a baseball diamond lionize his micromanagerial maneuvering — and since their plaudits tend to manufacture a reality out of convenience or apathy — this vision of La Russa as a calculatingly remote man-shaped baseball sublimity will likely endure for generations.

As said, he's a good manager; he doesn't suck. That's not the problem. The problem is that the adulation for his management goes so far past the record that those who dislike him can apply that same level of exaggeration and make an equally strong case that he actually sucks. That level of puffery inflates both sides. Those of us who've never liked the man have been making the negative case for years, but it's worth another shot.

1. La Russa gets amazing performances out of his pitchers.
Future Hall of Famer John Smoltz had a few appearances this year for the Red Sox and was torched for 37 runs in 40 innings. After signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, he threw 38 innings and cut his earned runs in half. In fact, in his first game with the Cards, he threw something ludicrous like 7 innings of three-hit ball. The point is that this sort of thing has happened all the time over La Russa's career: the old, the journeymen and the really rough youths have frequently turned into good pitchers. Bob Welch actually won a Cy Young award playing for La Russa.

There are two problems here though. One, confirmation bias causes us to remember the remarkable turnarounds. Those reclamation projects we never thought would work astounded us when they resulted in lights-out performances or merely sustained competency. On the other hand, when was the last time you read an article entitled, "Tony La Russa's Pitchers Who Wound Up Being Total Ass Just Like We All Predicted"? We remember unexpected success because we follow both success and the unexpected. We don't remember all the failures we predicted would fail because, hey, no surprise there.

Two, pitching coach Dave Duncan has followed La Russa through every step of his career, and La Russa supposedly gives him a wide berth. The media often accords Duncan a kind of orbital-level genius, and few seem to realize the possibility that the pitching genius might all be his. Or, if they do, they don't mention it. Duncan's been La Russa's pitching coach for 27 years. Almost any other manager during that span would have had multiple pitching coaches, giving fans an idea of where to assign credit, but that doesn't work in this case. Now, granted, the years La Russa coached without Duncan saw team WHIPs and ERAs pretty comparable to those with Duncan, but it's possible those numbers can be accounted for by stability in the staffs (I'm not checking: clicking Baseball Reference just to look at a few numbers is enough for this lazy exercise). It's also over a generation ago, during a significantly different time in baseball, and also only a span of two years, during which the inertia of good players could have overcome a lot of coaching. It's tough to establish whether instruction or raw talent was responsible for those two years, nor which man has been making the changes for the last three decades as the game has adapted.

2. La Russa's teams win a lot of games every year.
Well, that's what happens if you have good starting pitching, and again we have no idea who should be praised for that. But more importantly, there's the fact that the cult of the "baseball manager doing basebally things like putting on hits-and-runs and calling for pinch-hit matchups" has for a long time vastly overrated his impact on the game. At the risk of turning this blog's recent updates into Bill Simmons references, the Sports Guy had a pretty apt metaphor for baseball managers. They're like boat captains: don't sink it, don't run it into an iceberg; that's it. Most of the time, they can just set the engine running and let people work things out on their own; whereas constantly fiddling with the course only risks extra dangers. Thus a lot of the stuff for which La Russa is lauded (making substitutions, writing shit on notecards) is sort of extraneous (more on this later).

The most important ingredient in winning is having people who can score runs at the plate and people who can prevent runs in the field. Since these are general managers' decisions, compliments are owed to someone other than La Russa. Baseball isn't chess, no matter how the sportswriters following him like to pretend it is, in his hands; but the fact is that two people of comparable chess ability are going to have a lopsided game if one player has two queens.

And while it would be a stretch to say that La Russa enjoyed that kind of personnel luxury, he has spent the last 24 years coaching teams with good players and often within the top 15 in payroll. (The Cardinals have flirted with the top ten in payroll, and in 2004 and 2006 were in the top 11. His 1989 and 1990 A's were #5 and #3 in payroll, respectively.) He's had the privilege of coaching McGwire and Canseco in their primes and coaching the preternaturally gifted Albert Pujols. (Pujols might wind up being the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.) La Russa has not flirted with skippering a cash-strapped team since Ronald Reagan's first term — and even then to properly appreciate his team's position vis-a-vis other teams we'd have to get into discussions of inflation and the lower pay disparity between teams in the (possibly collusive) era before explosive free-agent contracts.

3. La Russa writes lots of shit on notecards.
This is another topic of endless sportswriter admiration — La Russa doodling with loops and whorls all over cards about individual opponents' at-bats and pitching. And surely sometimes this is a boon to his coaching and can change a game. At the same time, though, it runs up against the Simmons boat-captain metaphor, and much of this sort of noodling has been soundly discounted by sabermetrics. For instance, La Russa has been called visionary for occasionally batting the pitcher 8th in the lineup. (It's a neat idea, but there are plenty of ways doing that alone won't bear any fruit.) Yet the folks at Baseball Prospectus have done a very good job of illustrating how lineup changes have at best a minor effect on batter performance and runs scored, to the degree that fussing around with them doesn't net you a significant difference in wins. Many of his noodling decisions are made on the basis of small sample sizes. La Russa sagely checks his cards, notices that a pinch-hitter has gone 4 for 5 off a reliever recently and puts him in the game. Then again, if he's a career .250 hitter, there's a good chance that the guy will go 0 for 5 over his next five at-bats (and more zeroes after that) as he regresses toward his ability level. Sure, sometimes some guys just own a pitcher, but often times what you're looking at is a concentrated bit of luck.

4. La Russa has a law degree.
I'm not sure what the fuck this has to do with baseball, but sportswriters have never felt its irrelevancy an obstacle to mentioning it multiple times during a season. Anyone who's spent any prolonged period of time amid a large crowd of people with law degrees can tell you that, on an intellectual level, fogging a mirror is reason enough for being awarded one. Still, somehow this bit of traipsing through academe ostensibly indicates a great capacity for thought "beyond" baseball, great abstracted thoughts that he seizes from the ether, tames with his mind-lassos and forces into the Land of Baseballia to create great erupting novelties. Whatever.

As said, a large part of winning at baseball is habeas corpus — produce the body — and the people producing the bodies are general managers. It's also worth mentioning that when La Russa was found asleep and drunk behind the wheel of his car — after having tasted perhaps too freely at the ambrosia of smartitude — he hired a lawyer who was not himself to defend him. Although he did show up to court dressed as a lawyer, which is a peculiar affectation baseball managers have. Though he does not play, he wears a player's uniform; though he did not law, he dressed like a lawmaker, with suits and everything. The most embarrassing part about being related to Tony La Russa is bearing witness to his insistence on meeting the captain upon boarding a commercial jet flight and saluting him with two Scout-fingers up to his scrambled-eggs blue hat followed by tapping the stitched wings on the breast of his blue blazer.

5. La Russa has other interests that are not about baseball.
For years, La Russa seemed to give every postgame press conference while wearing a nipple-definition-tight pink t-shirt about some Bay Area school girls' ballet school. I also remember some Sierra Club stuff mixed in there and one or two koalas whose faces were distended by being skin tight on his torso as he leaned forward.

This sartorial affectation, too, was evidence of a mind operating on planes way above baseball. The unasked question was, "Why does a genius wear the same shirt days in a row?" but I suppose the answer to that might have been, "Well, Einstein wore the same outfit every day," and I guess that would have been sufficient explanation for many. Really, this testifies to little more than the homogeneity of what people expect from baseball players. Liking baroque music hardly sets anyone apart as a precious flower, but as soon as an outfielder mentions that he took his girlfriend to a performance of Bach chamber music, he's going to get labeled "The Egghead." Inane details like this mean everything to journalists who have to fill column inches, but if they stopped to apply the same signification they think shirts have on baseballers to their own children, they'd discover that their computer-programmer offspring who spent their teen years listening to Weezer and wearing discarded blue-collar uniforms from thrift-stores have turned into gas-station attendants.

Those five points form the basis of most of the cases for La Russa's genius, and they obviously all have problems. However, there's a sixth issue that supporters like to drag out and that represents the biggest bone of contention:

6. La Russa wins in the postseason.
Except when he doesn't.

In 30 years, his teams have won 59 postseason games but have also lost 51, with the lion's share of those wins coming after the inception of the Wild Card series, which created more postseason games before reaching the Championship Series or the World Series. Arguably, it created more less-challenging series.

Yes, his teams have won two World Series. But the first came during the 1989 earthquake-postponed Battle of the Bay, where the long delay allowed La Russa to use his (superior) #1 and #2 starters twice, on shitloads of rest, which is a rare occurrence with his starters in the postseason. Going into the series, the A's were favored as the stronger and more experienced team with better pitching, and the Giants' hopes were pinned on taking at least one game in Oakland and trying to sweep at home. Instead, they dropped two games in Oakland, then faced Oakland's two best pitchers again at home, on full rest. To be sure, the Giants were also on full rest, but anyone witness to the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series can testify to the benefit of throwing two aces again and again. Also, for the record, La Russa commented at the end of the series on his teams' hardships:
I think we may have just won the most historic World Series of all time, with having to deal with the delay and everything. I don't think anybody's had to go through anything like what we did to win and compete for a world championship!
This omits the fact that his opponents had to go through the exact same thing, as they lived in the exact same area. So someone else had already literally been through "anything like what [they] did to... compete for a world championship." Moreover, it's not like the A's had to worry about the safety of their loved ones and homes while their opponents were dicking around a continent away. The stresses were equal to both sides, so whatever historic strain was there was a wash. This probably seems like a small linguistic quibble, but a lot of people lost their homes and almost lost their loved ones; it was a stunning horror to millions that dislocated the function of one of the most populous parts of the country for a solid year, and his oh-lawdy-what-we-done-been-through phrasing that singles out his team's experience is basically gross and stupid, and he sounds like a complete fuckhead.

As for La Russa's other World Series victory, only the most intense St. Louis die-hards have no trouble with the word "victory." Jim Leyland's Detroit Tigers literally threw the series away with a record-setting number of errors at the pitcher's position. It may have changed over the last few years, but much of the blogging consensus at the time was less that the Cardinals won (although they seemed far more alert than in preceding and subsequent postseason appearances) but that they happened to be the team on the field able to run the bases while an otherwise self-contained but complete trainwreck occurred. It certainly didn't hurt that La Russa faced off against one of the few people in the league who could compete with him in terms of contempt for advanced batting metrics, reverence for matchups and generally pigheaded atavistic over-management.

Contrast, then, the shakiness, the sheer geological or organizational flukiness of these wins with the authority of La Russa's teams' postseason losses. In 1988, his Oakland A's were overwhelmingly favored against the LA Dodgers, yet came only one victory away from being swept. In 1990, the Cincinnati Reds swept the again overwhelmingly favored A's. If the Dodgers series was a shock, this one was even more profound, coming off the A's 1989 victory and an even more commanding presence in the regular season.

Finally, in 2004, La Russa's Cardinals put up the best record in baseball, had an intimidating lineup featuring Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds in a huge batting bloc (not to mention Edgar Renteria turning in great numbers for a shortstop). Despite both the ALCS and the NLCS going to seven games, the ALCS was the decidedly more protracted and wearying slog, with Game 4 going 12 innings and Game 5 going 14. The Red Sox entered the World Series tired and with their ace pitcher's ankle tendon anchored to his heel with staples and body parts from a cadaver; with a second ace (Pedro Martinez) who was sore, past his prime and incapable of getting through six innings without trouble; and with a Game 1 starter who threw a knuckleball that had considerably less movement in the cold thin October air in Boston.

Still, the Red Sox swept La Russa's Cardinals.

The Cards got swept again this weekend, this time in the NLDS.

Does Tony La Russa Suck?
As a person, and as a professional divorced from commentary?—probably not. Does Tony La Russa As He Exists in Media suck? Yes, absolutely.

The problem with Tony La Russa is that he's pretty good at what he does, but what he gets praised for is probably either largely irrelevant or possibly sucky, and his presence in the media is by now his normative presence. This is also a presence that he has done little to disabuse anyone of, passively allowing the hagiography while interrupting the tales of his works mostly to correct when they have failed to understand what good he was attempting to do. Given that, yes, Tony La Russa sucks, and you should hate Tony La Russa.

Does he have good pitching staffs? Yes, but we have no idea if he really can claim credit for developing them because we've got 27 straight years of stewardship from the same pitching coach. Does he win games? Sure, but players are the biggest determining factor in making that happen, and for the most part he's benefited from good general managership from teams with competitive payrolls. Is he a smart guy outside of baseball? Maybe, but who cares?

Probably the biggest contributor to the perception of La Russa as a "genius" is Buzz Bissinger's book Three Nights in August. Bissinger — who can best be described as either the old ignorant crank who seemed like he was going to beat Will Leitch to death or the old ignorant crank who asked La Russa a lot of questions about pitch counts and then wrote a contemptibly factually challenged article based on the answers he received — wrote the book in part as a response to the book Moneyball. As you can imagine, then, the impetus was partially, "An old ignorant crank writes a book gainsaying a form of statistical baseball analysis he's done little to understand beyond the fact that it must be wrong because he doesn't like it."

If he had understood the sabermetrics Moneyball advocated, he might have appreciated what a poor but typical case his book made. On display are all the La Russian flourishes that mean nothing. The lineup changes that would equalize to meaningless over the course of a season. The scouring of note cards for matchups based on four or five at-bats, which also tend to equalize to meaningless over the course of a season.

Even sabermetrics are unnecessary to criticize the book's approach. Bissinger's book plays into the same kind of confirmation biases that the celebration of La Russa and Duncan's pitcher reclamation projects do: when Tony swaps out a hitter because someone on the bench has "been hot" and that bench player gets a hit, there's proof of the genius of Tony La Russa. When he goes to the bench for a hitter, and the hitter makes an out: those are the breaks that happen to anybody. The great thing about a game where offensive success nevertheless comes with a 70% rate of failure is that all errors can be ascribed to the capricious inevitabilities of the game, even when a plan fails. But, because success is infrequent, numerically less possible, we can automatically apply a kind of sympathetic magic to even the most trite and abstruse of acts, like pinch-hitting a fatass catcher with a terrible average against a flame-throwing All-Star reliever because, hey... matchups.

Bissinger's choice of subject — three nights, an insignificant sample size in a 162-game season — was probably chosen as a kind of jeering "fuck you" to statistics and a mixed bag of tone-deaf embrace of everything wrong with statistics-fear and a deafening frat-farting repudiation of "math BS." This is the La Russian bounty: three nights experienced with exquisitely long interruption, a testament to how agonizingly protracted the man can make a game by switching batters and pitchers and players for some amorphous benefit derived from the interpretation of a squiggle writ from unique and non-predictive data.

Of course, the other comment to be made on such a title is that it involves the word August and not October. La Russa's team failed to make the postseason that year, which calls into question the worth of all that minutiae. So too does his postseason record: two World Series sweeps, one at the hand of a decidedly inferior team; a World Series near-sweep from another decidedly inferior team; many other postseason losses, and two championships from a catastrophic earthquake and a record-setting meltdown, suggesting that minute gamecrafting does less to win championships than plate tectonics and heroic implosions from opponents.

Probably the funniest thing Bissinger and even La Russa have never considered is how much the philosophy they both admire seems to reflect what Moneyball's protagonist Billy Beane once said of his: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." But this level of self-awareness is anathema to baseball. This is a realm where a genius looks at numbers before doing something instinctive, balletic... gritty. The last thing he'd actually do is math.