I’m not sure whether LaRussa’s explanation for why Motte wasn’t brought in is too implausible to be true or so implausible it has to be true. At any rate, even if the bad matchup against Napoli wasn’t his fault TonyLaRussaSuperGenius(TM) had an astoundingly bad game. Good for Verducci pointing out that the worst move of the inning was ordering Dotel (OBP v. RH: .198) to walk Cruz (OBP v. RH: .289) — maybe TLR saw Washington get away with so many irrational intentional walks that he wanted to up the ante. And even worse was the hit and run in the ninth, which probably resulted in not only one out and one lost baserunner but two outs — Pujols almost certainly doesn’t swing at a not-even-close 3-2 pitch without the need to protect the runner. Feliz had no command at all — but LaRussa parlayed what should have been bases loaded none out into a runner on first two out. Awful, awful work. Although in its own way it produced a terrific game.
Every time God Bless America is played during the seventh inning stretch the terrorists score a major victory.
Also, bases-empty intentional walks — even to hitters as great as Pujols and Cabrera — are nuts.
…I’m rooting for Cards, but it’s still gratifying to see a dumb IW blow up all over a manager. And Mike Scioscia edges closer to being MVP of the World Series…
…figures that the same week I post a vigorous defense of Tony LaRussa he screws up a World Series game 11 ways from Sunday. That ninth inning hit and run — without which the Cards very likely have bases loaded none out — was Don Zimmer caliber work. And poor Bobby Cox is still getting static for moves in the ’85 ALCS that were defensible and had no impact on the outcome of the game…
To paraphrase Tony Kennedy, we sometimes must write blog posts we do not like. I normally use the title phrase pejoratively, and I’m not claiming to like or root for the Tea Partyin’ bullpen micromanager. But other people who don’t like him have taken the pundit’s fallacy route of claiming that he’s not really that good of a manager.
I’m sorry, but LaRussa is a great manager. The competition for greatest manager since 1980 comes down to LaRussa and Cox, and the former probably has the edge. In terms of the sabermetric evidence, LaRussa does phenomenally well, in a class with McCarthy and McGraw and Weaver. On the most important metric — whether players exceed or underperform expectations — he’s Top 5 all-time. He also does very well at the game management stuff people overrate — his lineup construction is brilliant, and given that his job is to win and not to entertain the platoon wankery also produces wins for his team.
One reason Jaffe’s book is the best new sabermetic work in a long time is that he understands that with managers qualitative analysis is important; one has to look carefully at the available talent and see if a manager seemed to get the most out of his team and made good talent judgments. In my mind, his record holds up exceptionally well under any inspection. His tenure with the White Sox is the least impressive, but even so he took over an awful team with one good young player and a hideous pitching staff and won 87 and 99 games in his second and third full seasons. The team had an off year in ’84, but it’s still an excellent record. Where he really made his reputation is with Oakland, where he took over another bad team and turned it into a great one by his second full season. Obviously, getting McGwire and Canseco was a major part of that, but as a talent base it’s not nearly as good as, say, the 90s Indians or Mariners; Canseco won’t go to the Hall of Fame and McGwire would be marginal even without the ire of drug warriors. (Remember that Rickey wasn’t part of the 104 win ’88 team.) His tenure with St. Louis has been equally impressive, with two 100-win seasons two more 95-win ones for a mid-market team that is almost always competitive. Sure, having Pujols helps a lot, but remember that this ain’t the NBA — the best player in both the AL (Bautista) and NL (Kemp) played on mediocre teams. (And LaRussa deserves credit for seeing what he had immediately; a lot of managers would not put any 21-year old who wasn’t a high draft pick in the lineup.)
But as with Cox, what makes LaRussa great is the pitching. LaRussa (and Duncan) have contributed a staggering number of runs to their teams by getting decent and sometimes outstanding numbers out of waiver-wire bait. Look at his 100-win As teams. Dave Stewart, the ace, basically got the crap beaten our of him for every other manager although he was pushing 30 by the time he came to Oakland. He turned a completely washed-up starter into the greatest closer between Sutter and Rivera, backed up by other excellent performances from relievers with modest credentials. He got two excellent years out of Mike Moore and adequate performances out of pretty much any replacement-level pickup. Same with St. Louis — almost every year he gets a strong performance out of a Kyle Loshe or Ryan Franklin or Todd Wellemeyer or Joel Pineiro or Jeff Suppan. When he acquired Chris Carpenter he had missed a year after two horrible seasons out of three; for St. Louis he’s been a legitimate ace.
The case against LaRussa generally comes down to postseason issues — see, eg., friend of the blog Charlie Pierce. And, yes, he’s been obliterated in three World Series, twice as prohibitive favorites. I’m not saying we should ignore that. But 1)I don’t think in most cases you can place a lot of weight on the postseason in evaluating baseball managers or players, and 2)surely his upset win in ’06 makes up for a lot of that. As does beating a 100-win Phillies team this year. LaRussa has his faults but he can manage my team anytime. If he had taken over for Dick Williams in 1981 I’d bet the Expos would still be in Montreal.
I recently watched Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell, which was excellent. Linking together two unjust scapegoats — Buckner and Steve Bartman — it perhaps belabors the point about the fake “curses” that surround both organizations too much, but the point is a good one. The curses serve the same function as scapegoats, inside sports and without — giving people with power a pass. See, it’s not that the Red Sox didn’t win because their (Hall of Fame!) owner was substantially more committed to white supremacy than winning, and once they started to accumulate real talent entrusted it to sixth-rate hacks like Don Zimmer, John McNamara and Grady Little. No, it’s because some guy wanted to finance No, No Nannette during the Harding administration.
I was interested that the movie implicitly makes a point I’d like to make more explicit about Game 6. The general point that making Buckner the goat is irrational, since by the time of his error the Red Sox had already blown the lead and were facing a better team on the road with no good pitchers left, is by now well-known. To me, even worse than the failure to replace Buckner with Stapleton was what Gibney correctly portrays as a panic move — replacing Schiraldi with Stanley. Chris Jaffe’s empirical analysis found that the hapless McNamara had the worst bullpens of any modern manager with any kind of long-term career, and this is Exhibit A. Stanley was nearly done and having a less-than-mediocre year — lefthanders hit .338 off him. And while this tends to be forgotten, Scharaldi had pitched extremely well. I would certainly never argue that you shouldn’t consider whether a pitcher has it on a given day, and if Schiaraldi was nibbling or giving up line drives I might get him out of there even if it meant bringing in the Steemer. But he wasn’t. He was throwing strikes, and none of the singles was particularly hard hit (with the Knight opposite-field jam shot that drove him from the game actually being the least authoritative.) Classic panic overmanaging, and Stanley’s wild pitch was the most important play off the game. To top it off, Gibney shows priceless footage of the gutless Stanley throwing Buckner under the bus after the game. (Sox fans can help me out here, but IIRC Stanley also tried to blame Gedman for the wild pitch, although he couldn’t have caught it with a net.)
Buckner, at least, did make a mistake that made it impossible for his team to win. Making Bartman the scapegoat is even worse, not only because he didn’t do anything wrong but because the Cubs only needed 5 outs with a three run lead even after “the Bartman play.” The real goats were Alex Gonzalez and Dusty Baker, the latter of whom displayed the same fetishes for leaving starters in to get beat up and irrational intentional walks that Don Zimmer (there’s that name again! Amazing how curses follow the guy around, isn’t it?) showed in the 1989 NLCS. The most remarkable part of the film shows the atmosphere in Wrigley, which focused solely and angrily on Bartman, leaving him in real fear for his life. (Speaking of lazy sixth-rate hacks, he also has footage of the Kornheiser and Wilbon throwing gas on the fire the next day.) It may be true that Cubs fans don’t care about Bartman now, but at the time they sure made him the focal point of a loss he bore no responsibility for whatsoever. It’s a remarkable and chilling sequence.
Thus we get the Boston Red Sox’s John Henry, champion of data-driven rational decision-making, dumping a two-time championship manager because a team projected to win 94 games won only 90—and then injuring himself falling down on his yacht.
Actually, if the sabermetric evaluation of managers has yielded any clear finding, it’s that the vast majority of managers lose effectiveness over time. Even mediocre managers often get teams to perform above expectations for a year, but virtually all then backslide. To give Francona a second decade you’d have to be betting that he’s one of a rare class of managers who can sustain excellence over the long haul. It’s not an insult to Tito to suggest that he’s not one of them, particularly given the unique challenges and pressures of the Boston fishbowl. I’ll leave this for a separate post, but Dick Williams was a brilliant manager, a deserving Hall of Famer, but you wouldn’t want him managing your team for 15 years. Even Joe McCarthy only lasted more than a decade once, and he had a talent edge in that job that even the contemporary Yankees would envy. Francona is a player’s manager rather than a hardass like Williams, but low pressure carries its own perils, and the presiding over by far the worst September collapse in baseball history (on a team with some conditioning problems and atrocious pitchers willing to show up the manager on the mound) suggests that Francona’s time has run its course. And while I like Tito and think he did an excellent job on balance, let’s keep it in perspective. This wasn’t Williams ’67 — he took over a team than an utter numbnuts had one bloop double away from the World Series.
The Red Sox have made some mistakes (hello, Carl Crawford!) that seem contrary to sabermetric principles, but however it works out firing Francona isn’t one of them.
Great two days, wasn’t it? Three elimination games, all classics. I’ll be very happy to make a donation to Planned Parenthood for my reverse-hedge bet with Howard. For the championship series, I’ll take Brewers in 6 and Rangers in 7.
Since this has come up a lot in comments, a note about the Phillies. I have been arguing that while the Cards winning was probably the biggest upset of the first round, it’s not a historic upset, simply because the Phillies are more the rich man’s Giants than a great two-way team on the order of the 2004 Red Sox, 1998 Yankees, 1989 As, or 1986 Mets. Their rotation was historically good (although the massive edges they have over the rest of the league in the 4 and 5 slots largely vanishes in the division series.) But the Philadelphia offense, I insist, is ordinary. While I thought “worse than the Mets” was enough to make the point, apparently not, so it’s worth going through this a bit. They key is Howard, still perceived as a star but in fact not even a good player. And I don’t mean that he has a bad contract, I mean he’s below average now. For a (poor) 1B in a tremendous hitter’s park, 253/346/488 is barely good enough to stay in the lineup, no matter how many MVP ballots he’s listed on. And he wasn’t significantly better in 2010. Ibanez, posting a sub .300 OBP with limited power and atrocious defense in left, is even worse. Polanco makes a defensive contribution but no longer an offensive one. You can overcome three spots with inadequate production with stars, only (unless Utley, the greatest player of the Phlly mini-dynsasty even if he’s the one without the MVP award, can come back) the Phillies don’t really have any. Ruiz, Rollins, Victorino and Pence are good solid players, but nothing more than that (although the latter two had career years and half-years, respectively.) It’s an offense good enough to win with their rotation, but it’s fundamentally mediocre, and when you play a team with a better offense it counts.
This isn’t to say that, in the short term, this should be a major problem. The long-term issues with the Phillies are well-known, but the window remains open and Amaro knows what he’s doing and isn’t complacent. The Citizens Bank issue has another side to it, of course — it conceals the fact that Howard isn’t really helping the team, but the pitching is even more amazing than it looks at first glance. They’re probably stuck with Polonco (who’s under contract for $6.5 million), but Utley might have another great year or two left in him. They have nowhere to go but up in LF, although they need to resist the temptation to give the job to Mayberry after his fluke half-season. They could get Reyes. And even if the offense doesn’t improve a lot they’re by far the best team in the division. But as of now, it’s just not a very good offense despite having a lot of famous people. The could use an upgrade or two going into next year’s postseason.
This has to be the easiest to watch and most pleasant set of championship series in some time. Most right-thinking people without explicit rooting ties to the other two teams will be rooting for a Milwaukee-Detroit World Series, though who could really complain about the Cardinals, a team with a great history and great fan base without being entitled about it. Moreover, how great is it that all the East Coast big spenders with their insanely entitled fan bases (and the Cubs with their incredibly stupid fan base) are all out of it. I do feel bad for Philadelphia a bit. If Halladay is the greatest pitcher of our generation, Chris Carpenter is probably the most underrated and he threw an utter masterpiece. But somehow there are major problems with the team that will require people being fired or something. I’m looking forward to hearing Phillies fans complain that had resigned Jayson Werth for an obscene amount of money to go along with the Howard albatross contract they somehow would have won, despite the fact the kind of production you get from Werth in an average year can be had for about 5 million.
I will also provide reasons to root for the Rangers. This is the team progressives are least likely to root for, between its location and its connections to George W. Bush. I understand this. But as a 3 year resident of Texas, I went to several Rangers games and developed a kind of affinity for them, despite being in the same division as Seattle. I am very happy for hard-core Rangers fans. Unless they are winning like now, the Rangers are completely ignored in the Dallas market. A couple of years, I was driving up to Dallas in May and the subject on sports radio was not the Rangers or even the Mavericks, but whether Jerry Jones should have fired Tom Landry 20 years ago. The Cowboys not only completely dominate Dallas, but Jones revels in shitting on the Rangers. When Arlington was chosen for the new stadium, Jerry had to agree to respect the Rangers traditional ballpark next door. As soon as the contract was signed, he ignored that stipulation and built the Death Star.
This is a long-suffering fan base who has rooted for an endless number of atrocious teams. Plus, the Rangers have the 3rd longest World Series drought, going back to their days as the second version of the Senators. Founded in 1961, the franchise has yet to win a series. Only the Cubs and Indians have longer droughts.
…for someone. Hopefully the home team. If I wanted to be optimistic, I could point out that while the Yankee starter in Game 4 was a better bet than the basic numbers might indicate, Nova is worse. 5.4 K/9, with a less than 2-1 K/W ratio, ain’t that good, and his low HR rate in that park screams “fluke.” The Tigers do have some power and might be able to get to him. Fister isn’t a great bet either, but he gets a few more Ks and has much better command. What I don’t like about the game is that the Yankees have a very deep and very rested bullpen, so if Nova doesn’t have anything the Yanks aren’t a lot worse off. They can use their ace and the Tigers can’t, Rivera is better than Valverde, Roberston better than Benoit, etc. It’s hard to think this will work out.
It’s also NHL opening Night; congrats to the Bruins fans out their on banner-raising day and performing such an invaluable service to humanity last June. I have to object to the characterization of the Flames as “most likely to disappoint.” This implies that someone expects them to be good…
And on that second optimistic note, let’s call this an open thread.
…Giradri managing like he’s in a Tony LaRussa wet dream. I actually think cutting bait on Nova was a good idea but platoon matchups with 1 on in the 4th might be a bit much.
…Trying to watch hockey to avoid watching the Yankees take lead you really absorb the fact that the mean Yankee half-inning is about 90 minutes.
…would feel better about this lead if Tigers didn’t strike out on terrible pitches at least twice an inning. And 3 runs ain’t going to hold up if they need 5 innings from the bullpen.
…49-for-49 my ass, this is terrifying. And I think we can be pretty safe in assuming the Yankees won’t be first-pitch swinging.
…woo-hoo! Congrats Tigers, and time to break out the good stuff.
Take lessons from Farley, because he’s doing it right.
It’s especially appropriate that this arrived in time for what might be the greatest day of the year, Yankee Elimination Day! Although the pictured quantity is not nearly sufficient for any game involving Jose
Mesa Valverde and a 1-run lead.
Superficially, the elimination seems likely to occur — an elimination game at home against Mr. A.J. Burnett seems like a great scenario. The problem is Rich Porcello, who’s just as bad as Burnett. Actually worse, since while Burnett at least misses bats and has some upside, Procello is the kind of Twins-style pitch-to-contact guy the Yankees specialize in beating the shit out of. This seems like a battle of bullpens, and the Yankees have an edge there.
Prove me wrong again, Tigers, prove me wrong!
…could Leyland ease up on the damn bunting? They may let Burnett off the hook even if he doesn’t have any command.
Devil Rays: I missed the opening game in this series,which would be a problem if I was planning on picking Tampa Bay, because who would believe me? But since my pick is the Rangers, it’s not an issue. It’s hard not to be impressed by the Rays and their spectacularly good organization. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that the Rangers have been about 80 runs better and are good on both sides of the diamond while the Rays were outscored by the Royals. The series is not as much of a mismatch as the run differential indicates, as the Rays play in by far the best division in baseball and the Rangers play in a division where the other three teams have approximately no good hitters between them. Still, the first game notwithstanding, the Rays just don’t have enough offense for me to pick them. RANGERS IN 5.
St. Louis v. Philadelphia. Now this looks like a mismatch, a 102-win team with a historic rotation against scraped into the playoffs on the last day during a historic choke by the competing team. Amaro has done a terrific job keeping the Phils in top, recognizing the team’s narrow window and getting top-shelf talent without paying a huge price. The fact that Tony LaRussa does a lot of irritating stuff has lead to a common pundit’s fallacy in which people want to deny that he’s a great manager, but he and Duncan’s tape and baling wire rotations tend not to hold up so well in a short series against an outstanding offense. And yet, as Rany Jazayleri notes in his contrarian analysis, the Phillies offense is in fact mediocre — lest you think that’s an exaggeration, they were outscored by the Mets in neutral parks by 50 runs. And while I was aware of that I didn’t know that the Cards’ offense was the best in the league by a fair margin. Combined with the fact that great rotation teams (not just the Cox Braves but the Weaver Orioles, Beane A’s, ’54 Indians) haven’t necessarily fared well in postseason play, and the contrarian case becomes rather compelling. Still, I’m not ready to go there. The fact that the small handful of comparable teams lost some series in which they were favored doesn’t really prove anything, and I’m inclined to believe that front-line pitching is a pretty good strategy for post-season success (cf. the 2010 Giants, who make the Phils offense look like the ’95 Indians.) If Holliday was healthy and the Phillies hadn’t acquired Pence I would pick the Cards — but as is, I think the Phillies win a somewhat closer-than-expected series. PHILLIES IN 4.
I suspect this will be a minority position, but I think this probably best for all involved. Francona has, on balance, done a good job in Boston. And I don’t think he’s committed a clearly firable offense, such as screwing up an elimination game a la Little 2003 or Showalter 1995 or running his lineup into the ground up to and including a third baseman who couldn’t throw like Zimmer 78. But:
- It’s very rare for a manager to do work comparable to his best in the second decade of his tenure. Maybe Francona is a truly cream of the elite manager like Weaver or Cox or McGraw, but it’s much more likely that he’s a more typical good manager whose effectiveness attenuates severely over time.
- Keeping Francona will probably keep more emphasis on this year’s debacle than is helpful in an intense media market.
- Because flops like this are by definition rare, there’s no way of clearly judging based on past instances. But, still, what anecdotal evidence there is isn’t encouraging. The Sox regressed under Zimmer, although since he was a bad manager who enjoyed very little success I’m not sure what this proves. Mauch did a very good job with three other teams but never had a year in Philadelphia as good as 1964 again. The Cubs underachieved under Durocher, once a great manager, after 1969. In retrospect I think most Mets fans would agree with me that Randolph should have been fired after 2007, although I think overall he did a decent job — the team certainly started in 2008 as if he had lost the clubhouse. I wouldn’t say this proves it would be better for Francona should move on, but I don’t think it’s meaningless either.
- I don’t know if I would say that it’s Francona’s fault that the Red Sox failed to make the playoffs. exactly. But it’s hard to say that he’s done a great job over the last three years either. What I said about Friedman doing more with far less than Epstien also applies vis a vis Maddon and Tito. You can whine about injuries all you want, but it doesn’t explain why the Red Sox had a worse September than the Astros or Mariners or Pirates.
Francona has had a very successful tenure, and I can understand Sox fans not wanting his tenure to end on this note. But I think it’s probably for the best (and the reports seem to imply that Francona agrees.)