November 2011

Some thoughts on La Russa, Moneyball, statistics

I’ve been fortunate in my 35 years of covering Major League Baseball to have sat in on the conversations and been able to absorb the managing skills of the best and the brightest of a few eras.

As a youngster, I cut my teeth on three years of covering Billy Martin with the Oakland A’s followed by three more when Dick Williams managed the San Diego Padres. They were ornery cusses and big drinkers, but I learned the nuances of managing a baseball game from them.

Neither suffered fools easily. Williams was once asked if had thought about lifting his pitcher in the early innings of a game with the bases loaded for a pinch-hitter. He told the unsuspecting reporter in very colorful terms never to enter his office again. No, that wasn’t me, but we certainly had our battles.

As time went by I got to know them all. Some of my favorites have retired in the last two years: Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and now Tony La Russa. I’ve known Piniella since he was a player with the Yankees, Torre since he managed the Mets during his first gig in the late 1970s, Cox since his initial tour with the Braves, beginning in 1978, and La Russa through his years with the A’s and the St. Louis Cardinals.

I feel honored to have been able to sit in the same room with them, either in a group or many times one on one, to pick their brains and chronicle how their thoughts on baseball have evolved. Williams and Martin would’ve thought it a challenge to their manhood to even have a bench coach. None existed during their time. The other quartet, who are all among the winningest managers in baseball history, adapted to or created a new environment.

Torre, after stints with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, instilled a pride, discipline and professionalism in the clubhouse that was incomparable when he managed the Yankees to six American League pennants and four World Series titles. His teams didn’t have award winners or year-in-and-year out league leaders. They just simply played as a team and won.

Cox told me his secret to the great Braves era of 14 division titles in a row was largely due to his turning the reigns of the pitching staff over to Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, who were so smart that they were able to be their own coaches and guide the rest of the staff. If Cox had had the likes of Mariano Rivera as his closer he would have certainly won more than one World Series title.

La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan totally altered the game by installing Dennis Eckersley as a one-inning closer in the final inning and by establishing a series of setup men to bridge the gap between the starter and that essential component. Early on, La Russa embraced the notion of using statistics as a way of evaluating players, but in this era of Moneyball -– the book and the movie – he never totally embraced it.

“You’ve got to be careful, because I think about when I first came in the league years ago and I had no experience. I was a lousy player with no managing experience,” La Russa said before the World Series ended in the Cards’ favor last week. “You had all these great guys who managed for years, so preparation was the only way that myself and my staff could survive. We were looking for everything.

“I think a lot of those stats and tools, they’re helpful when you prepare. But they eliminate to a great degree the human element, which is a big part of every day that you play. Wherever those numbers are, that’s one starting place, and then you look at how a guy feels.”

Cliff Lee had a WAR of 6.9 this past season pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. But that doesn’t account for the fact that he’s been terrible in his three most recent important starts: Games 1 and 5 of the 2010 World Series for Texas and Game 2 of this year’s National League Division Series. In the latter, he blew an early 4-0 lead to the Cards, who won the series in five games. Certainly, that one game alone is why the Phillies paid him $11 million this past season as a free agent.

Chris Carpenter of the Cards had a 3.7 WAR and earned $14.2 million from the Cardinals this past season. He was 4-0 in the postseason, winning the critical Game 5 of the NLDS over the Phillies and Game 7 over the Rangers in the World Series on three days’ rest.

In hindsight, who would you rather have had this postseason, Lee or Carpenter? Everything seems clearer in the tinted glare of hindsight. Doesn’t it? And that’s what these stats are all about: trying to predict future performance based on the past. But La Russa is right. The numbers and equations don’t take into account heart, character and what happened in a given player’s life that day. Is he prepared or depressed? Did he have a stomachache or a spat with his wife? Was he able to execute the game plan?

I’m a big proponent of working the count. And in Game 5 of the World Series in Arlington I was aghast when David Freese didn’t do it. After C.J. Wilson walked Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman to open the second inning, Freese swung at the first pitch and popped out to right. Likewise in the seventh, reliever Alexi Ogando walked the bases loaded, strolling Albert Pujols and Berkman intentionally to get to Freese, who again swung at the first pitch. Freese popped out to center, ending the inning, and the Rangers won the game, 4-2.

On the rainout day of Game 6 in St. Louis, I asked La Russa his thoughts about it and if he had spoken to Freese. His response was classic, Tony.

“Well, [he did it] because it was our tribute to all the scouts and baseball people that were dissed by Moneyball,” La Russa quipped. “That’s why I walked out of Moneyball.”

On base percentage and working the count are prime tactics of winning baseball in the Moneyball era. The idea is that if a batter gets on base he has a chance to produce a run. It doesn’t matter how he gets on base: walk, hit by pitch, hit. Just get on base. And don’t get thrown out on base trying to steal or forfeit an out through a sacrifice bunt.

Here’s La Russa’s counter to that argument:

“On-base percentage is one of the most dangerous concepts of the last seven, eight years because it forces some executives and coaches and players to think that it’s all about getting on base by drawing walks, and the fact is that guys who have the best on-base percentage are really dangerous hitters whenever they get a pitch in the strike zone,” La Russa said.

“You watch your productive hitters in the big leagues, and when they get a chance to drive in a run, they look for the first good strike. The better the pitching, especially this time of the year, when you get that first strike it may be the last one that you’re going to see. So you’d better be ready to swing early.”

So, La Russa concluded, Freese was correct both times because he swung at a good pitch even though it was the first.

La Russa was only kidding. He didn’t walk out on Moneyball. He went to see it on the night of that Game 6 rainout.

His reaction? “Good acting,” La Russa said in his evaluation of the movie. “I’m serious. Good acting. I mean, I was offended because of what the book represented, and I know a lot of those guys [who] were portrayed. I knew a few of those guys as scouts. It strains the credibility a little bit.”

I saw the movie twice and enjoyed it. Sure, there was no mention of how Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez contributed to that 102-win, 2002 season. But that wasn’t the point. Though Billy Beane found the low-cost gem in Scott Hatteberg to replace Jason Giambi at first base, he wasn’t able to follow his bliss and win the final game of the season. He still hasn’t.

For winning, is what it’s all about, isn’t it? No matter how you get there. With the highest payroll, lowest payroll or anything in between. In the end, the brightest general managers and managers of this day use it all: old school, new school, stats, scouting and the human element. That’s what I’ve learned over the course of 35 years. Don’t discount anything when it comes to winning.

“The win is the most important statistic in baseball,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson told me this season. “That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”

Gibson won that last game twice as a player. One of them came four games after he hobbled off the bench as a Dodger and hit the most famous walk-off, pinch-hit homer in World Series history.  La Russa, Cox, Torre and Piniella combined to do it nine times.

Not bad.