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Some Thoughts On Day 15 Of The 2011 MLB Playoffs

We don't eat fabric, Prince. (this is a Prince Fielder fat joke)
We don't eat fabric, Prince. (this is a Prince Fielder fat joke)

It's funny - ask the average baseball fan about his least favorite managers, and he'll probably give you a few names. He might give you the name of his own team's manager. Fans pretty much always hate their teams' managers, so long as the team isn't really good, or even if it is. He might give you another name or two or three. And he might say Tony La Russa. He will probably say Tony La Russa. A lot of baseball fans really can't stand Tony La Russa.

And yet, when you read over studies that try to identify the best and worst managers in baseball - be they simple studies, exhaustively researched studies, or studies somewhere in between - Tony La Russa almost always comes out looking fantastic. A lot of people don't like Tony La Russa, but the man gets shit done, and he gets shit done a lot better than most of his peers.

There are a number of reasons for why Tony La Russa might be an effective manager. Some of them are intangible, subjective. Some of them can be measured. And one can look at his in-game management. Strategy is only part of a manager's job, but it's a part where he can make a pretty significant difference, in one of two directions.

Tony La Russa's always been a fan of certain strategies, and I think you could say that he plays more chess than many other managers do. He has a style. If you were watching a baseball game with two mystery teams wearing mystery uniforms, and you had the TV on mute, by the end you could probably pick out which of the two teams was managed by Tony La Russa. He makes decisions that can be hard to miss.

He made two such decisions in Friday night's NLCS Game 5 against the Brewers. One of them, I loved. In the top of the fifth inning, the Brewers scored a run, and had two on and two out against Jaime Garcia. The score was 4-1 St. Louis. At that point La Russa came out of the dugout and replaced Garcia with Octavio Dotel, even though Garcia had thrown just 68 pitches.

You could argue that it was crazy. Garcia, again, had thrown just 68 pitches. Of those 68 pitches, a remarkable 75% were strikes. He had zero walks, and five strikeouts. Garcia was pitching pretty well.

But Garcia was also going through the Brewers' lineup for the third time, and he was about to face the right-handed Ryan Braun. Garcia is left-handed, and Braun was the tying run. La Russa sensed that that was a critical moment in the game, even though it was the top of the fifth, and so he called on a power righty to improve his odds of getting the out. Dotel had better odds of retiring Braun than Garcia did, and indeed, Dotel got the job done. The Brewers didn't really threaten much after that.

The second decision, I didn't love so much. In fact, at first, I thought it was nuts. The Cardinals were ahead 3-0 in the bottom of the fourth, and they had runners on first and second with nobody out. Eighth place hitter Nick Punto came up and dropped down a sacrifice bunt to set up Jaime Garcia himself with a pair of runners in scoring position. I thought it was nuts because who on earth lays down a sacrifice bunt with the pitcher on deck?

But Garcia subsequently bounced a weak groundball that scored the runner from third to make it a 4-0 game. At that point I looked up Garcia's batting statistics, and though he isn't good - he has a lifetime .343 OPS - he's actually posted a better-than-average contact rate, and he's put the majority of his balls in play on the ground. Tony La Russa could've had a fair bit of confidence that Garcia would be able to plate a run.

I still don't love that move, and I wouldn't have done it myself, but it looks better than it did at the time. And, of course, it worked. So many of Tony La Russa's moves this month have worked.

Tony La Russa is a different sort of manager. He's different in some ways that can drive people insane, and that can make people not like him, but he gets baseball. He gets how it works. He has a way of getting more from what he has than you'd expect, and though that means he occasionally has to be a little or a lot unconventional, his body of work is such that you can't really argue with his results. If the Mariners were to hire Tony La Russa next month, I would hate it, and I would love it.

  • I saw a troubling tweet during the game. I wouldn't say it was necessarily troubling on its own - it was troubling because of the source. The following tweet came courtesy of @ESPNStatsInfo:

    Bad news for Cardinals...No team has won any postseason series when their starters failed to go more than 5 IP in any of 1st 5 games (elias)

    For one thing, when this tweet came across, the Cardinals were winning, and in good shape to pull ahead in the series three games to two. "Bad news"?

    For another thing, what kind of sample size are we talking about? In how many historical series have there been teams whose starters have failed to pitch into the sixth inning in each of the first five games?

    And lastly, and most problematic, consider the comparison here. Starters usually get removed before the sixth inning if they've been ineffective. If a team has had five consecutive starters get removed before the sixth inning, it's probably because they've been ineffective, and so the team probably lost. But then consider the Cardinals. The Cardinals have had five straight starters fail to pitch into the sixth inning, sure. But in Game 2, Edwin Jackson allowed two runs. In Game 3, Chris Carpenter allowed three runs. In Game 4, Kyle Lohse allowed three runs. In Game 5, Jaime Garcia allowed one run. Many managers probably would've allowed those guys to keep pitching, but Tony La Russa opted to go to fresh relief. Not because his starters were getting pounded. Because he has a deep bullpen.

    It's an obvious problem with the comparison, as Tony La Russa is quite the variable. Again, I wouldn't have cared much about this tweet if it came from just some guy, but I expect more out of ESPN Stats & Info. This is just bad statistics.

  • Ahead 1-0, the Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the second. Nick Punto hit a screaming line drive the other way, but Jerry Hairston Jr. made a tremendous diving catch to rob the Cards of one or two runs. On literally the next pitch - the very next pitch - Jaime Garcia hit a routine grounder to Hairston at third that should have ended the inning, but Hairston let the ball go through his legs, and two runs scored on the error.

    There were so many valuable life lessons crammed into those 30 seconds of baseball. If I ever have a kid, when he's ten I'm locking him in his room and showing him those clips over and over, and I'm not letting him out until he understands.

  • After Hairston's error, Zack Greinke ran near home and received a throw, but not in time to do anything about the two runs. Frustrated, Greinke spiked the ball on the ground. It bounced back up and hit him in the chest.