I’m fairly certain I could give a truthful description of Tony La Russa’s managerial style that, without being attached to his name, would garner the approval of the typical statistics obsessed baseball fan. After all, his thinking outside the box and refusal to be intimidated by how things have been done in the past are two characteristics often championed by the more numerically inclined set.
In practice though, La Russa’s in-game management is far more about intangibles than numbers. While his pitching changes are often dictated by the very real idea of platoon splits, they’re done according to the idea that a same handed batter will have more trouble against a same handed pitcher. He doesn’t bother actually looking at the specific past performances of the batter and pitcher against the handedness of the matchup he’s created for its predictive value.
His lack of awareness when it comes to the value of outs is maddening to those who believe that the object of the game of baseball is to avoid getting out. In Game Five of the World Series, five of the 27 outs that Texas collected to win the game were handed to the Rangers via sacrifice bunts and stolen base attempts. That’s a hard figure to justify for any fan of baseball, be they a believer in intangibles or not.
However, the most egregious thing about Tony La Russa to the baseball nerds who loathe his actions is that he dares to be intelligent while making all the wrong decisions. Perhaps this, combined with a team friendly arrogance, is the reason why the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals catches more ire from number crunchers than most.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that he’s vocal and articulate in defense of his machinations. This was on display most recently during yesterday’s press conference in which the joking La Russa suggested he’d use the unexpected off day to catch Moneyball at the cinema before launching into an assault on the sabermetrician’s most revered statistic.
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.
The St. Louis Cardinals scored more runs than any other team in the National League this season, while also collecting the highest on base percentage of any team on the Senior Circuit. Since La Russa took control of the Cardinals in 1996, overall, his teams have collected the highest on base percentage in the National League other than the Rockies who played the majority of the games being considered in a pre-humidor Coors Field in Colorado.
Tony La Russa, whether he realizes it or not, likes players getting on base. What I think he doesn’t like is players taking walks when they could be getting hits, but I don’t think anyone would prefer a walk to a hit.
And the fact is that the guys that have the best on-base percentage are really dangerous hitters whenever they get a pitch in the strike zone. So if the pitcher knows that and the catcher knows that, they work the edges, and pretty soon it’s 2-and-1, 2-and-1 rather than 0-and-1 all the time.
Straw man! No one would dare suggest that a walk is better than a hit. What’s suggested by those who place emphasis on the value of an out is that a walk is better than swinging, and making contact or not, on one of those pitches on the edge that could be called a ball otherwise. It’s more likely that those swings will lead to an out, or decrease the probability of scoring more runs.
You watch your productive hitters in the big leagues, and they get a chance to drive in a run, they look for the first good strike, and the better the pitching, especially this time of the year, you get that first strike, that may be the last one that you get to see. So you’d better be ready to swing early. It’s not sitting up there and taking strike one, strike two so that you can work the count.
Tony La Russa is absolutely right and absolutely wrong here. Of course, you want your most productive batters driving in runs. There’s no doubt. But implementing an overarching philosophy for every batter isn’t the best way of ensuring that a) the most productive batters will do that or b) the most productive batters will have runners on base to drive in.
And La Russa knows this. He knows that each batter is his own animal. When Mark McGwire was on the Cardinals with La Russa, 21% of his plate appearances ended in a walk. Meanwhile, Brian Jordan still collected a seemingly impossible .353 OBP while only walking in 5.9% of his plate appearances under La Russa. A manager’s job is to put the players at his disposal in the most likely possible situation in which they’ll find success. Looking down the line at La Russa’s players during his time in St. Louis, only four players with more than 500 plate appearances have a wRC+ above 100 and a walk rate below 8%. Meanwhile only one player with a walk rate over 8% has has a wRC+ below 100.
Taking walks was emphasized in Moneyball because the story was about a team that couldn’t afford the type of hitters that La Russa is endorsing. They didn’t have the talent to drive the ball, and so they scored their runs by taking walks and getting on base, or avoiding outs, anyway they could. If a player is best suited to avoiding outs by swinging at every pitch he sees, I think of a hitter like Vladimir Guerrero here, then by all means, swing at every pitch.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think of something Joe Posnanski wrote after witnessing eight plate appearances in which Adam Dunn did nothing except either walk or strikeout, an even amount of times. Would Dunn still be a valuable contribution to a lineup with this type production? You bet he would. He’s avoiding an out in 50% of his times at the plate.
While La Russa may preach an aggressive approach at the plate, it’s very fortunate for the St. Louis Cardinals that he’s too smart to practice it with all of his batters. Whether he’s aware of it or not, it’s his own patient approach with the hitters that he has, in allowing them to be the hitters that they are, that has led to his teams’ many successes, including such high on base percentages year after year.