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The Real Genius Of Tony La Russa

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Discussions of Tony La Russa often begin with his tactical innovations. But his real genius was far more interesting and difficult to measure than simply counting relief pitchers.

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Monday evening on NPR, All Things Considered Robert Siegel talked to Mike Pesca -- who knows his baseball and his sabermetrics -- about the retirement of Tony La Russa. You can listen to the piece here, but here's the chunk that caught my eye:

SIEGEL: La Russa walks off with 2,728 regular season wins. That's the third most in baseball history and he was named manager of the year four times. NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now. And Mike, what made Tony La Russa such a great manager?

MIKE PESCA: It was that he flew against convention. Baseball is at its best when it's connected to its history, but it's at its worst and most frustrating when it's chained to its history, where people do things just because that's always how they've been done. And La Russa questioned everything. He was a first rate intellect. He was a lawyer. He was one of the first to use computers as a means of getting statistics and he would question everything, so sometimes, he wouldn't bat the pitcher ninth. He'd bat him eighth.

And sometimes, he'd bring out, you know, eight pitchers in a single game. This wasn't the way things had always been done and he was respectful of the game, certainly, and he knew his place in history because he was a minor leaguer forever. A tendon injury hurt his arm and he didn't get a shot at the big leagues, so he really loved baseball, but he also loved to tweak it. And some of the changes, especially with the bullpen, that Tony La Russa made will go on forever.

Well, it's not all the bullpen, right? When we talk about the things La Russa did that we can measure, did anything else stick? La Russa has for many years taken a special interest in players who could play multiple positions. In 1988, Tony Phillips played first base, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field, and right field for the A's. In 2011, Allen Craig played first base, second base, third base, left field, center field, and right field for the Cardinals.

But has La Russa's fondness for super-utility players caught on around the majors? Not really. There might be a few more guys like that because of La Russa, but it's certainly not something that's changed baseball.

Same thing with batting the pitcher eighth. For one thing, La Russa never really embraced the tactic for long. And while two or three other managers have fooled around with it, everybody's figured it just isn't worth the attendant headaches.

Amidst a review of La Russa's career -- which of course includes a couple of gratuitous swipes at Moneyball and sabermetrics -- Buzz Bissinger drops in this list of examples of La Russa's "strange genius":

Sometimes the strategy had mixed results, like deciding for several seasons to bat the pitcher eighth. But the overwhelming majority of the time the strategy worked, not just from one game to another but in effecting lasting change. It was La Russa, in concert with his genius pitching coach Dave Duncan, who defined the use of the ninth-inning closer when they were with the Oakland A's and wanted to utilize starter-turned-reliever Dennis Eckersley in as many games as possible. It was La Russa who used computer analysis as far back as the early 1980s when he was managing his first team, the Chicago White Sox. It was La Russa who paid obsessive attention to how certain batters did against pitchers and vice versa and therefore adjusted his strategy accordingly. And it was La Russa who elevated the role of situational relief pitching into a whole new dimension in this year's playoffs by calling for his bullpen a record 75 times, and winning the World Series despite no starter going more than five innings in the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Did La Russa use "computer analysis" in the early 1980s? I don't know. I know the White Sox used computers to compile and sort various data. But the notion that La Russa was the first to use batter-vs.-pitcher data is preposterous. Earl Weaver quite famously had notecards with the same sort of information, and of course he was using that data to set his lineups when La Russa will still playing third base in the American Association.

Did La Russa (and Duncan) invent the modern closer? Not exactly. In 1988, Eckersley's first season as the (supposedly) prototypical one-inning closer, he pitched 73 innings in 60 games. That same season, Twins closer Jeff Reardon pitched 73 innings in 63 games. Two years before that, Astros closer Dave Smith had pitched 56 innings in 54 games.

I'm not saying that La Russa wasn't an innovator, or that he wasn't influential. I'm just not sure that he invented anything, or that even if he did, someone else wouldn't have come along and invented it a year or two later.

Just one more example ... La Russa is often credited with inventing the one-out lefty reliever. I certainly remember it that way ... Here comes Rick Honeycutt again, just to face one left-handed hitter. Damned pitching changes, all they do is slow down the game!

But Honeycutt's first season in that role was 1992, in which he pitched only 39 innings in 54 appearances.

In 1991, Dodgers lefty John Candeleria pitched 34 innings in 59 games.

Maybe he was the first modern LOOGY. Maybe La Russa was actually taking his cues from Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. As were other managers, perhaps. Because right along with Honeycutt in '92, Boston's Tony Fossas threw 30 innings in 60 games and Milwaukee's Jesse Orosco threw 39 innings in 59 games.

You might argue that La Russa refined (or perhaps even fetishized) contemporary bullpen usage; that he was an early adopter. But I just don't see where he actually invented any of this stuff.

The problem, I think, with portraying La Russa as some sort of mad genius innovator is that we lose sight of what really made La Russa a great manager, which (boringly enough) is the same thing that makes most great managers: the requisite abilities to evaluate talent and motivate players.

I'm not saying those things have been completely ignored in the various requiems I've seen. Some attention has been given to his (and in fairness, Dave Duncan's) ability to salvage the careers of otherwise-unwanted veteran pitchers. And La Russa's impatience with guys like Scott Rolen, J.D. Drew, and (recently) Colby Rasmus is oft-noted, by both his detractors and supporters. His impatience might have cost him a few good players over the years, but it probably gained him a great deal of credibility with the players who remained.

I think Tony La Russa was a genius, too. He was a genius like John McGraw and Joe McCarthy were geniuses. He knew how to spot players who could help him win, in ways that weren't always obvious to everyone else. He also knew how to keep almost everyone on the roster pulling on the same end of the rope.

Yeah, that's old-fashioned stuff. But it's always worked, and always will.