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October 13, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

Being Tony La Russa

by Jay Jaffe

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So, you're Tony La Russa and it's the sixth inning of a scoreless NLCS opener. At this point in time, you've got:

  • 1) a faltering if not tiring starter nearing the 100-pitch mark and working on a scoreless string that probably adds up to the number of zeroes he put up during his entire Anaheim tenure
  • 1a) Jeff Weaver, a guy who ends up yelling into his glove a lot as he turns around to admire the flight path of a projectile he helped launch
  • 2) two lefties in the bullpen, rookie Tyler Johnson and veteran Randy Flores
  • 3) Dos Carloses--Beltran and Delgado--next in the batting order, both with major platoon splits that say BRING IN THE SOUTHPAW (Beltran .247/.352/.482, a 220-point difference in OPS; Delgado .226/.311/.440, a 244-point difference)
  • 4) Oh, and this: Beltran has a career SLG of .619 against Weaver in 42 at-bats, while Delgado has hit .500/.620/.974 off of him in 38 at-bats

This isn't a three-alarm fire yet, but rest assured, if you don't pick up the phone, it may well be. The sample sizes are small, particularly the one that tells you that your two lefties have held the sluggers to a combined 1-for-8 with a walk in their careers. In the big picture of his career, Beltran's platoon difference disappears. Delgado's, however, is very real. In short, just about every piece of matchup data you have favors making this move.

Now, you being Tony La Russa, you figure that you'll get to do the same thing again, probably in the eighth inning, with whichever reliever you don't tap here. You made your name and fame as a manager pursuing exactly these kinds of matchups, and while the result--12-man staffs and endless commercial breaks for those four-pitcher innings--isn't pretty, you've reached the postseason so many times you now have to use your toes to count.

Seems like an easy decision, right? I pointed it out as something to watch for in my NLCS preview.

Except you're Tony La Russa, and you let Beltran jack it out of the park against Weaver for a 2-0 lead, and then after an emphatic double surrendered to Delgado and an intentional walk to David Wright, you finally bring in your first lefty, Johnson, to face Endy Chavez, a guy with a reverse platoon split the last two years. Storybook season or no, Chavez is still Endy Chavez, and in the end he lets you off the hook by grounding a 3-1 pitch into a fielder's choice to end the threat.

Then in the eighth, you're still down by two and Braden Looper has just given up a leadoff single, bringing up Dos Carloses again. Again, no lefty to be found. Delgado nearly cranks one out and it takes a pretty good play for the third out to keep the score from becoming 4-0.

Now, neither Johnson or Flores is anyone's idea of a championship caliber lefty one-out guy (or LOOGY, as coined by John Sickels). However, unlike your righty setup men--Looper, Brad Thompson, and Josh Hancock--they both average about a strikeout per inning, which offers some hint of their abilities. Based on WXRL, Flores is your third-best reliever on the roster now that Jason Isringhausen's season is toast, and frankly, your bullpen is so thin that the thought of hauling Sidney Ponson off of the nearest barstool for the purposes of ballast has probably crossed your mind. If there's a reason you're even bothering to carry these two lefties on the roster, it's to face the key hitters, right?

Tony La Russa, Genius.

OK, perhaps that's not entirely fair. We spend a lot of time around these parts preaching the gospel of avoiding slavish devotion to LOOGY matchups mainly because they often involve the deployment of an organization's 14th- or 15th-best pitcher in a high-leverage situation; it's more constructive to take your chances with a better pitcher regardless of handedness, even on a staff as relatively threadbare as the Cards' is. Weaver's been on a roll for the last six weeks--3.22 ERA in 44.2 innings coming into that frame--enough of a roll that you probably have to credit Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan for helping him make adjustments and regain some of his former confidence. But Weaver simply doesn't have a track record of success against the Mets' two most dangerous hitters.

Meanwhile, La Russa appears to have lost some confidence in his southpaws because they contributed their share of gasoline to the near-massive flameout of September. Flores was dinged for seven runs in 5.1 innings of September action, retiring just 16 out of 30 batters--he was scored upon in five of his last eight appearances. Johnson's also been shaky, charged with four runs in 6.1 September innings; though he retired 19 out of 26 hitters, he surrendered a pair of homers and took the loss in both of those games amid the seven-game losing streak that put the noose around the Cardinals' neck.

Still, like every other Cardinal, the southpaws got a new lease on life in the Division Series against the Padres; La Russa called their number a combined total of six times in the four games, and though both pitchers occasionally hiccuped, as a unit the Cardinal bullpen did the job. Here's Flores:

And Johnson:

  • Game One, 5-1 lead in the seventh inning, with one out and runners on first and third. Hit Bard with a pitch to load the bases, but struck out Mark Bellhorn and retired Todd Walker on a grounder.
  • Game Two, 2-0 lead in 8th inning, struck out Dave Roberts and Giles. Adam Wainwright came on and yielded a double before retiring Gonzalez.
  • Game Three, trailing 3-1 in the ninth, struck out Giles, walked Barfield, gave up a single to Gonzalez. Thompson came on and the score held, though the Cards were unable to come back.
  • Game Four, 6-2 lead in the eighth inning, with runners on first and third and nobody out. Struck out Bard, then yielded to Kinney, who induced Piazza to hit into a double play.

The point is that La Russa, for whatever reason, got away from one of the strategies that he's been successful with for most of the year, and successful with in the Division Series, and despite just about every indication that this was an instance he should stick with that strategy. He and the Cardinals paid the price, and now they're a game down in the LCS.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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