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October 21, 2011

The BP Broadside

In Defense of Tony LaRussa

by Steven Goldman

As those pundits who reflexively criticize we sabermetric types like to remind us, baseball is not a tabletop game. As Bill James pointed out on more than one occasion, you can actually learn a lot about baseball from running through a few hundred simulated games, but leave that aside for now. The key here is the one thing you cannot get out of two-dimensional player-cards: an insight into their current ability to perform, an instinct, a feeling. The card is always ready to go, but the actual player the card represents is not nearly so dependable. He might have a cold, or a mild groin strain, or a bitter divorce, or a hundred other things that aren’t visible from the press box or your living room sofa.

No baseball simulation that I know of has an option for randomized “not that into it today” diminishment of a player’s abilities, or “severely distracted,” or “slightly out of whack.” In games, they are what they are. In real life, they vary from day to day. We must concede this, as we always have conceded it. Further, we must concede that one of the people in a better position to know these things about St. Louis Cardinals players in particular is Tony LaRussa. His information is more complete than ours. That doesn’t mean he or any manager will always be correct or wise or even lucky, it just means that he’s operating on perhaps one more level than we are.

The foregoing is a preamble to a defense of LaRussa’s decision to yank Jason Motte in the top of the ninth inning of World Series Game Two, a move that was attacked as over-managing the moment that it happened. The difficult thing about being a manager is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Back on September 23, I took LaRussa to task for being too passive with Jason Motte in a key game against the Mets. The Cardinals took a 6-2 lead into the top of the ninth at St. Louis, and LaRussa brought Motte in to finish things out:

Motte didn’t allow a hit to the Mets, but he walked leadoff man Willie Harris, saw Nick Evans reach first base on a Rafael Furcal error that aborted a potential double play, and walked Jason Pridie. The bases loaded, Motte capped a memorable afternoon by walking pinch-hitter Justin Turner to force in a run. At that point, quick-draw LaRussa, who had not been as quick as one might have expected in this series, finally brought the hook, but neither Fernando Salas nor Marc Rzepcynski could stem the tide that had now been unleashed. The flood was exacerbated by some shaky defense from the Cardinals, not only Furcal’s error but also bad positioning on the part of left fielder Shane Robinson, who had come into the game for Allen Craig and was caught playing shallow on a drive to left field by Ruben Tejada that went for a double and tied the game. … When a pitcher like Motte, with good control, starts walking the ballpark, the manager’s radar should be set off by the uncharacteristic behavior. Leo Durocher used to say, “I wasn’t nailed to the bench,” meaning that when the game was in jeopardy he was free to act. LaRussa was nailed to the bench.

Motte wasn’t nearly as bad on Thursday night. Ian Kinsler popped a ball just past Rafael Furcal into no-man’s land to lead off the inning, then Furcal—barely—stole second base. Elvis Andrus followed by turning a fat off-speed pitch into a sharp liner to right-center that moved Kinsler to third base, Andrus taking second when the throw-in either wasn’t properly cut off or was off line, depending on how you saw the play. This brought left-hander Josh Hamilton to the plate and LaRussa out of the dugout to go for 1,000-year-old situational lefty Arthur Rhodes. That’s where the first-guessing begins.

The move didn’t work out, of course. Hamilton hit a run-scoring sacrifice fly that also moved Andrus to third. LaRussa replaced Rhodes with Lance Lynn, but Michael Young hit the second sacrifice of the inning to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. Neftali Feliz made it stand up in the bottom of the frame.

Just because a move doesn’t work out doesn’t mean it was the wrong move. Sometimes a manager pushes the right button and gets the wrong result. In this sense, the argument for a move, the soundness of the thinking behind it, is in many ways more important than the outcome of the move itself. A manager can’t control outcomes, but he can utilize his players as best he can so that the chances of a good outcome increase. As the Hall of Fame manager Miller Huggins once said, “After all, managing is not so difficult. You just figure out the things of which your players are capable and then try to get them to do those things.”

Standing on the mound in the ninth inning last night, LaRussa thought that Motte was not capable. Keep in mind, the Cardinals were in deep trouble no matter what decision LaRussa did—keeping a one-run lead when you’re facing runners on second and third and no outs is a difficult stunt no matter who is pitching. After the game, the manager gave several reasons for making the change, including his feeling that Hamilton, strong against fastballs, would have a harder time against Rhodes's geezer-southpaw stuff. No doubt he felt this way despite the groin injury that constrains Hamilton’s swing. He’s aware of it just as much, if not more so, than you are.

He’s also more aware of Motte. In that game back on September 22, he had kept his faith in Motte and paid for it with a loss that could have dropped the Cards right out of the pennant race. LaRussa isn’t going to tell the media this, but I strongly suspect that, in this case, once bitten equals twice shy. Even if that wasn’t his reason, he has been watching Motte for four seasons now, and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as to the pitcher’s capabilities, particularly when Motte hadn’t been sharp.

Think about it: Motte came to the majors in September of 2008. He has all the stuff in the world. The incumbent closer in that time was Ryan Franklin, who wasn’t exactly Mariano Rivera even before he pitched his way out of the majors back in June. Any manager with a pulse would think about letting Motte close given those conditions, and yet Motte has exactly 12 regular-season saves. Either we have to accept that LaRussa is a complete idiot and is blind to Motte’s capabilities, or we have to at least allow for the possibility that LaRussa has reasons for believing that Motte should not be his day-in day-out closer.

If after the game you caught the postgame show on the MLB network, you saw Mitch Williams arguing that LaRussa had now irreparably shattered Motte’s confidence for the rest of the postseason. Williams has certainly been in the position to know, but even if he is correct as to the condition of Motte’s psyche, what would he have had LaRussa do if he believed that keeping Motte in the game would lead to a loss? Chalk up a World Series game to experience because it might hurt someone’s feelings? If Motte stayed in to fall apart as he did against the Mets, or even simply allowed the tying and the winning runs to score via his own inability to execute, would that not damage his confidence as well?

Perhaps in a regular-season game there is room for a manager to gamble on a pitcher’s confidence, but this is the World Series, Motte is 29 years old, and if he doesn’t know where he stands by now, he’s not going to know. LaRussa had his conviction about Motte’s chances against Hamilton at that moment, and neither you, nor I, nor Mitch Williams will ever know what would have happened had Motte stayed in the game. We can only know, and accept, that he had his reasons and they cannot be comprehensively argued with.

Prior to the game, LaRussa had predicted this kind of second-guessing: “It comes down to you make a move, and if it works, 'Hey, what a good move.' If it doesn't work, 'What was he thinking?' That's just the name of the game.” As long as there have been managers, there have been first-guessers and second-guessers, and since most managers are no smarter than the rest of us, quite often the doubters have had a good case. This isn’t one of those times; it isn’t even close to being one of those times. Save your ammo for when someone does something worth arguing about.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Tony Larussa,  Managers Of The Year

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