The Mouth That Roared By Dallas Green—Book Review

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Given his reputation throughout baseball as a straight-talking, old-school baseball guy, if Dallas Green was going to put his career in perspective with an autobiography, he had to go all-in.

Green doesn’t disappoint in The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball written with Alan Maimon.

From his time as a journeyman pitcher who was constantly on the fringes of being sent to the minors, Green was a players’ player who worked as both a union representative in the nascent days of the MLB Players Union and saw the geographical shift from the owners controlling everything to the unfettered free agency that accompanied Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter and Andy Messersmith. His feelings on the matter have swung from decrying the players’ indentured servitude, clamoring for some say in their careers, battling for a crumb of the pie from ownership to today wondering how much good the $200 million contracts are doing for the game.

Green has the breadth of experience from functioning as a player clinging to his career with arm injuries and poor performance to a minor league director to a manager to a GM. He helped Paul Owens build the 1970s Phillies who almost but not quite made it over the hump from annual division winner to championship club, then went down on the field at the behest of Owens when the soft, inmates running the asylum approach of Danny Ozark was no longer working, got into the faces of veteran players, benching them, threatening them, ripping them publicly and dragged them to a World Series title in 1980—the first championship in Phillies’ history.

One interesting footnote from 1980 is that with all the complaining from closers of yesteryear about the one-inning save in today’s game, Green didn’t adhere to it during that championship season because nobody adhered to it until Tony LaRussa implemented it in 1988 with Dennis Eckersley. Pitchers like Tug McGraw, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and any closer worth anything pitched multiple innings. That had drawbacks that aren’t discussed by the “in my day” crowd (Green isn’t one of them) as McGraw pitched two innings in the first game of the World Series, had worked very hard including three innings pitched in game 3 of the NLCS and appearances in games 4 and 5, plus game 1 of the World Series, and wasn’t available to close in game 2 of the World Series with Ron Reed doing the job. That would never happen today.

The original intention was for Green to take over for Owens as Phillies GM with managing only a short-term gig. Owens had no plans to retire as the Cubs came after Green calling—repeatedly with consistently sweetened offers—to take over as their GM with carte blanche to run the team as he saw fit. He turned them down multiple times before finally saying, “Yes.”

With the Cubs, Green turned a perennial loser into a division champion with smart trades in getting Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Ron Cey. However, as should be noted in today’s game where there’s the perception of the GM with absolute power, it doesn’t exist for anyone and never really did at any time. Even today’s luminaries like Theo Epstein and Billy Beane answer to someone. After his first season as the GM in 1982, Green thought he had a handshake deal in place that would land Dodgers free agent first baseman Steve Garvey for the Cubs. As a corollary to that trade, the Cubs would have traded Bill Buckner (a player Green didn’t want on his team because of selfishness and in whom he took a certain perverse amusement when the 1986 World Series was lost by the Red Sox in part because of Buckner’s error) to the Phillies. The Cubs upper management didn’t okay the deal and Garvey wound up signing with the Padres who, ironically, beat the Cubs in the 1984 NLCS with Garvey helping significantly. It was then that Green learned what he was dealing with working for a corporate ownership in the Tribune Company. It was Green’s constant pursuit of putting lights in Wrigley Field that played a major role in the stadium being saved by their installation in 1988.

After the Cubs won the division and appeared to be on their way up, it became a case of too much too soon. Green’s plan was to use his own long-term contract to rebuild the Cubs’ dilapidated farm system, sign key free agents, change the culture from one that accepted losing, and make wise trades to have a consistent pipeline of talent. When the Cubs won the division in 1984, it was expected that they were going to win a World Series shortly thereafter and when they took a step back in 1985 and came completely undone in 1986 and 1987, Green was fired. The signal that it wasn’t going to work as Green planned with the Cubs occurred when an executive with the Tribune named John Madigan began going to baseball meetings, learned and used the terminology and started interfering with baseball moves. From Green this was an example and a none-too-subtle shot at people who have no baseball experience thinking that learning a few catchwords is a substitute for knowing the game itself through experience.

Following his firing the Cubs won another division title in 1989 with a team comprised of players that Green had acquired and drafted. By then, he was managing the Yankees.

For all the enemies he hammers in the book like Bobby Valentine (“He thinks he knows more about the game than anyone else.”); Gene Mauch (“lack of people skills”; “inherent mistrust of younger players…”); Joe McIlvaine (“I ended up hearing through the grapevine that he might be spending a lot of time on non-baseball activities in Atlantic City.”); and Buckner (“Buck was happy to put his numbers up, but he was never truly content. And he most definitely never embraced the idea of baseball as a team sport.”), Green never took overt shots at George Steinbrenner from his brief tenure managing the Yankees.

No one who knew Dallas Green and George Steinbrenner could possibly have thought it was going to work not just because of the clash of personalities of one person who wanted things done his way and the other one who wasn’t going to take crap (you can pick which would be which), and it inevitably and quickly failed with Green fired in August. It didn’t help that the 1989 Yankees plainly and simply weren’t any good and wouldn’t be good again for another four years in large part because of Steinbrenner hiring people like Green and not letting them do what it was that got them hired and made them successful in other venues in the first place.

Green then joined the Mets as a scout and eventually took over as a “clean out the barn” manager. He couldn’t get through to many players from veteran Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray and young Jeromy Burnitz, but he did forge decent relationships with and got good performances from Bret Saberhagen after a rough start and John Franco. He stated openly that his experience in developing players with the Phillies told him that the Mets heavily promoted trio of “Generation K” Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson weren’t ready for the big leagues as the centerpieces when they were pushed as such. He’s right when he says all three needed more time in the minors to learn how to pitch.

An interesting aspect of Green’s career is the influence he’s had and how players who may have hated him while he was managing them took his lessons into their own management careers. Larry Bowa couldn’t stand Green and felt he was too openly critical of players. The relationship wasn’t bad enough to prevent Green from acquiring Bowa in the Sandberg trade to play shortstop for him with the Cubs and to trust him to mentor top draft pick Shawon Dunston. Nor did it stop Bowa from becoming a manager whose style was nearly identical to Green’s. As a player he didn’t like to be yelled at; as a manager, he learned that some players need to be yelled at. Like Green, he got fired for it.

Today as he’s an assistant in the Phillies front office, he sees the way deals are made with a nearly nonexistent focus on people and a detrimental focus on numbers with the money players are being paid and the almost misanthropic nature of the people making the decisions today in a cold, corporate atmosphere and yearns for a time when baseball people made baseball decisions when he says, “Many general managers today only know how to evaluate talent in front of a computer.”

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to his granddaughter, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green. Christina was one of the people killed in the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The old-school baseball man Green is also old-school when it comes to the right for responsible people to bear arms, but his case for gun control is coming from someone who doesn’t see any reason for automatic weapons designed for one purpose—to kill people—continue to be sold and has lost a loved one to make this point tragically clear.

While it would have been easy for the book to degenerate into a treatise on the superiority of the old school both on and off the field; for it to turn into a Richard Nixon-like unfettered attack against his lengthy enemies list, Green manages to state his case as he sees it with a matter-of-fact tone that has no hallmarks of a vengeful attack or manufactured controversy designed to create buzz and sell books.

A person whose life has been steeped in in-the-trenches baseball will see their beliefs validated, but those who are relatively new to the game and think they’re experts after learning how to calculate OPS+ will also find value if they read it rather than use it as an indictment of the old school and take what Green says to learn from his successes and acknowledged mistakes.

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2012 MLB Award Picks—Cy Young Award

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Let’s look at the award winners for 2012 starting with the Cy Young Award with my 2012 picks, who I picked in the preseason, and who I actually think is going to win regardless of who should win.

American League

1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Verlander won the Cy Young Award and the MVP in 2011. His numbers in 2012 weren’t as dominating as they were in 2011 and the Tigers had a better team in 2012, so he’s not an MVP candidate this season, but he still did enough to outdo the competition for the CYA.

Verlander led the American League in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and was at or near the top in advanced stats such as Adjusted ERA+ and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

The WAR argument is a factor, but not the factor to set the stage for the MVP analysis between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Price led the AL in ERA and wins, but was far behind Verlander in innings pitched and strikeouts.

3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

If he hadn’t had two terrible games in September in which he allowed 7 earned runs in each, he would’ve been higher. In addition to those games, he allowed 6 earned runs in two other games; and 5 earned runs in three others. He was pitching for a bad team that couldn’t hit, pitched a perfect game, and threw 5 shutouts.

4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

Had he not gotten injured and missed three starts, the Angels might’ve made the playoffs. It wouldn’t have won him the award unless he’d thrown three shutouts, but he’d have had a better shot. He won 20 games and was third in ERA, but only logged 188 innings.

5. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

In his first year as a starter, it was Sale’s smooth transition to the rotation that led the White Sox to surprising contention.

***

My preseason pick was Price.

The winner will be Verlander.

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

Which will win out? The story of Dickey and how he rose from a first round draft pick whose contract was yanked from under him because his elbow didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, then to a 4-A journeyman, then to a knuckleballer, then to a sensation? Or will the fact that he is a knuckleballer and the perception of him using a trick pitch sway some voters away from his numbers to the concept of giving the award to a “real” pitcher (as ridiculous as that is).

When Jim Bouton was making a comeback as a knuckleballer in 1978, he pitched well against the Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. The Reds quantified their inability to hit Bouton with head shakes at how slow his offerings were. Bouton’s friend Johnny Sain said something to the tune of, “You’ve discovered a new way to assess a pitcher’s performance—go and ask the opponent what they thought.”

How Dickey did it and debiting him for using a “trick pitch” is like refusing to give Gaylord Perry the Cy Young Award or Hall of Fame induction because he admittedly threw a spitball. Everyone knew it and he got away with it. It’s the same thing with Dickey except he’s not cheating.

Dickey won 20 games for a bad team and led the National League in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts.

2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

I wouldn’t argue if Kershaw won the award. You can flip him and Dickey and both are viable candidates.

Kershaw led the NL in WAR for pitchers, was second in adjusted ERA+, led the league in ERA, was second in innings pitched and strikeouts. He was also pitching late in the season with a hip impingement injury that was initially thought to need surgery. (He won’t need the surgery.)

3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

I am not punishing a great pitcher for being a closer. Saying he’s not a starter is similar to saying that a player like Derek Jeter isn’t a great player because he never hit the home runs that Alex Rodriguez hit. He’s not a slugger. That’s not what he does. It’s the same thing with Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera. Make them into a starter, and it won’t work. But they’re great closers.

Hitters are overmatched against Kimbrel. And yes, I’m aware you can make the same argument for Aroldis Chapman, but Chapman’s ERA was half-a-run higher than Kimbrel’s, but Kimbrel’s ERA+ was 399 compared to Chapman’s 282. For comparison, Rivera’s highest ERA+ in his career is 316; Eric Gagne won the 2003 NL CYA with an ERA+ of 337.

4. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

Cueto was second in WAR (just ahead of Dickey), third in ERA, first in adjusted ERA+, and third in wins.

5. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

Gonzalez won 21 games, but didn’t pitch 200 innings. He has a Bob Welch thing going on. Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young Award in the American League, but Dave Stewart had a far better year than Welch and Roger Clemens was better than both. Welch was the beneficiary of pitching for a great team with a great bullpen. Clemens was second, Stewart third. Dennis Eckersley had an ERA+ of 603 (that’s not a mistake) and walked 4 hitters (1 intentionally) in 73 innings that season. Welch had a good year, but it’s not as flashy as it looked when delving deeper into the truth. This is comparable to Gonzalez’s predicament.

***

My preseason pick was Tim Lincecum.

Kimbrel is going to win on points as Dickey, Gonzalez, and Kershaw split the vote among starters. I see some writers punishing Dickey for being a knuckleballer due to some silly self-enacted “rules” or biases just as George King of the New York Post deprived Pedro Martinez of a deserved MVP in 1999—link.

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A-Rod, Ibanez, and Changing the Culture at Closer

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Watching for the reaction from Alex Rodriguez fits neatly into a narrative of the player’s struggles. Would he accept the unprecedented maneuver to pinch-hit for him with Raul Ibanez, or would he pull a Scottie Pippen and throw a public tantrum? Would A-Rod have negative things to say in spite of the move working? Would it be all about him?

This aspect is a non-story. A-Rod hasn’t acted like a diva since his opt-out in 2007 and subsequent return to the Yankees. He’s eager to help his younger teammates and contemporaries and is smart and self-aware enough to know that he’s not getting the job done. While he would have liked to have gotten a shot to do what Ibanez did? Yes, but logic and current reality dictates that had it been A-Rod at the plate against Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson, he would have failed. He’s still smart and savvy as a player (evidenced by his run-saving deke of J.J. Hardy in game 2), and while the traps he once set for pitchers by looking intentionally awful at a pitch just so the pitcher would throw it again when the situation called for it and A-Rod could crush it, he knew Joe Girardi did the reasonable—and gutsy—thing before Ibanez’s heroics.

On that same theme of game-knowledge, I find offensive the implication that managers as smart and experienced as Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland are unaware of the faults that lie within the concept of the one-inning closer who’s inserted into the game simply because it’s a save chance regardless of the hitters scheduled to bat or possibilities on the bench.

They know.

Johnson has been brilliant this whole season, but prior to 2012 he had zero experience pitching for a contender and zero experience in the playoffs. He’s blown two of the three games this series. Did Showalter have a better option than him? No. And it’s irrelevant to this argument that Johnson’s numbers are very good against both righties and lefties. It’s the era that’s the problem.

In order to change the culture of the “closer,” there has to be a team that does what Tony LaRussa did when he implemented the one-inning save with Dennis Eckersley. What LaRussa did was innovative and based on what he had; what others have done in years since is simply copying LaRussa so they don’t have to think on their own and risk being criticized. “I had my closer in the game,” is an excuse, not a reason. It’s a shield against reasonable questioning as to why a manager does what he does.  

LaRussa’s idea was bastardized and has evolved into the unrecognizable and mindless zombie it is today when that wasn’t LaRussa’s intent at all. LaRussa defined the roles for his relievers because he had the relievers to fill those roles effectively; Eckersley was more durable and effective in his mid-30s when he didn’t have to pitch more than one inning. It was cold-blooded analysis rather than an effort to reinvent the game.

The most ludicrous thing about the one-inning closer pitching against all comers is that prior to the ninth inning, the managers engage in a duel from the sixth inning to the eighth, mixing and matching their pitchers to specifically face certain hitters based on numbers, stuff, history, and other factors; then when the ninth comes around, for the Tigers, it’s Jose Valverde; for the Orioles, it’s Johnson, and no one dare interfere with the closer’s realm whether it’s the smart baseball move or not.

To think that Leyland is comfortable with Valverde on the mound and that some guy with a website or column on ESPN has the knowledge and nerve to make a change in the hierarchy, possibly upsetting the entire applecart, is the height of arrogance and cluelessness of how a baseball team is handled off the field. Johnson is effective against both righties and lefties, but if it was the seventh inning, would a righty have been pitching to Ibanez? Or would Showalter have brought in a lefty to face him?

The idea of an “ace” reliever is similar to the “ace” starting the first game of a playoff series. You want to have your best out there on the mound when it’s most important and, in the case of the Orioles, Johnson is the best they have. But in other cases, such as Valverde, is he the “best” choice or the choice to keep the peace among the pitchers by having it known, “You’ll pitch here; you’ll pitch there; you’ll pitch against X; you’ll pitch against Y.” During the regular season, if the team is good enough, it makes the manager’s life easier because the closer designate is likely going to convert his save opportunities, but in the playoffs, as we’re seeing now, it’s not a guarantee.

Mariano Rivera is considered the “greatest” closer in history because he’s gotten the big outs in the post-season, not because he’s accumulated the highest save total. Amid the saves he’s racked up in the playoffs—the vast number of them due to the opportunities accorded by pitching for a team in the playoffs just about every year—have been three high-profile gacks that cost his team a shot at the World Series title. In 1997, he allowed a game-losing homer to Sandy Alomar Jr.; in 2001, he blew game 7 of the World Series; and in game 4, it was a Dave Roberts stolen base that undid him and the Yankees. If Rivera hadn’t accrued the capital from the games he’s closed out, these would be defining moments in his career just as blown saves are for Trevor Hoffman, Neftali Feliz, and others.

What I would like to see is a team that is willing to try something different, has a manager willing to stand up to the scrutiny from the media and the complaints of the pitchers, and a front office that backs him to say, “Enough of this,” with the designated closer. Not in the way the Red Sox did, to disastrous results, in the 2003 season, but by having a group of pitchers—sidearming righties and lefties; specialists with numbers or a pitch that is effective for matchups—and use these pitchers in a similar way in the ninth inning as they do in the earlier innings.

A team that could experiment with this is the Rockies. Already trying a different tack with their starting pitchers and relievers rotating with a set number of pitches and the management unconcerned about stats; with an atmosphere not conducive to starting pitchers being successful; and a closer, Rafael Betancourt, that is in the role just because he’s there and not because he’s got a long history of doing the job, they could alter their relief configuration in the same way they’re trying to do it with starters. If it works, other clubs will copy it.

The save stat is ravaged as meaningless. In and of itself, it is meaningless. But until the mentality is changed from the top of an organization all the way through the entire system, there will still be calls for the “closer” even when a sidearming lefty who can’t get anyone out but lefties would be preferable to the guy who’s “supposed” to be out there because it’s “his” inning.

It’s not “his” anything. It’s the team’s thing. That’s what A-Rod proved by being a professional and an adult, and that’s what managers should strive to prove in the future with their bullpens.

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It Works Both Ways With The Decried Save Stat

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While I disagree with much of what the hard core stat guys say about relief pitching and in the “we’ll tell them what to do and they’ll do it” concept of dealing with players, the struggles of highly paid closers Heath Bell of the Marlins and Frank Francisco of the Mets; the injuries and money/prospects tossed down the tubes for the Reds’ Ryan Madson and Andrew Bailey of the Red Sox; the Angels’ demotion of Jordan Walden; and the Giants’ scrambling to find a replacement for Brian Wilson have again opened a legitimate argument of how and when to deploy the best relievers.

It absolutely makes sense to use the best relief pitcher in the most important circumstances and not as a rote decision in the ninth inning.

But it works both ways.

If teams are interested in having their best relievers willingly agree to shun the watered down save stat they’re going to have to do something other than order them to do as they’re told or convince them to be team players.

They’re going to have to pay them.

The mistake teams have made with the closer-by-committee and using a well-intentioned and, on paper, logical strategy is that they choose a lot of cheap, found and unproven pitchers in the role without one who can be trusted as a “fireman”.

It’s in the same category as the creation of the save stat to begin with. The pitchers of yesteryear who were called the “closers” were pithing around 140 innings a year and multiple innings per appearance.

Good intentions and strategy being what they are, it eventually become twisted.

Is Tony LaRussa truly to blame for the “one-inning save” as is generally believed? No. He was just using his then-closer Dennis Eckersley in a highly analytical way because Eckersley was older, had less bounceback ability in his arm and was more effective pitching one inning at a time than if he was used for 2-3 innings as closers generally were when the defined bullpen roles came into vogue.

LaRussa used his closers in a conventional manner before he stumbled onto Eckersley and he also had a very deep and diverse set of relievers—Rick Honeycutt, Todd Burns, Gene Nelson—to get him to Eckersley.

It was the copiers of LaRussa like Jeff Torborg who took the lunacy to its extreme, logical conclusion and pitched his closer in a save situation and, almost exclusively, for one inning. Period.

Now it would take an innovator to change the template and a front office to say to the pitchers, “We don’t believe in the save stat here. We’re going to pay you as if you’re accumulating saves, but you won’t be accumulating saves.”

Like everything else in baseball—the downfall of complete games; the widespread use of relief pitching; relief pitching specialization—it would take one team to try it and succeed and then other teams would follow suit.

Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see this as a method when it should be changed.

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Tony LaRussa Was A True Innovator

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The easiest thing to do when examining a manager’s—or anyone’s—record is to look at the numbers.

Tony LaRussa‘s managerial numbers are up in the stratosphere of baseball history and will be there forever.

He managed for 33 years; made the playoffs 14 times; won 6 pennants; and 3 World Series.

He won 2728 games and had a .536 winning percentage.

But that doesn’t explain what it was he accomplished in baseball.

LaRussa was one of the true innovators, using data and in-depth scouting reports to adjust his lineups, fielder’s positions and pitching maneuvers according to what would best enable him to have an advantage and win the game. Before stats became so prevalent that laymen thought their utilization made them a baseball expert, LaRussa epitomized the best of both stat-based/detailed information decisionmaking and old-school baseball instincts.

Being a journeyman infielder who batted .199 in 203 career plate appearances in the big leagues and lasted for 15 years in the minors (he had a few good minor league seasons), he soaked up the knowledge that contributed to his innovations as a manager; his legal training (he graduated from law school) provided a linear method of thinking that he adapted to baseball; and he had the courage of his convictions.

There were no, “I’m doing this to keep my job” moves with LaRussa. Immediately upon getting the White Sox job, the likes of Billy Martin and Sparky Anderson—baseball lifers and great managers—noticed and were impressed with his fearlessness and attention to detail.

Blamed for the advent of the “bullpen roles” with the Athletics and Dennis Eckersley, that too was an example of coldblooded rationality rather than reinventing the game. In his early seasons managing the White Sox, LaRussa used his short relievers for multiple innings just as every other manager did; it was when he got to Oakland and the veteran former starter Eckersley was making the transition to the bullpen that LaRussa decided it was best to use him for only one inning at a time. He had the other relievers in his bullpen to do it and it worked.

No one told the rest of baseball that this new strategy was the template of how to run a club without deviation—that was never the point—they were copying while LaRussa was creating.

The stat people cling to the concept of a bullpen-by-committee. This can only succeed, in part, if there’s a manager who can’t be questioned if he decides to use it—the 2011 Cardinals used the closer-by-committee with eight different pitchers recording saves.

Planning hand-in-hand with his pitching coach/aide-de-camp Dave Duncan and his GMs Sandy Alderson, Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak to find players who fit into what he wanted to build, he rejuvenated and saved the careers of dozens of players. Without LaRussa and Duncan, there’s no Dave Stewart; Mike Moore would’ve been a “what might have been” disappointment; Chris Carpenter would’ve been a journeyman bust; and Eckersley would’ve been finished at 33.

Rightful in his indignation at his portrayal in Moneyball as a “middle-manager” who wasn’t supposed to have his opinions granted any weight, he won and won and won and did it under a budget—his Cardinals teams were generally in the top 10 in payroll, but never competed financially with the Yankees and Red Sox.

Moneyball became the bane of his existence long after its publication as his longtime Cardinals GM Jocketty was forced out as the club mitigated the power of both LaRussa and Duncan and tried to use numbers and baseball outsiders to save money and restructure the organizational philosophy. LaRussa rebelled. Competing in the big leagues is hard enough without having one’s experience and strategies questioned by outsiders who think that calculating a formula can replace 40 years of analytical observation and in-the-trenches baseball.

He fought back viciously and eventually won that organizational tug-of-war.

He didn’t have much patience for young players who didn’t catch on quickly; his doghouse was entrance only and his feuds with players like Scott Rolen bordered on the embarrassing; he could be condescending, thin-skinned and Machiavellian; he overmanaged in circumstances where he shouldn’t have; he was a skillful manipulator of organizational politics to maintain influence; and his teams didn’t win as much as they should have judging by their talent.

But when a team hired Tony LaRussa to manage, they would never be outworked and if he was given the players to compete, he’d get them to the playoffs. Sometimes he got them to the playoffs when he wasn’t given the players to compete.

In an interesting footnote, the championship teams—the 1989 Athletics; 2006 Cardinals; 2011 Cardinals—weren’t anywhere near as good as the teams that got bounced in the playoffs or shocked in the World Series. The 1988 and 1990 A’s were better than the 1989 team; the 2004-2005 Cardinals won a total of 205 games, but those teams didn’t take the title.

The 2006 club collapsed in September and nearly missed the playoffs; once they got in, they regained their footing and, carried by a journeyman starter Jeff Suppan and a rookie closer (who wasn’t a closer) Adam Wainwright, they were the underdogs in every post-season series and won them all.

In 2011, the Cardinals were all but finished in late August before getting a reprieve because they had a great September and due to the Braves falling apart. Seemingly overmatched by the mighty Phillies and the pitching-rich Brewers, the Cardinals took both out. Then, down to their last strike twice in the World Series to the superior Rangers, the Cardinals came back and won an unlikely championship.

I have to wonder whether LaRussa takes more pride in winning when he wasn’t supposed to win or wanted to win with the teams that were great in every conceivable metric other than taking home the World Series trophy.

One accomplishment lends itself to his managerial skill; the other to his ability to put a club together over a long year from the winter to the fall. Neither is more important than the other, but more credit is doled for winning when a team isn’t supposed to win.

LaRussa got away with the things he did because he won and in a circular occurrence, he won because he had the nerve to do things that other young managers might not have done. He didn’t do them to be quirky; he did them because he believed in them. As much as he tried to keep his thumb on everything in his world, he was a big picture, deep strike thinker who took risks for big rewards.

Not every manager can say that.

Most new managers are going to make calls that are safe; that can be explained to the media and meddling bosses; that will keep the players in their corner—but not LaRussa.

He was a rarity among mangers for that fervent adherence to his theories and the courage to implement them.

There won’t be another LaRussa not only because he won, but because of the way he won.

He went out on top and walked away from a lot of money.

There have been intermittent and idiotic caveats from know-nothings diminishing all he did in baseball.

They need to be ignored.

LaRussa deserves to be applauded for his dedication to the game and a career that won’t be surpassed in its duration and scope.

He’s one of the best managers in the history of baseball.

LaRussa’s retiring on his own terms and he’s going out as a World Series champion.

It fits the story of his managerial career perfectly.

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Mariano Rivera Didn’t Make The Rules

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After Mariano Rivera recorded his 601st save to tie Trevor Hoffman as the career leader in saves, the debate began again as to whether Rivera has a claim on the “greatest” reliever in history as if it was a title held by Hoffman that he wrested away with that save.

Presumably it’s going to amp up when he passes Hoffman.

Hoffman—a very good closer in the same category with the likes of Lee Smith, John Franco, Jeff Reardon and Dennis Eckersley—is not in Rivera’s class in terms of stuff nor results in important games.

But that’s only one of the variables as to why Rivera is the best closer of this era.

You can say that he only managed to accrue that number of saves because he had so many opportunities pitching for the Yankees; that we don’t know how the other pitchers would’ve done had they been pitching for a dominant club that was in the playoffs every single year of his career except for 2008.

This argument, like the oft-repeated Goose Gossage lament of Rivera and the rest of today’s closers having it “easy” because they’re only asked to pitch one inning, is missing the point.

Rivera doesn’t make the rules and didn’t create the save stat; he never issued any usage dictates to be limited to one inning (nor did Eckersley for that matter); he didn’t manipulate his way to the Yankees so he could compile numbers in a “I wanna be great” way.

You can make the case that the lineups in today’s game are more complete top-to-bottom today and that pitchers like Gossage didn’t need to deal with PED users all over the place and bandbox ballparks, that Rivera and his brethren are overall equals of firemen of the past.

Rivera has done his job as he was asked to do it and he’s done it masterfully.

The save stat is what we have. The predominance of pitching one inning is how he’s been utilized. The playoffs and World Series games are where he’s made his name.

He’s been great at it.

If Rivera were asked to do what Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Dan Quisenberry did, would he have been able to do it and maintain this longevity?

There’s no way of knowing, but he wasn’t trained to do that as those pitchers were, so obviously if someone is asked to do something unfamiliar to them after being nurtured on a totally different set of principles, the likelihood is that he’s not going to be effective and he’s going to get hurt.

As of right now, Rivera has the save record; someone’s going to come along and break it. Will that person also have the success rate in the post-season that Rivera has? Will he come through when his team needs him to come through? Will he be trustworthy so it’s a shock when he blows a game and not a shock when he manages to save one as has been the case with most of the closers in today’s game for years and was so with Hoffman in the waning days of his career?

Maybe.

But it will have to be someone pretty talented and mentally tough.

According to stat accumulation, hardware, success and longevity, he’s the best. Comparing him to Hoffman was an insult to Rivera before he broke Hoffman’s record and it’s ludicrous now.

Examining eras and comparing numbers to the aforementioned pitchers is like comparing Tom Seaver to Walter Johnson—you can’t do it.

Accept Rivera for what he is; the other pitchers were great at their jobs and so is he. In the era of the one-inning closer, he’s at the top of the heap.

That’s all that really matters.

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Those Last Three Outs

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Tony La Russa, when scoffing at the suggestion that “anyone” can close games has said something to the tune of, “those last three outs are different”.

It’s not something that can be equated by stats or stuff. Closing is a mental endeavor more than anything else. It helps to have a power fastball like Goose Gossage; a bat-destroying cutter like Mariano Rivera; or a split-finger fastball like Bruce Sutter, but what all three of these pitchers and the other great closers of past and present have had is that they’ve been able to handle the mental and physical stresses of the job.

This phenomenon is being played out in front of our eyes as we’re seeing another quality arm who should be able to do it, one who I specifically pointed out as a winning choice—White Sox lefty Matt Thornton—imploding in his first week as the full-time closer.

Thornton has a high-90s fastball and good slider; he strikes out tons of hitters; has historically handled righties and lefties; doesn’t allow many homers; and throws strikes. His demeanor is indicates a closer’s mentality with the aura of “gimme the ball”.

But he’s been awful so far this season. So awful that while manager Ozzie Guillen is sticking with him, he’s come out and said he wants to see better results—ESPN Story.

In other words, time’s running out on Thornton’s foray as the White Sox closer.

Can it be explained by dissecting Thornton’s games and finding a reason why he’s gotten off to an atrocious start in his star turn? He’s had three save opportunities this season and blown them all including the April 8th game against the reeling and winless Rays in which he got tattooed for 5 runs. His defense certainly didn’t help him, but that’s no excuse.

Is it a slump? Or is being the designated “closer” in his head?

Some pitchers have been very good as set-up men and, when asked to pitch one inning later, have faltered. LaTroy Hawkins and Guillermo Mota were two solid relievers who simply could not do it.

La Russa always chafes at the implication that he destroyed the game with his specialization and role-based strategies.

The accusation is a misnomer. La Russa was simply doing what was best for his club at the time—the Athletics—and used Dennis Eckersley in a way that was best suited to what Eckersley could and couldn’t do.

The suggestion that “anyone” can get the outs in the ninth inning is contradicted by the qualified pitchers who’ve failed.

It’s not as simple as going out there and recording three outs. It’s an exercise in mental toughness more than a lights out fastball or sharp breaking pitch.

It’s important for one new to the situation and designation as the “ace” out of the bullpen to get off to a good start. Thornton’s already gacked that test. Next is whether he can overcome adversity and regain his bearings—another prerequisite.

Can he recover?

Judging from the statements of his manager, Thornton had better get a move on or he’s going back to the set-up role and Chris Sale will be closing sooner rather than later.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here (coincidentally, it’s the section about the Mets).

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve started a Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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Hammering

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Scott Kazmir‘s precarious position in the Angels starting rotation got me to—again—think about why teams insist on hammering square pegs into round holes.

There are certain belief systems that have to change to maximize the talent a club has on their roster. Did anyone ever stop to think that perhaps pitchers like Kazmir and Rich Harden would be better off as relievers?

After getting past the numerical argument that a decent starter is better than a good reliever, what happens if the pitcher isn’t a decent starter anymore; or if he’s good, but can’t stay healthy? Why does there have to be this ironclad set of rules that pitcher A is a starter and he’s going to stay a starter?

Kazmir and Harden can’t stay healthy as starters; Kazmir is no longer effective as a starter—why not see if he can possibly help out of the bullpen?

An onus is placed over a player who can’t do certain things and it’s at the expense of what he can do. One of the things that made Earl Weaver a genius wasn’t his adherence to stats; it wasn’t his discipline; it wasn’t his utter ruthlessness in getting rid of players who could no longer help him win; it was his conscious decision to put his players in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

He did it with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein—separately they could only be described as average players at best; combined, they were one of the most devastating platoons in memory.

So why can’t Harden be placed in the bullpen to see if he can fire his power fastball and slider for an inning or two, not worry about pacing himself and hope he can stay healthy?

If he continues his downward spiral, why not stick Kazmir in the bullpen as the 7th-8th inning man—or even let him close on occasion—and see if the adrenaline rush from being a reliever and never knowing when he’s going to be needed to pitch blows his fastball back into the mid-90s?

Tony La Russa has forever been blamed for the one-inning closer because of the way he deployed Dennis Eckersley; the truth is that Eckersley pitched more than one inning regularly when he first moved to the bullpen and La Russa’s decision to use his short reliever in that manner was based on Eckersley being better that way; it was not some grand scheme that this is how it should be done.

Does anyone think that Eckersley would’ve been of more use had he stayed in the starting rotation as his career was nearly undone at age 32 because he was no longer an effective starter? He didn’t want to go to the bullpen—he had no choice—now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

With the way relievers—aside from Mariano Rivera—are so inherently unreliable, the entire fabric of how to deploy one’s pitching staff has to be overhauled; it would take a gutty front office and manager to do it, but with the new blood permeating baseball and shoving back at conformity with a flourish, someone’s going to say they’re doing it another way…eventually.

Old-school people who repeatedly reference Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry as closers who were legitimate relief aces tend to forget that those great pitchers blew games too.

George Brett used to lie in wait for a Gossage high fastball because he was one of the few hitters in baseball who was quick enough to get on top of it. Other hitters with whom Gossage had trouble were fastball hitters like Champ Summers* and Richie Zisk.

*Summers was a piece of work. He was a Vietnam vet who loved—not liked—loved to fight.

In fact, when Gossage signed with the Yankees in 1978, he allowed homers in his first three appearances. It wasn’t all “lights out, ballgame over” when these pitchers came into games, selective memory and factional disputes as to eras aside.

From memory, Sutter was the reliever I feared more than any other because he’d come into a game in the sixth inning and close it out. But Sutter’s greatness was proven to be limiting as well when he left the Cardinals, signed a massive free agent contract with the then-woeful Atlanta Braves and his presence didn’t help them at all because they weren’t any good; the Cardinals won the pennant the first year without Sutter.

A team has to be complete; it has to have all the puzzle pieces arranged correctly. We don’t know what would happen with a Kazmir or Harden if they were made into relievers, but we certainly know what they currently are as starters, so why continue the charade? Why not make a career change and see if it works?

They’re not doing much good now, so what’s the difference if they fail as relievers as well?

And it just might work.

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My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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