It’s been impossible to find an actual transcript about what Tony LaRussa said as a guest at the 2015 SABR Analytics Conference. Given what was tweeted and mentioned on other social media forums, it’s clear that LaRussa in his position as Chief Baseball Officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hasn’t altered his stance on certain aspects of sabermetrics. Let’s look at how LaRussa’s anger might be explained and if there’s any chance to understand rather than ridicule.
The grumpy old man defense
If you’ve dealt with a person who’s growing older, it’s inevitable that they’ll forget the way they behaved and the things they did when they were younger. Their worldview will harden and as the lines of propriety shift, even what was once the most liberal mind will begin to sound like a neoconservative.
LaRussa believes what he believes. He sees what he sees. He knows what he knows. If someone who he’s worked with or competed against and respects provides him with a new formula to gain an advantage on how to win a baseball game, he’ll listen. If Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Joe Torre and even someone with whom he doesn’t have the warmest and fuzziest of relationships like Dusty Baker, comes to him and advocates a new theory, he’ll be all ears because it’s guys talking baseball. If some baseball outsider walks up to him waving a computer printout or shoving an iPad in his face simultaneously telling him what he does is wrong and why he’s a moron for doing it that way, he’s going to react and ignore what they have to say. He’s going to rail against them to retaliate.
As someone who’s older and has seen pretty much everything there is to see in baseball on a practical basis, he might not believe that he needs to have a mathematical calculation to tell him what’s what. In part, it might be that he doesn’t want to have to work to change his opinion based on the numbers, but will make the change without admitting to why he’s making it. It’s a tacit admission and about as close someone like him will come to saying, “Hey, you were right and I was wrong.” That might be viewed as laziness, but at 70-years-old, don’t expect exhaustive study into WAR or wOBA.
The new age people better have a resume…in baseball
LaRussa is still friends with Sandy Alderson. It was Alderson who brought a large segment of sabermetrics into baseball. He’ll listen to what Alderson has to say. On the other side of the spectrum, having managed Billy Beane as a player and knowing Beane’s real life story and not some fictionalized version designed to make him into a superhero, LaRussa’s portrayal as the stripped emperor in Moneyball will automatically result in him balling his fists and lashing out at anyone involved in the book. His character was impugned as that of an antiquated, over-powerful dinosaur living off of an unfounded reputation as the original genius when the “real” genius (according to the book) was, in fact, Bill James and his pseudo offspring, specifically Beane for implementing the numbers to the degree he did.
Like a biblical tome and its followers, who cares whether it’s true? LaRussa does.
With some justification, LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from some 25-year-old kid who went to M.I.T. suddenly referencing an algorithm as to why LaRussa shouldn’t have bunted with his team down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning after the batter leading off the inning doubled. Experience counts and LaRussa has been doing this for more than 50 years.
While LaRussa still rails against Keith Law for the apparent – and factually inaccurate – belief that Law cost Adam Wainwright the National League Cy Young Award, the anger at Law is not just about that incident. As irrational as his dislike for Law is, he’s not the only baseball insider, young and old, veteran and newbie, who views Law with disdain. He’s just the only one who says it openly. Law’s resume is bolstered by having worked in a Major League front office with the Toronto Blue Jays, but when he was there, he was a numbers guy. It’s a false and circular “if-then” addition to his credentials. He left the front office, went to work for ESPN and suddenly became a “scouting guru.” It’s up to the reader and listener to determine whether or not his assessments are coming from a place of knowledge or if he’s simply soaked up information from actual scouts and is regurgitating them. I’m in the latter camp. Presumably, so is LaRussa.
The stat guys saying, “You don’t understand the math” is the same thing as LaRussa saying, “You never played the game.” Both have a basis in truth. To say that it’s just LaRussa and baseball that has chafed at the supposed outsider’s numbers-based intrusion, one need only look at Nate Silver’s ouster/departure from the New York Times as evidence that this is not a narrow experience limited to sports in which people who are in the trenches throw haymakers when the value of their work is called into question. There are ways to get others to listen to a differing viewpoint without alienating them and there’s a lack of people skills and deftness on both sides causing a din and drowning out what could be a profitable back-and-forth.
For someone like Law to imply that he could manage a game better than LaRussa or an experienced political reporter having his or her work denigrated by Silver is a petri dish for contentiousness and sniping. It’s no surprise that these figures are so polarizing when intruding into someone else’s life’s work.
The mirror image
The problem with many stat people is identical to why LaRussa doesn’t want to hear from them and why LaRussa’s early reputation was one of pompous arrogance: they come across as condescending and smug if you dare disagree with them. The group mentality and anonymity of the internet protects them from being called out on what they say and, when challenged, they’ll retreat to snark saying things they’d never say to the person were he or she standing in front of them.
When LaRussa was coming up as a manager, no one was doing what he was doing. The shifts; the frequent pitching changes; the lineup juggling; the spitting in the face of “this is the way we’ve always done it” made him a lot of enemies. Once he was successful, it was quickly and surreptitiously copied without an admission that he might have been right. The same thing has been happening with sabermetrics.
While he might be set in his ways, LaRussa’s not stupid. He knows that many of the people in the crowd at the saber conferences will politely ask questions, request pictures and autographs, tell him how much they admire him and then retreat to their laptops at a local Starbucks to write a 1,000 word blog post as to why he’s a fool.
For someone who has been in the masculine, testosterone-fueled world of baseball for almost his entire life to have to deal with these collateral sneak attacks is a personal affront as a professional and as a man. It’s LaRussa who advocates the use of beanballs as retaliation; it’s LaRussa who is so feisty a competitor that he almost had fistfights with opposing managers Baker and Buck Showalter; and it’s LaRussa who hears about or reads everything said and written about him to see if there’s the need to start a new vendetta.
Why he came back
At this point in his life, LaRussa could enjoy life in retirement, work in his various charities, make money as an adviser to teams, do some analysis and broadcasting work, and just take it easy. Perhaps he took the Diamondbacks job out of sheer competitiveness. Maybe he wanted the money. Or it’s possible that he wanted to prove to the world that an old-schooler like him could still show these interlopers a thing or two.
It’s no secret that he and Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow butted heads when Luhnow was hired to overhaul the draft for the St. Louis Cardinals as scouting director. A sheer outsider who’d never played baseball at a level higher than high school telling LaRussa about baseball? No. People undermining the pitching philosophies of guru Dave Duncan? Double no. Having Walt Jocketty forced out because he also resisted the insinuations of the Luhnow brigade? Triple no.
LaRussa, with his experience at sharp-elbowed infighting and inter-organizational politics, won the power struggle and Luhnow’s influence was eventually mitigated in favor of the LaRussa faction. Ironically, both departed the organization after that World Series. Both deserved a share of the credit for the last team they were involved in building, the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals. Luhnow left to run his own team and LaRussa left because he was going out on top and could leave validated that his way won. But that wasn’t enough. Now he’s trying to prove he can beat them at the front office game they’ve largely taken over and he’ll do it his way. He’s either going to win big his way or his archenemies will be proven “right.”
In truth, it’s a combination of both experience and new age numbers that are necessary to build a successful team. Neither will admit it and LaRussa is so egomaniacal and is immersed in the above issues that he’ll stick to his familiar rants to maintain the veneer of the original genius.