LaRussa Picks The Wrong Time To Undermanage

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Tony LaRussa bristles at the suggestion that anyone can manage a team successfully as long as they adhere to the numbers. The Moneyball school of thought set out to mitigate what a manager could and would be allowed to do and used LaRussa as the example of the type of manager teams should avoid.

The dichotomy is striking because LaRussa was one of the more cerebral, numbers-oriented managers long before it became trendy.

So it is puzzling when LaRussa—known and criticized for his penchant to overmanage and make pitching changes just for the sake of making them—doesn’t make a pitching change when it’s clearly the correct move.

In the Phillies 11-6 win over the Cardinals in game 1 of the NLDS in Philadelphia, the Cardinals led the Phillies 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning with Kyle Lohse on the mound for the Cardinals.

Normally, LaRussa would’ve had it in mind to get Lohse out of the game as soon as it looked like he was getting in trouble.

But he didn’t.

In fact, he left Lohse in the game long enough to give up two homers and six runs.

Jimmy Rollins led off the inning with a single; Chase Utley struck out; Hunter Pence came to the plate and singled to put the tying runs on base. With Ryan Howard due up, where was a lefty specialist? Why leave Lohse in to pitch to a hitter who destroys him?

You can make the argument that it happened so quickly and yanking the pitcher at that point would’ve been jumping the gun, but this wasn’t Chris Carpenter on the mound; it was Lohse who isn’t a pitcher who’s earned the benefit of the doubt in most situations and definitely not in a playoff series with the Cardinals having zero margin for error.

Naturally Howard homered to right to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.

But that’s not all.

LaRussa stayed with Lohse, Shane Victorino singled…and Raul Ibanez homered as well.

Ibanez has spent his career ripping Lohse too.

Pence, Howard and Ibanez all kill Lohse—stats.

LaRussa knows this. He has two lefties in the bullpen, Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes. Where were they?

It was inexplicable and none of the career-long bouts of pomposity, condescension and blatant intimidation tactics employed by LaRussa are going to absolve him from this horrific gaffe.

The Cardinals wound up getting blown out in a game they could’ve won—a game they had to win.

In order to win this series—or to even get it to a fourth game—the Cardinals have to be perfect. They executed the correct strategy early in the game by coming out swinging against Roy Halladay and took a 3-0 lead on a Lance Berkman homer; but they let the lead slip away with an uncharacteristic and mistaken decision by LaRussa to undermanage.

The small chance the Cardinals had in this series disappeared along with the strategies that LaRussa has used for over 30 years but suddenly decided to abandon for no reason whatsoever.

And I don’t understand why.

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Philadelphia Phillies

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St. Louis Cardinals (90-72; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card) vs Philadelphia Phillies (102-60; 1st place, NL East)

Keys for the Cardinals: Be aggressive and mash the first good pitch they see; take advantage of any and all openings; keep the scores low, win late.

The Cardinals led the National League in on base percentage and runs scored; they were third in walks, but that’s not going to work against the Phillies starters and it would be silly to try. Getting into the bullpen isn’t going to help them either because if they try to take the tack of waiting for a good pitch to hit, they’re going to fall into disadvantageous counts and be meat for the Phillies pitchers. Lance Berkman is a patient hitter with power; Albert Pujols had an off-year for him, but still had 37 homers. They have to swing the bats and hope the hits fall in.

If the Phillies slip up, the Cardinals can’t leave their chances on the basepaths; they have to cash in.

The Cardinals late rush to the playoffs has forced them to start Kyle Lohse in game 1 against Roy Halladay. Raul Ibanez, Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco and Hunter Pence have all bashed Lohse in their careers.

Chris Carpenter is pitching game 2 against Cliff Lee; Jaime Garcia against Cole Hamels in game 3.

Because they’re so overmatched, the Cardinals must use an entirely different strategy than the conventional wisdom—they have to swing the bats early and often.

Keys for the Phillies: Get good pitching; avoid the middle-relievers; push their starters deep into games; play good defense; mitigate Pujols and get him up to the plate with no runners on base.

Not only are the Phillies starters durable, but they throw strikes; when you hit their strikes, they have a fantastic defense; and in the playoffs, it’s going to be very difficult to get into the bullpen because the starters are going to be pushed a bit further than they would in the regular season; in addition to that, getting into the Phillies bullpen won’t make things any easier for the Cardinals because they won’t be facing weak middle relievers, they’ll be facing Rookie of the Year candidate Vance Worley and veteran starter Joe Blanton.

The Phillies have the best defense in the National League and their pitchers don’t walk anyone. Amid all the concerns about the Phillies offense, they have the bats to score enough runs.

The Phillies need to avoid close games late. Even though the Cardinals bullpen is shaky, the Phillies isn’t exactly lockdown either. Ryan Madson has been closing and he has a lot of money in free agency riding on the perception that he’s able to get the big outs in big games as the closer; if he has to face Pujols with the game on the line, he could crack.

What will happen.

When facing a superior opponent, the only chance is to hit them as hard as you can as early as you can.

If the Phillies weren’t so strong in their starting rotation, it might be a blessing in disguise for the Cardinals that they’re starting Lohse in game 1 as a sacrificial lamb against Halladay. But in game 2, they’ve got Carpenter against Lee; Carpenter has been up-and-down this season and in the playoffs Lee turns it up a notch and becomes a world-beater.

Jaime Garcia starts game 3 for the Cardinals against Cole Hamels, who is an ace in his own right with post-season hardware from 2008 with the NLCS/World Series MVP awards.

The Cardinals are good, but they’re overmatched; they’ll be criticized if they follow my suggested strategy and it fails, but they don’t have much choice. They’re not going to walk against the Phillies and manager Tony LaRussa knows it. The best thing to do is to look for the first pitch that looks tasty and start hacking.

But it won’t work.

The Phillies have too much pitching and now their lineup is stabilized with the addition of Pence. It doesn’t help the Cardinals cause that Carlos Ruiz picks the post-season to become a star hitter.

The Cardinals will put up a brief fight, but it won’t take long for the Phillies to establish their dominance.

Because of that, the series won’t take long either.

PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN THREE.

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Arizona Diamondbacks vs Milwaukee Brewers

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Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68; 1st place, NL West) vs Milwaukee Brewers (96-66; 1st place, NL Central)

Keys for the Diamondbacks: Get into the Brewers middle relief; keep the bases clear in front of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder; get depth from their starters; jump out to a lead early in game 1.

The Brewers strength is their starting rotation and their power. The Diamondbacks have been a more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts club; they don’t have an overt “strength” despite the statistically similar pitching staff in comparison to the Brewers.

The Brewers starting pitching is so deep and so good that the Diamondbacks have to get their pitch counts up and hope the Brewers rookie manager Ron Roenicke jumps the gun either by pinch hitting for his pitchers or pulls them in the middle innings. In the late innings, they’ll have Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to contend with.

Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are both MVP candidates this season; the Brewers offense is top-heavy and limited with Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee occupying two spots in the lineup along with the pitcher; the Diamondbacks have to keep the runners off the bases to either mitigate how much damage Braun and Fielder can do or to pitch around them when necessary.

Ian Kennedy won 21 games and was masterful this season, but in his time with the Yankees he proved to be a pitcher who thought way too much about what he was doing; those types tend to take a pressure situation and use it to formulate ways in which they can make themselves “better” rather than doing what it was that got them to where they are in the first place. If Kennedy gets through the first 3 innings relatively unscathed, he’ll be fine—the Diamondbacks coaching staff has to get it through his over-analytical head that what he’s done all season long has worked and there’s no reason to change it because it’s the playoffs.

Daniel Hudson is still a young pitcher despite winning 16 games and providing over 200 innings in 2011; McGehee is 5 for 5 in his career against Hudson with a double and a homer; Fielder is 2 for 5 with a homer.

Joe Saunders is a control-based lefty who cannot be expected to hold down the Brewers lineup. Braun has 2 homers in 6 at bats vs Saunders. Gibson has to have a quick hook with Saunders.

The Brewers are loud and bullying. They have a lot to say, are overt in their mannerisms and take their cue from Nyjer Morgan and Fielder. They’re not particularly likable and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson isn’t the type to let his players take a lot of junk. If the Diamondbacks jump to an early lead, that will prevent the Brewers from starting with their nonsense.

Keys for the Brewers: Depth from their starters; get the game to K-Rod and Axford; get runners on base in front of Braun and Fielder; lay down the law early with the Diamondbacks young starters.

This is why the Brewers made those drastic maneuvers last winter in getting Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They have two of the best pitchers in baseball fronting their rotation with Greinke and Gallardo; a very good one in Marcum; and the veteran Randy Wolf. Greinke has never pitched in  the post-season; nor has Marcum. Gallardo pitched 7 solid innings against the Phillies in the 2008 NLDS.

With K-Rod and Axford for the eighth and ninth innings, the Brewers are well-suited to get as many innings as they can from their starters and hand it over to a shutdown bullpen with two quality closers.

Morgan is good at getting on base and wreaking havoc with his legs and his obnoxious personality. With the all-or-nothing spots in their lineup occupied by Yuniesky Betancourt and McGehee, the Brewers have to get production from Braun and Fielder.

The Brewers are frontrunners; if they fall behind the Diamondbacks early, their bullying will be prevented.

Miguel Montero has hammered Greinke, Wolf and Marcum in his career and has to be watched.

What will happen.

The Diamondbacks were not expected to be here and take their cue from their ultra-competitive manager. They have some pop, they don’t strike out as much as they before GM Kevin Towers cleared out some of the wind producers, but they still strike out a lot. They have solid starting pitching, but it’s inexperienced in these types of circumstances; their bullpen isn’t as flashy as the Brewers, but it’s still good.

There will be tension in this series and how that goes might determine the outcome. The Brewers are loud and arrogant. Gibson isn’t going to tolerate that kind of attitude and will tell his players not to let it go by without response. The Brewers will push the Diamondbacks early, the Diamondbacks will push back and tempers will flare.

If Kennedy can get to the middle innings without giving up a crooked number and the Diamondbacks take the first game, they’ll be in great position to win the series. Justin Upton is 3 for 9 in his career vs Gallardo and Lyle Overbay 2 for 3.

If the Diamondbacks are going to win this series, they’ll be better-served to win the first game.

The Brewers infield defense is terrible; it didn’t hurt them during the season, but it will in the playoffs.

Far too impressed with themselves, the Brewers think they’ve accomplished something without actually having accomplished much of anything apart from making angry clubs throughout baseball with their behaviors led by Morgan.

The Diamondbacks functioned under-the-radar all season long and they’ve proven themselves again and again to be a formidable opponent that plays the game the way their manager did—hard.

The Diamondbacks are going to quiet the Brewers quickly and drop them in 4 games.

PREDICTION: DIAMONDBACKS IN FOUR.

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