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Ron Washington vs. Tony La Russa: not the mismatch everyone’s making it out to be

Oct 19, 2011, 1:06 PM EDT

Ron Washington

One thing that keeps popping up as I talk to fans and radio hosts and stuff this week is the notion that Tony La Russa gives the Cardinals an edge because he’s going to manage circles around Ron Washington.  I get why people say this, but I think it gets the story way wrong, and does a disservice to Washington.

At the outset, let me be clear: La Russa is an exceptional manager. Probably the best in the past 50 years and there’s an argument for going back further. I and others take swipes at him all of the time because we don’t much care for his style or demeanor, but you can’t argue with his greatness and success. It’s ridiculous that the Hall of Fame is going to make him wait until he retires to get his plaque.

2011 may go down as La Russa’s best year ever. He took a team that was out-of-synch for much of the season and made them hum just when they had to hum lest their season end.  He angered all the prospect fanboys in driving Colby Rasmus out of town, but that and its attendant moves ended up working, at least for now. He took what was an atrocious bullpen in the first half of the season and made all kinds of adjustments on the fly to where that weakness is now a clear strength. What’s more, he did it without Dave Duncan who was with his sick wife down the stretch. Oh, and he had that case of shingles or pink eye or whatever it was and fought through it too.  Just crazy-impressive by every measure.

But at the same time, as a lot of Cardinals fans will tell you, La Russa can over think things. Anyone who thinks deeply about things is prone to that, actually.  For all of the moves that work, he’s just as capable of making moves that don’t work, such as intentionally walking a guy when it makes little sense, going too crazy with pitching changes or double switches to gain a platoon advantage when the advantage is far outweighed by the loss of the players he has burned through or — as was the case in this random game in September — doing all of those things at once.

The point here is that, while La Russa is often called a genius, it’s more accurate, I think, to call him a gambler. A smart one who understands the game he plays very, very well, but a gambler all the same. And even the best gamblers lose sometimes. La Russa loses sometimes too, and when he does, it’s often a product of the same sort of decision making process that helps him win all of those other times.

Ron Washington is a totally different kettle of fish.  He’s not the tactical manager La Russa is — no one is — but he gets more criticism for the buttons he pushes or doesn’t push than he deserves.  This is mostly because most people’s exposure to Washington’s style came in last year’s World Series when, no, he didn’t deploy his bullpen in optimal fashion, finding himself unwilling to use relievers when the situation — as opposed to the inning — dictated.

source: Getty ImagesBut that has changed as his roster has changed. Last year his pen was relatively thin, with Neftali Feliz being the only true shutdown guy he had. This year Washington has an embarrassment of bullpen riches at his disposal, and the freedom that kind of talent has given him has loosened him up considerably.  Rarely has he made a misstep this postseason, and if he does so in the World Series it will be because he had to move Heaven and Earth to do it. Feliz, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando give a guy a hell of a lot of margin for error.

There have been managers who have achieved great success throughout history by laying the heck off and leaving the tactical games to others.  Washington is one of those guys.  He’s aggressive with base running, but it’s probably just because he has a lot of decent base runners who, when they steal, do so at a respectable success rate.  Otherwise: he more or less lets his men play.  He doesn’t walk guys or sacrifice to excess.  He’s willing to let some defense go — say, behind the plate — to make sure the best bats make it into the lineup.  Put simply: Washington doesn’t meddle that much. He lets his players play and he has a lot of good players.

If Washington and La Russa were given robot teams to manage, each with equal talent and outcomes that were predictable to a 99% degree of probability, sure, I’d take La Russa because then the tactics might make a difference. But we don’t have that here. Yes, La Russa may gain some advantages here or there with a genius move, but Washington knows when to get the hell out of the way, and that limits the downside of a tactical mistake. And, it seems, he has more of a margin for error to begin with because he has the slightly more-talented roster.

A managerial mismatch? No way. At least not one that will determine the course of this World Series.

  1. spudchukar - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    I can live with the “gambler” moniker for LaRussa. Most of his decisions comes down to “playing the odds”. Sure Washington is a different style manager. But I like him too. He has his strengths, and they seem to have played out well for the Rangers. Twice in a row to the “big dance” is nothing to disparage in today’s game.

    Maybe it is true that the Rangers have more talent on paper, but the Cards may have more “sleepers”. Plus they have home field advantage, and they match up well vs the Rangers, with a predominant right-hand hitting team against 3 lefty starters, and a catcher known to be able to harness another teams speed.

    Who will win. Who knows, certainly not me. Will LaRussa’s experience and move-making prowess prove to give the Cards the edge? Or will Washington and his gang blossom and all that talent shine?

    Should be fun? Huh?

    • The Common Man - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:33 PM

      He is a gambler. He manages like a kid out there.

    • 78mu - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:54 PM

      Well Washington doesn’t have Shaun Marcum to throw out there for two games so TLR loses that advantage.

    • paperlions - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:10 PM

      You can say a lot of things about LaRussa’s managing style, but he most certainly does not “play the odds”….if he did, he would IBB fewer guys and call for many fewer sac bunts….he’d also put player ability ahead of “handedness” and ignore player matchups based on ridiculously small sample sizes.

      • stlouis1baseball - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:52 PM

        Oh he plays the odds Paper. It’s just that his viewpoint of those odds differ from yours.

      • paperlions - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:12 PM

        They may differ from mine….but they also differ from the data. Playing the odds mean that your decisions are based STRICTLY on the effects the decisions have on winning. LaRussa regularly makes decisions that all the data demonstrate decrease your chances of winning.

        Therefore, it is a factual statement that LaRussa does not play the odds. The odds are not up for debate, they are not subjective, they are factual, and the data exists and is published.

  2. halladaysbiceps - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    I’ve said it many times. Managers have very little to do with the outcome of a series. Players are 95% responsible for what happens in the game.

    The matchup of CJ Wilson against Chris Carpenter will make the difference in this game, not Washington vs. LaRussa.

    • spudchukar - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:36 PM

      Probably correct ‘Cepts. Maybe even more important for the Cards to get a win with Carpenter. But I agree a lot will be riding on Game 1. If Carpenter has command of his breaking ball then watch out, if not it could be a long night and short series.

    • paperlions - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:09 PM

      ‘cepts, you have never said anything with which I agree more than this.

      Players decide who wins and loses, managers can have some effect, but odds are just as good that it will be negative as positive.

  3. Kyle - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    Thank you. Very well said, Craig.

  4. browngoat25 - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    I agree that TLR is a great manager – I personally do not like him, but credit where credit is due. He did a fantastic job this year and so far in the post season.

    But I swear that Joe Poz is baiting the entire internet when he finished his latest blog post with this:

    http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2011/10/to-dh-or-not-to-dh.html

    “But I would love it if Tony La Russa, citing this history of NL teams score more with the pitcher hitting, just had his pitcher hit in the American League park. He’s the only guy who would try something like that, and I have to say it could be his crowning tactical moment, beating hitting the pitcher eighth, beating the triple switch, beating everything. If he had his pitcher hit in Texas, and the Cardinals won the Series, Tony L would become even more of a folk hero than he already is. “

  5. Brian Donohue - Oct 19, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    weather and home field could play big; the 100 degree bunch is probably shopping for parkas right now. Hometowners needs to be careful too though: a fastball on the hands could cause Mr. Holiday some big trouble with his recent injury.

  6. cur68 - Oct 19, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    Last year proved it to me; Washington is as good a tactical manger as LaRussa. He took a less talented squad all the way to the series. Like LaRussa his management breaks down once in a while. Playing good teams will do that to you. Washington’s management, though, takes place in the practice field; improving what he has, knowing from that just who his talent his is and giving them the chance to prove that they are who he thinks they are. Every season he’s been with that club has seen them improve because of this. This season, the hard work from last season, and the improved roster is really paying off. The differences between the 2 guys is that LaRussa takes the “play hard when they can see you approach” and Washington “practice hard then look like playing is easy” approach. One gets the nods for being “gritty” and “hard working” and the other “smoothly competent so it’s like he’s not even trying”. Paradigm change a mo-fo. *sigh*.

  7. ftbramwell - Oct 19, 2011 at 3:18 PM

    I’ve got to say, I see LaRussa as completely overrated, his invention of the modern day closer not withstanding. If LaRussa is as good a manager as everyone says he is, and with the talent he’s had to work with over the years, he should have quite a few more rings on his fingers. His over management of situations, in my opinion, costs his team wins. Gambler is the right thing to call him.

    In fact, give LaRussa and Washington robot teams “each with equal talent and outcomes that were predictable to a 99% degree of probability,” I’d take most professional managers over LaRussa.

    • stlouis1baseball - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:45 PM

      FTB: Are you drunk? Rhetorical question as I already know the answer.

      • paperlions - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:51 PM

        He makes a good point though. LaRussa has been to slightly more WS and won slightly more WS than you would expect if ALL TEAMS WERE CREATED EQUAL. But he has not managed average teams; he has NEVER managed a rebuilding team; he had NEVER managed a team with a small payroll. He has managed teams with great talent and top 10 payrolls for nearly his entire career…taking into account the talent/payroll advantages he has enjoyed, he has been to and won fewer WS than you would expect over 35 years….and that probably isn’t his fault…because players win or lose, managers are mostly along for the ride.

      • ftbramwell - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:48 PM

        I made a foolish statement in the second paragraph. I should have written I should have written “give LaRussa and any other manager robot teams “each with equal talent and outcomes that were predictable to a 99% degree of probability,” I’d take most professional managers over LaRussa.

        Please be assured that my mistake was merely a careless error and not the result of alcohol or other intoxicant. I will be more careful in the future.

  8. miketreedy - Oct 20, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    Washington using German as a pinch hitter in the 7th inning with a men on third and first with two outs was a very poor managing decision. German only had 11 ABs in 2011. They had both Mooreland, Torrealba and even Chavez on the bench. I don’t believe many other managers would have made that call. He struck out on 3 pitches. That was our last scoring opportunity. I will take TLR over Washington any day.

  9. loweredpimp - Oct 20, 2011 at 6:37 AM

    It isn’t about the manager, it should never be about the manager. The players are playing great….as with September, that is the story, they are winning because the players are executing, no other reason.

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