Friday, August 22, 2014
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What Tony La Russa is thinking, and why he is wrong

I am sure Tony La Russa knows more than me about many subjects -- life, baseball, cats -- so I'm not going to tell him how to run his baseball team while sitting here atop my Ivory Row House (PSA - it's actually made out of brick. Save the Elephants). The most important attribute when it comes to managing a baseball team -- heck, when it comes to managing any group of subordinates -- is a thorough understanding of the personnel at your disposal. You need to know their strengths, their weaknesses, their thought processes, their anxieties. Guiding a team through a 162-game season requires a keen understanding of human behavior. It is the biggest reason Charlie Manuel has been so successful throughout his career, the biggest reason why he was able to win a World Series with a rotation that included a guy like Jamie Moyer and a guy like Brett Myers, the biggest reason why his teams have continued to win at a rate that is roughly proportional to the increasing level of talent on his roster. The biggest key to managing a baseball team is an ability to manage personalities and skill sets. Everything else that happens over the course of nine innings is a matter of probability: play the right odds, and accept the fact that the opposition is occasionally going to catch the right card.

What Tony La Russa is thinking, and why he is wrong

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa selected Kyle Lohse to start Game 1 for the Cardinals. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa selected Kyle Lohse to start Game 1 for the Cardinals. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

I am sure Tony La Russa knows more than me about many subjects -- life, baseball, cats -- so I'm not going to tell him how to run his baseball team while sitting here atop my Ivory Row House (PSA - it's actually made out of brick. Save the Elephants). The most important attribute when it comes to managing a baseball team -- heck, when it comes to managing any group of subordinates -- is a thorough understanding of the personnel at your disposal. You need to know their strengths, their weaknesses, their thought processes, their anxieties. Guiding a team through a 162-game season requires a keen understanding of human behavior. It is the biggest reason Charlie Manuel has been so successful throughout his career, the biggest reason why he was able to win a World Series with a rotation that included a guy like Jamie Moyer and a guy like Brett Myers, the biggest reason why his teams have continued to win at a rate that is roughly proportional to the increasing level of talent on his roster. The biggest key to managing a baseball team is an ability to manage personalities and skill sets. Everything else that happens over the course of nine innings is a matter of probability: play the right odds, and accept the fact that the opposition is occasionally going to catch the right card.

Tony La Russa has not achieved his considerable success through dumb luck. But he is also a guy who sometimes err on the side of thinking too much. And I think his decision to hold Jaime Garcia until Game 4 is a potentially fatal example.

All Garcia has done this season was hold them to one earned run in 15 innings of two Cardinals victories. All he did last season was hold them to two earned runs in 13 innings of two Cardinals victories. In those four starts, he allowed five extra base hits and nine walks while striking out 21 and walking nine over 28 innings.

Yet when La Russa unveiled his rotation for the series, Garcia was nowhere to be found. Instead, it will be Kyle Lohse, the veteran righty and former Phillie, in Game 1, followed by talented yet erratic righty Edwin Jackson in Game 2. Because the Cardinals did not overtake the Braves until the final day of the season, they were forced to pitch ace righthander Chris Carpenter on Wednesday, leaving him unavailable until Game 3.

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So what in Stan Musial's name is La Russa thinking?

Well La Russa has not achieved his considerable managerial success because of sheer dumb luck. As good as Garcia has looked against the Phillies is as bad as he has looked in some of his other recent outings. Four days ago, he allowed four runs in four innings against the last-place Astros in a game that looked like a must-win for the Cardinals. In his last 11 starts of the regular season, Garcia allowed 25 extra base hits, including seven home runs, while posting a 4.71 ERA. His career ERA away from Busch Stadium is nearly two runs higher than the 2.37 he has posted at home. When he beat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park two weeks ago, they fielded a line-up that was without Ryan Howard or Carlos Ruiz. When he beat them in May at Busch Stadium, they were without Ruiz, Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Chase Utley. Last July, they were missing Utley. Last May, they were missing Rollins.

Garcia has posted much better numbers with an extra day or two of rest than he has on the usual four days.

Taking all of that into consideration, you start to understand La Russa's thinking. Instead of sending Garcia to face Roy Halladay in a situation that is less-than-optimal, save him for a time when he is most likely to be at his best: at home, on extra rest, pitching against the Phillies' No. 4 starter. With Carpenter facing the No. 3 starter and Garcia facing the No. 4, the probability of two Cardinals victories is greater than it would be if they faced off against Halladay and Cliff Lee. Win those two games and the pressure is all on the Phillies in a decisive Game 5. Or, if St. Louis can steal Game 1 or 2, the series is over.

 To beat the Phillies, recent history suggests that you have to out-pitch them. Carpenter has done it three times in the last year-and-a-half, holding them to two runs and three extra base hits in 23 innings. Garcia has done it four times in the last two years. Lohse has done it once. Remember that start in which he held the Phillies to three runs in eight innings? It wasn't enough. Lee pitched a shutout and the Phillies won 4-0.

La Russa's strategy seems clear: In Game 1, hope that Lohse stymies the Phillies as he did in September, and hope that the Cardinals offense gets to Halladay like it did that same night, when it scored four runs in eight innings against the veteran righthander. In Game 3, hope that Carpenter out-duels Hamels. Then, in Game 4, give a rested Garcia the chance to nail the series down.

Are the odds in his favor? No, but they are a lot more favorable than the odds of beating both Halladay and Lee in Games 1 and 2.

Of the 30 times Halladay and Lee have started back-to-back this season, the Phillies have lost both games exactly once: May 15 and 16, when Halladay lost to the Braves and then Lee lost to the Cardinals. Of the 20 times the duo has pitched back-to-back in the same series, not once have the Phillies lost both games.

Read that again. Twenty teams have tried to beat Halladay and Lee in back-to-back games this season. And not one has succeeded.

La Russa knows this. He's a smart guy. Which is why his decision to start Lohse in Game 1 and Jackson in Game 2 speaks volumes about his evaluation of this Phillies team, and it's an evaluation that flies in the face of conventional wisdom:

1) The Phillies' right-handed bats are more dangerous than their veteran left-handed bats.

Victorino and Pence have crushed lefties this season. They are both among the top NL hitters in slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers. In 15 at-bats against Garcia, Pence has a double, a triple and a home run. Victorino has two singles in eight at-bats. La Russa also knows that Manuel likely would have started John Mayberry Jr. against the lefty. Mayberry is 3-for-6 with a double against Garcia this season. In all three cases, the number of at-bats is far too low to draw any definitive conclusions. But they at least suggest that the Phillies are more equipped to beat Garcia now than they have been in any of their previous four starts against him.

2) Roy Halladay is beatable, at least moreso than Cliff Lee

Just two weeks ago, the Cardinals beat the Phillies 4-3 at Citizens Bank Park. The winner in that game? Lohse, who allowed one unearned run in 7 1/3 innings. The loser? Halladay, who a home run to Lance Berkman and doubles to Albert Pujols, Rafael Furcal and Lohse. Halladay pitched eight innings, but allowed four runs.

La Russa is content with losing Game 2. Not that he is penciling it in as a loss, but he is willing to sacrifice it in favor of bolstering his odds in Game 4. Which scenario is more likely to result in a win? Garcia on the road with an extra day of rest pitching against Cliff Lee? Or Garcia at home with several extra days of rest pitching against Roy Oswalt?

That's the the best explanation I can come up with. Maybe he figures that by starting Jackson in Game 2, he can have him available out of the bullpen in Games 3, 4 or 5. It makes sense. But he has to know he is starting the greater of two evils in Game 2. True, Jackson has held opponents under three earned runs in 10 of his 13 starts since the Cardinals acquired him from the White Sox. But he has lasted seven innings in only four of those starts, and has never pitched into the eighth. With the state of the Cardinals bullpen, facing Lee, two runs in six or seven innings might not get it done. And that's assuming Jackson is at his best. Which has often been a start-to-start proposition during his career. The only time he has faced the Phillies during the regular season is last July, when he allowed five runs and four extra base hits in five innings while a member of the Diamondbacks.

Lefties are hitting .304/.366./.434 with against him this season, while righties are hitting .276/.317/.419. Again, go back to point No. 1. His home/road splits are just as bad as Garcia's -- 2.94 at home, 4.76 on the road. Sure, he's pitched in the postseason before. But that was in 2008. As a reliever. In three appearances.

Jackson has improved his command since his early years, but he is still a flyball pitcher, averaging a well-below-average 0.64-per-groundball during his tenure in St. Louis. He has developed a good slider, which he is throwing far more often than he has at any other point in his career. But he is still essentially a two-pitch power pitcher with a fastball that sits around 94. In other words, he is the exact type of pitcher the Phillies love to face.

Not only is La Russa betting against the line-up, he is betting against Halladay.

Unless the Cardinals want to have Garcia pitching in a potential elimination game, which would seem to contradict the whole point of not starting him in Game 1, they need to take a game in Philly. Which, to me, makes Lohse the key to this series. The probability of him beating Halladay is greater than Jackson beating Lee. That is not a scientific statement. But I think most of us would agree on that.

But Halladay's performance against the Cardinals a couple of weeks ago might be occupying too prominent of a place in La Russa's mind.

Consider this: Since 2006, Halladay has started 76 games against an opponent who scored at least three runs against him the previous time it faced him. In those 76 starts, he has allowed 2.62 runs-per-start, 2.96 runs-per-nine-innings, 1.91 extra base hits per start, 7.22 strikeouts-per-nine, and 1.57 walks-per-nine while averaging 7 1/3 innings per start.

Since 2008, only eight teams have beaten Halladay twice in a season. Three of those are the Red Sox (four times in 2007, two times each in 2008 and 2009) and two are the Rays (three times in 2008, five times in 2009).

The only team to do it in Halladay's two season with the Phillies was the Marlins this year.

For comparison's sake, Halladay defeated an opponent at least twice in a season 20 times during that same timespan.

The only non-division opponent to beat Halladay twice in a season was the 2008 Indians.


3) What it comes down to is this. . .

La Russa is betting against the Phillies more than he is betting on his own players. It is not a ridiculous strategy. The Phillies have struggled against pitchers like Lohse in the past. He has a mediocre fastball, but he has a good slider and change-up. Look at the righties who have given the Phillies trouble this season: Brett Myers, Chris Young, Javier Vazquez, Shaun Marcum, Livan Hernandez, Jake Westbrook. For every Tim Lincecum or Chris Carpenter and Yovani Gallardo there is an Aaron Harang and Rodrigo Lopez. The profile? Sinker-ballers who are locating their two-seamer (Cueto, Wang, Lowe, Marquis) and guys like Lohse and the rest of the aforementioned names: veterans who are mixing and locating their secondary stuff.

Again, La Russa sees this. He isn't a dummy. He feels his best shot to beat the Phillies is to have Garcia at his best for Game 4, hope that Carpenter out-duels Hamels in Game 3, and take at least one game in Philly. Maybe Lohse's repetoire gives them fits in Game 1. Maybe Jackson is able to bust the Phillies' aging sluggers inside and send them flailing at his slider. Maybe their bats will be even slower after facing Lohse the previous day.

All of it makes sense. Except for two factors, the first being fear. The Phillies are well aware that they have struggled against the lefty. While they have had their struggles against Lohse (he held them to one unearned run in 7 1/3 innings of at Citizens Bank Park on Sept. 19 and three runs in eight innings at Busch Stadium on June 22), they have also had plenty of success (he allowed at least three runs and lasted fewer than six innings in four straight starts against them from Aug. 1, 2008 through May 6, 2010).

The Phillies have never had success against Garcia. When Manuel was asked on Wednesday if he was concerned about facing Garcia in Game 1, he did not say no. The Phillies fully expected to face Garcia in Game 1. It is part of the reason why they privately would have rather faced Arizona in the first round.

Which brings us to the second point: Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are not your ordinary No. 3 and No. 4 starters. It is the brilliance of the Phillies' personnel structure. You might beat one of them. But you probably aren't going to beat two. From the start of the regular season until the day the Phillies clinched the NL East title, they lost back-to-back games started by one of their four starters exactly seven times, four of them coming in a pair of three-game losing streaks in early May and early June in which they scored a total of eight runs.

Look, La Russa knows his team better than any of us. He knows his pitching staff, that he knows the ideal situations in which they thrive. But his decision to start Kyle Lohse in Game 1 of the National League Division Series does make me wonder if he understands the true extent of the challenge his team faces against a Phillies rotation that has more than lived up to its billing as one of the greatest in the history of professional baseball. If the Cardinals are going to win this series, they cannot hope to rely on an offense that finished first in the NL in virtually every significant statistical category, including runs. Such a hope could pay off. Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday have been that good for the vast majority of their careers. But a big offensive series against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt would be the equivalent of lucking out on the turn and river. The most likely way to beat this team is to beat them at their own game, and to do that you need a starting pitcher who is capable of doing so.

Call it the Head-Standing scenario. Got an underdog NHL team? Want to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals? You can do it with the right goalkeeper. But the right goalkeeper isn't the guy who stops the shots he is supposed to stop. The right goalkeeper is the dynamic guy who stops the shots he isn't supposed to stop, the guy who has the potential to take over a game and frustrate an opponent without ever leaving his little half-circle home. Maybe he has never been there before. Maybe he is 26 years old and in his second full season in the NHL and playing for a team who's most recent success came when Joshua Jackson was still somewhat likeable and Emilio Estevez was still something of a household name. We're speaking in hypothetical terms, mind you. The point is, seasoning is great when you are preparing a salmon steak for the grill (salt, pepper and a little garlic -- don't overdue it). But when you are a preparing a team to play a behemoth, you are better off going with your best raw material.

Right now, the best raw material at the Cardinals' disposal is Garcia. Their best chance at beating the Phillies is not by betting against a team that, while not as explosive as it once was, is still plenty dangerous and plenty motivated. One thing I have decided after four years of covering this team: they deserve the benefit of the doubt. If you bet against them, most times you will lose.

Other than Carpenter, Garcia has had the most success against the Phillies. Maybe he has a comfort level on extra rest and at home. But is there anything more comfortable than facing a lineup that you know you can beat and that knows you can beat them?

One of Charlie Manuel's character traits is the faith he puts in his players. That faith is usually rewarded. The Cardinals' best chance at beating the Phillies was Garcia. Now, there is a chance that he might not even pitch.

La Russa has won a lot of games. So have the Phillies. By the middle of next week, we'll have our answer as to who is better.

 


 

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David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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