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.
But 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.