How Cardinals manager Tony La Russa rewrote the book
By Henry Olsen,
This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.
In baseball, leadership is traditionally associated with the manager. Sure, data geeks tell us the GM is more important. But when the game is on the line, it’s the guy in the dugout wearing team colors whose decisions are endlessly reviewed. So, who’s the best leader among MLB active managers? My vote goes to the one who just last week yet again rewrote “the book”: the Cardinals’ Tony La Russa.
Managerial leadership involves much more than in-game decisions like when to bunt or order a pitchout. The manager is the person in charge of the on-field product. Once the GM gives him his players, the manager is in charge of getting the most out of that bunch as humanly possible. So managerial leadership must be judged solely by the standard, does this manager consistently get more out of players than other managers would?
La Russa wins that contest hands down. Let’s first look at his innovations. Most managers manage “by the book,” which means they do what is commonly accepted within the traditional confines of the managerial community. La Russa time and time again rewrites it. The most obvious example is when, from 1988 through 1990, he created the modern closer.
Prior to La Russa, relievers who saved games often came in midway through the 7th or 8th innings of close contests, pitching two or more innings to close down the win. With pitcher Dennis Eckersley, however, La Russa recognized he had a dominant talent who could pitch one dominating inning, but rarely more. So he began bringing in Eckersley to start an inning, rarely pitched him more than an inning and never two, and inserted him in every save situation. Every team now has a closer used that way, but it was La Russa who first shook things up.
La Russa also has a phenomenal track record of finding star-quality pitching among players other teams had cast off. Dave Stewart bounced around the majors for years before landing with La Russa and the Oakland A’s in the late ‘80s. While there, he rattled off four straight outstanding seasons where he finished in the top four of the AL Cy Young voting. Daryl Kile was a talented but inconsistent fastballer for the Astros and Rockies, but when he joined La Russa and the Cardinals in 2000, he became a staff ace until his young death. Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro and most recently Kyle Lohse—all castoffs until La Russa worked his turnaround magic.
Some might argue that the real magician was his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, but that too speaks to La Russa’s talent. Part of a modern manager’s job is to put together a team of coaches who work with discrete groups of players to make them better. La Russa has a great pitching coach in Duncan, and he has empowered Duncan for more than 20 years now. Their partnership is the key to the Cardinals’ recurring success, but no one doubts which of the two is in charge.
La Russa should also get credit for making contenders out of several different squads. Some great managers really were the beneficiaries of a group of talented players. Sparky Anderson is a good example. He was with the up-and-coming Detroit Tigers in the early 1980s when it was a talented young team. But as the team aged, Sparky stopped winning. In La Russa’s case, he has made four discrete groups of Cardinals competitive in the last 15 years, working under two different GMs. He also made winners out of the 1983 Chicago White Sox and the 1988-92 Oakland A’s teams. Six different player cores, four different GMs—all winners with one manager. Maybe it’s a fluke, but maybe it ain’t.
La Russa might have just rewritten the book again with his managerial performance in last week’s playoffs. His Cardinals won in six games despite not having a single starter throw at least six innings. It’s the first time in baseball history a team with such lackluster starting has won a seven game series. But it wasn’t luck.
La Russa judged his combination of relievers was more potent than any single starter, and he had enough of them that he didn’t have to worry about exhaustion or overuse. So while the book says to let your starters pitch through jams and to keep them in the game as long as possible, La Russa yanked them at the drop of a hat. Game six saw him pinch hit for Edwin Jackson in the third inning, when his team was up but Jackson was struggling. No other manager alive would have flown so consistently in the face of convention.
But that’s what leaders do, in baseball as well as politics. They size up situations and people, are flexible about the means and unyielding on the ends, develop others to step up, and are ruthless about replacing them if they don’t. Sure there are other managers who are leaders. But no one has been better for longer than Tony La Russa.
Henry Olsen is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. He is currently mourning the loss of his fantasy team, the Washington Monuments, in this year’s Eddie Plank League playoffs because of La Russa.
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