La Russa Rips Statheads

Tony La Russa blasts the statistics-driven crowd with a broadside that clearly hits very close to home, but not surprisingly, not everyone agrees.

With 2198 career managerial wins and counting plus four Manager of the Year Awards to go with four World Series appearances, Tony La Russa has probably just about seen it all. With a sharp eye and an intense focus on detail, La Russa has not only survived, but thrived for 26 years in a field where frequent turnover is an accepted way of life.

Let there be no doubt about it - La Russa is a "baseball man" through and through – having learned the game at the knee of Bill Veeck, Roland Hemond and others back in Chicago in the seventies. Anyone who read Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August is very familiar with the background of the grizzled, veteran manager who slaves over his index cards chock full of stats folded into his uniform pocket and who resides away from his family for months upon end, living and sleeping nothing but baseball.

Though he is clearly a traditionalist, La Russa isn't some dinosaur caught back in the Ice Age. La Russa and his staff, especially pitching coach Dave Duncan and bench coach Joe Pettini, collect volumes of data on opponents' tendencies and use it each day both in preparation for and during the Cardinals' games. They also utilize traditional scouting reports prepared by the professional scouting staff, of which the biggest name is former major league manager Jim Leyland.

Like other teams, the Cardinals also rely heavily on video. Through Three Nights, the baseball world learned all about previously-unknown video coordinator Chad Blair and the role he plays to get the team ready to play. The Cardinals have extensive video facilities at Busch Stadium and also take equipment on every road trip. A number of Redbird players study video religiously, both of themselves and their opponents.

Yet, with all his analytic preparation, there is little doubt that La Russa is no fan of "Moneyball" and much of what it represents. Though delivered through the pen of Bissinger, it is clear that Three Nights directly reflects Tony's thinking.

A key theme presented is that numbers can't reflect heart – those intangibles that can mean the difference in the fine line between success and failure. As a result, even the simplest and most generally-accepted statistical concepts like on-base percentage are patently and ignorantly dismissed as the "latest fashion fad", as what is clearly all-important is the experience of the manager in his role in dealing with his players and opponents.

Case in point: On one plane, this quote from the book could be viewed as the manager accepting ultimate responsibility – an admirable trait. From another angle, however, it could illustrate some serious self-absorption. Says the skipper, "when (my teams) suck it's mostly because I suck."

Given the views delivered via Three Nights, it is not surprising that La Russa might label those in his own organization who are statistically-oriented as "Moneyball" surrogates, viewing them with disdain. But, in fairness, areas like broad statistical analysis and player development aren't part of La Russa's job description. As he put it himself to me in a recent interview, "All I am trying to do is win the next game."

Jeff Luhnow was hired by Cardinals' ownership almost two years ago into the new position of Vice President of Baseball Development. The announcement press release defined his role this way; "Luhnow will oversee the design, development and implementation of systems and tools that will be used in strategy, scouting and player development as a means to aid the team in its evaluation of players at all levels including the Major Leagues, Minor Leagues, amateur and international levels."

Since then, Luhnow has taken on additional responsibility, picking up a number of areas for the team including the professional draft as well as jumpstarting the Cardinals player development activities in the Caribbean. Certainly these are areas quite distant from the "win today" approach that La Russa needs to take.

When he joined the Cards, Luhnow, who is former consultant himself, hired a statistician or two and contracted with a couple of respected outside experts with varying backgrounds, Mitchel Lichtman and BaseballHQ, headed up by Ron Shandler. This group discussed, debated and changed members, all the while providing input for Luhnow's development of player evaluation approaches from high school all the way through the majors – work that continues to evolve today.

However, don't count La Russa as a fan, at least of the major league aspects of Luhnow's work. In a New York Times article last weekend, Tony didn't mince words.

""I've been sat down and told they can give me a better way to do everything," Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the hero of a new book celebrating the hunch, said last week, describing the statistics crowd. "They really are convinced that they can sit there and crunch out a formula that negates my power of observation.""

While not naming names, La Russa didn't have to. Given that he has been the manager of the Cardinals since 1996, and as a result, wouldn't have in-depth familiarity with other clubs' use of statistics, it seems quite clear at whom his comments are directed. Luhnow was unavailable for comment.

More from the Times: "It's been a little irritating," La Russa added, "because there's a certain arrogance with that whole group."

Noting the comments earlier in this article, it is not difficult to imagine there is plenty of that to go around from all parties, probably complicating the development of the cooperation necessary to effectively work together.

Though he stepped back from personal involvement with the Cardinals before this season, Shandler's firm still provides advice to Luhnow and the team. In asking Ron his opinion, I obviously hit a "hot button".

"Everybody tries to turn the scouting versus stats argument into a black and white issue. It's not. Yes, an integrated approach is the best direction, as noted in the article, but the truth is, you cannot lump together all scouts or all stat analysts and slap a label on each group", Shandler said.

He acknowledges the significant contribution of the traditionalists. "The anti-scouting faction seems to focus on those scouts who have spent 50 years in the old-boy network, sitting back and spitting tobacco. THOSE guys are clearly a detriment to effective decision-making, but there are still many good scouts who do their homework and provide their clubs with solid information."

Yet, Shandler also recognizes there are those who might be considered being in his camp who take it too far. "Similarly, the anti-stat brigade focuses on those statheads who believe everything in the world is quantifiable. THOSE guys clearly are not doing their clubs any good, either."

Shandler continued with a far-too-easy laying of blame on that old, tired scapegoat, the media. "I think, as long as the media continues to slap these convenient labels on each group, creating (or inflaming) this antagonism, they are going to prevent the meeting of the minds that is necessary for the optimal integrated approach to be found."

While I was not present, I have no reason to believe the Times writer, David Leonhardt, coerced La Russa or put words in his mouth. In fact, I can attest from considerable personal experience that La Russa is extremely saavy with the press and surely knew exactly what he was saying.

Shandler closed our exchange with a not-so-veiled, not-so-flattering comparison between last year's World Series combatants by observing that some believe the Red Sox have found that optimal approach. Several years ago, the Sox hired the father of sabermatrics, Bill James, as a senior advisor.

In fairness, La Russa appeared to agree conceptually, telling Leonhardt that the most effective approach brings both worlds, scouting and stats, together. ""The 'Moneyball' kind of stuff has its place, but so does the human," La Russa said by telephone from Pittsburgh. "Really, the combination is the answer.""

Seems like the politically-correct response, doesn't it? Well, not so fast.

Here is how Leonhardt ended his story. "The Cardinals, after all, created a statistical analysis department in the last two years, but La Russa said it had "almost zero effect" on his strategy. He wishes the team had instead spent the money on new video equipment."

In the bowels of the Cardinals clubhouse, Chad Blair smiled; while probably traveling somewhere in Latin America, Jeff Luhnow surely frowned.

Reference: NY Times link

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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