Yost and La Russa: Tightness and September

Milwaukee's Ned Yost lost his job on Monday, with one rap against him being his "tightness". That is a term frequently used in St. Louis to describe Tony La Russa, too. Is it justified? How could one tell?

As most of the baseball world knows by now, the Milwaukee Brewers used their open date on Monday to sack their manager of nearly six seasons, Ned Yost. Despite the Brew Crew being tied for the National League Wild Card with 12 games to go, they dropped four over the weekend to their closest current rival in the standings, the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

With a September record of 3-11, the Brewers seem poised to collapse again, as they did last season. Though they ended with a winning record for the first time since 1992, Milwaukee missed the 2007 post-season despite having an 8 ½ game lead in June.

 

My biggest concern about Yost as a manager was his questionable in-game decisions and seeming lack of control of his club. Yet, current press attention seems most focused on his personality, specifically his "tightness".

 

The choice of that word, tightness, got me thinking.

 

Generally, when a team is winning, a manager's intensity is often praised. Yet, when times are tough, that same characteristic can be labeled as "tightness", a term that has been used many times to describe St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, and rightfully so.

 

Not surprisingly, La Russa's early public comments seemed to place him among the Yost admiration society. After all, perhaps he could see more than a little of himself in the younger man. In fact, La Russa hand-selected Yost as one of his two All-Star Game coaches in 2005.

 

"Ned has been outstanding in his first few years and will be for many years to come," gushed La Russa at the time.

 

The Cardinal skipper did not repeat the invitation when given the opportunity in 2007, however. There are rumors that the relationship between the two is strained. Perhaps the emergence of the Brewers as a bonafide NL Central Division contender was enough to do it or maybe the beanball mess last season contributed.

 

As Cardinals fans know, the La Russa years in St. Louis have been very productive. Since taking over the reigns of the Cardinals in 1996, La Russa's teams have won 1133 and lost 958 games, for a winning percentage of .542. The latter is better than franchise icons Red Schoendienst (.522) and Whitey Herzog (.530).

 

La Russa's St. Louis clubs have amassed one world championship, two National League pennants, six first-place finishes and made the playoffs a total of seven times in 12 seasons.

 

Yet, that tightness term continues to stick in my head. With the help of statman Tom Orf, I decided to look at the Cardinals September record under La Russa.

 

Certainly here in the final days of the 2008 campaign, the club seems out of mess kits and "playing a hard nine" simply does not look to be enough as the Cardinals are only slightly better than the Brewers in September.

 

The fourth-place Cards have a 4-8 September record (.333) and are coming off being swept in an embarrassing manner themselves, losing three straight to the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Next, they limp into the home of another NL Central spoiler, Walt Jocketty's and Dusty Baker's fifth-place Cincinnati Reds.

 

Cardinals September Record Under La Russa

 

Sept. Sept. Sept.
Year Wins Losses Pct.
2008 4 8 0.333
2007 13 18 0.419
2006 12 16 0.429
2005 13 13 0.500
2004 16 12 0.571
2003 13 13 0.500
2002 21 6 0.778
2001 17 5 0.773
2000 19 9 0.679
1999 10 15 0.400
1998 18 7 0.720
1997 10 16 0.385
1996 17 9 0.654
1996-2008 183 147 0.555
2003-2008 71 80 0.470
1996-2002 112 67 0.626

 

Overall, La Russa's clubs have done well in the final full month, posting a higher September winning percentage than his clubs over the same complete seasons (.555 vs. .542). Looking further, however, one can clearly see that record was amassed in the first half of his St. Louis tenure, from 1996 through 2002, during which time they played fantastic ball in September (.626).

 

The most recent six seasons tell a much different story.

 

The Cardinals have won only 47% of their September contests since 2002. That .470 mark compares most unfavorably to the Cardinals' overall regular-season record of .552 since the start of 2003.

 

The last September during which the Cardinals had a winning record was in the 105-win high watermark season of 2004. That also represents the only winning September for the club since 2002. To top it off, the Cards' September winning percentage is on track to decline for the fourth consecutive season.

 

I decided to delve deeper since one might wonder if the Cardinals post-season position at the time could have affected their late-season sense of urgency and therefore, their results. While we cannot answer that with certainty, we can compare the standings.

 

The next table notes the Cardinals relative position in the standings, both as the month of September began as well as when it ended each season. I noted either the size of the lead or how far the Cardinals were behind in terms of number of games in the division as the month started and closed.

 

Cardinals September 1 vs. October 1

 

Sept. Sept. Sept. 1-Sep 1-Sep 1-Oct 1-Oct
Year Wins Losses Pct. lead deficit lead deficit
2008 4 8 0.333 11 TBD
2007 13 18 0.419 2 7
2006 12 16 0.429 5 1.5
2005 13 13 0.500 14 11
2004 16 12 0.571 15.5 14
2003 13 13 0.500 1 3
2003-2008 71 80 0.470
2002 21 6 0.778 4 13
2001 17 5 0.773 6 1
2000 19 9 0.679 8 9
1999 10 15 0.400 14.5 20.5
1998 18 7 0.720 21.5 19
1997 10 16 0.385 7 11
1996 17 9 0.654 2.5 6
1996-2002 112 67 0.626

 

The data shows that in five of the seven early years ('96-'02), the Cardinals improved their position in the standings, either increasing their lead (twice), taking over the lead (once) or closing the gap between them and the first-place club (twice). Only twice in those seven years did the Cardinals lose ground in September.

 

The story is much different recently. In every one of the five complete seasons starting in 2003, the Cardinals have digressed during September. Three times their lead shrunk, in one case, they lost their hold on first place (2003) and the other time, last season, they fell further behind during the final full month.

 

One partial explanation could be that in two of the recent years, 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals' leads were so large that perhaps losing a few meaningless September games didn't really matter. Or did it?

 

There are a myriad of other possibilities, from non-contributing minor league call-ups to poor late-season acquisitions to an accumulation of injuries to a tired-out roster to yes, maybe even tightness.

 

Whatever the reasons for it, the facts are clear. September has been most unkind to the Cardinals in recent years and with half the month remaining, 2008 may certainly be a continuation of the trend.

 

 

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

 

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