Kudos to Tony La Russa

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me griping about Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during Game Two. La Russa made quite an impact on the game in various ways, and in retrospect, I don’t think I should have been directing my ire at him.

Balls and Strikes: La Russa felt that home plate umpire Jerry Meals wasn’t calling a fair strike zone, referring to “two different strike zones” in a mid-game interview with the TBS broadcasters. Cameras caught La Russa barking at Meals several different times throughout the game. The complaining seemed to have an effect as Meals’ strike zone was more Cardinal-friendly as the game progressed.

I made a few snarky tweets about La Russa on Twitter, but I honestly had no problem with his complaining. Dayn Perry (@DaynPerry) put it best:

Have my probs with TLR, but he’s always got an angle. Don’t like it? Blame umps for caving or ur mgr for not being as skilled a bitcher.

Meals’ strike zone did appear to change — should La Russa be faulted for using Meals’ lack of confidence in his own calls to carve a slight edge for his team? We would be applauding Charlie Manuel if he was the one yelling from the dugout. The ire should have been directed at Meals, and at Major League Baseball for letting a mediocre umpire call an important post-season game.

Pitching Changes: Fans hate pitching changes, and for good reason: they completely mess with the flow of a baseball game. For the same reason, I hate the commercial “policy” with football, where they will kick off, go to commercial, and then play the first down. The break just feels unnecessary.

La Russa used four pitchers to face four batters and get three outs. In the eighth inning, Marc Rzepczynski hit Chase Utley with a pitch and was immediately lifted for right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Boggs got Hunter Pence to ground into a fielder’s choice for the first out. La Russa went to the mound for a second time, lifting Boggs for lefty veteran Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes threw three pitches to strike out Ryan Howard. Out came La Russa; Rhodes exited. Right-hander Jason Motte entered, retiring Shane Victorino on a fly ball to center.

For those at home, the inning went like this:

  • (end of previous inning) Commercial break
  • Chase Utley at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Hunter Pence at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Ryan Howard at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Shane Victorino at-bat
  • (end of inning) Commercial break

Given that roughly five minutes elapses between the end of the previous at-bat and the start of the next, fans were treated to about 25 minutes of advertisements and, generously, five minutes of actual game play. As a fan, that is just awful. But the fault shouldn’t lie with La Russa — he was just doing what any good manager does, which is putting his team in the best possible position to succeed. Whether he actually did or not is debatable, but he didn’t act nefariously.

Instead, the blame should go to Major League Baseball, which sets up the framework that allows for five-minute breaks in between pitching changes. There are plenty of solutions to this problem. For one, a team could be allowed to make only a fixed amount of non-injury-related pitching changes per inning. Or any pitching changes beyond the first would not allow the new reliever to have warm-up pitches on the field, negating the commercial break. But nothing happens if fans don’t speak up to the right people and in the right medium. Change in baseball happens at a glacial pace, so if fans really hate the current set-up, they need to speak by making phone calls and sending letters and emails to the powers-that-be, instead of making sarcastic comments on Twitter (as I did). Even better, speak with your wallet: don’t subscribe to MLB.tv or MLB Network (et cetera) until the requisite changes are made.

One thing is certain: La Russa did not do anything wrong by making three pitching changes in one inning.

Hit-and-Run: All right, after devoting many words to defending La Russa, I get to criticize him here.

Albert Pujols had singled to lead off the top of the ninth inning against Ryan Madson, bringing up Lance Berkman. Pujols has been dealing with a bad heel (so painful that he took a cart to the team bus after the game), so why would you make him run the bases unnecessarily? To be fair, Berkman isn’t a strikeout waiting to happen, but there is no way Pujols was going first-to-third on anything in front of an outfielder. With the count 3-2, La Russa put Pujols — bad heel and all — in motion. Berkman hit his fourth foul ball of the at-bat and Pujols returned to first base. On the eighth pitch, Berkman swung and missed at an 84 MPH change-up for the first out of the inning. Pujols was in motion again, and Ruiz fired to second base.

Ruiz’s throw reached second base at about the time Pujols reached the halfway point between first and second. Pujols engaged in a half-hearted run-down before being tagged out for the second out of the inning.

La Russa managed rather well to that point. I’ll never understand why he chose to hit-and-run with Pujols at first base. What makes it more mind-boggling is that La Russa pinch-ran for Pujols last night with Gerald Laird (Gerald Laird!), acknowledging his first baseman’s ailment. Overall, though, La Russa had a solid game and shouldn’t have taken as much grief as I saw on ye olde Internets.

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  1. Matty

    October 03, 2011 12:28 AM

    When your team gets you a 4-0 lead after two innings, and you have the other team facing a two game deficit in a short series you DO NOT let them get back up! INEXCUSABLE!!

    Fact 1: Why do you walk Berkman with a 4 run lead and no one on base? Walks almost always score. In that situation, you have to make him earn his way on base. Instead, you hand him first base and he eventually scores, and you lose by a run.

    Fact 2: Gold glove Victorino misplays a fly ball. What should have been an out is a runner on third, who eventually scores and they lose by a run.

    Fact 3: Lee gets the first two batters out, and his inability to retire the third batter opens the flood gates with 3 straight hits. A run scores and they lose by a run. (An observation I commented on before at this site).

    Fact 4: Ibanez’s throw to the plate beats the runner who would have been out. The throw is too high and the runner scores. They lose by a run.

    Anyone seeing a trend here? Every mistake that allows a run proves costly.

    Five unanswered runs allowed by Lee. Anyone who predicted a 3 game sweep by the Phils because of our 3 top starting pitchers must have expected perfection from them. That’s 11 runs allowed by our pitching staff in only two games. And 8 of them came from the two top starting pitchers.

    In a short series, your offense simply cannot shut down. They need to keep the foot on the gas pedal, because you don’t know what you’re going to get from your pitching staff. When they went up 4-0, I told everyone in the room that the Phils better score more runs to win this game.

    Enough said.

  2. Richard

    October 03, 2011 10:03 AM

    I don’t mind that LaRussa complained to Meals. I do mind that he bitched about it on camera (and that the TBS guys agreed! the fuck!), AND that complaining to Meals appeared to actually work. Umpires, good or bad, need to not give a fuck what managers say to them. This is just another example why Meals shouldn’t be umpiring in the post-season.

  3. Bliz

    October 03, 2011 10:20 AM

    Agreed about the umpiring. A good way to ensure that La Russa will continue to complain is to reward his crying by changing your strike zone. That ump was terrible. And now we can look forward to LaRussa crying to the umps for the rest of the series. That third “strike” to Chase Utley was a disgrace.

  4. SJHaack

    October 03, 2011 10:26 AM

    I give La Russa credit for the whole win. The strategy of foregoing the balls actually hit hard for a double and a triple, and instead deciding to capitalize on just putting the ball weakly into play and hoping it doesn’t hit a glove is pure genius.

  5. Tom

    October 03, 2011 11:18 AM

    When you outline the flow it really seems like it stunk but at the time I didn’t even notice. It’s not often that there are so many pitching changes and when that does happen it’s usually a big cliffhanger situation so it builds the suspense which is fine. Not nearly as annoying as the announcing overall.

    Has everyone seen the WSJ’s breakdown of broadcast time in MLB and NFL games?


    Cliff Lee Notes: There is around 14 minutes of action in a baseball game and just 11 in a football game. Baseball has a little more action and more “standing around” time while the NFL has way more replay time.

    Lately I’ve really preferred watching baseball. Most times you know you’re going to get an uninterrupted half inning, have a commercial break of the usual amount of time, then another half inning. Basically there *is* a flow. I can’t get in to football because of this routine:

    “Gimme” extra point not worth watching
    Kickoff (usually a touchback now)

    You may as well watch 10 minutes of something else following a TD. Those commercial breaks are noticeably longer than between-inning breaks.

  6. Mike

    October 03, 2011 01:03 PM

    Unfortunately, TLR tends to overmanage based on L-L, R-R matchups anyways, but it’s going to be worse now because the Cards bullpen is stock piled with guys who have pretty severe splits.

    One thing you didn’t mention is that Dotel was brought in to face two lefties to start an inning!!! Is Dotel’s BBRef page firewalled for Cardinals employees? The splits are pretty significant and it’s been going on for 4 years. They got away with it this time, but if you play with fire, you’ll eventually get burned.

  7. Jim

    October 04, 2011 01:33 AM

    I would just like to say thank you for writing this article. As a Cardinals fan it gets old reading the sweetspot site associated with the cardinals (www.fungoes.net/). All they ever do is bash LaRussa for everything under the sun (the current article up doesn’t stray from the trend). So thanks for putting something nice up about a guy whose track record alone says he isn’t complete trash like the Cardinals critic of Fungoes would like everyone to believe.

  8. Jim

    October 04, 2011 06:33 AM

    Hey Matty,
    What did the mice think about your prediction?

  9. Jerry

    October 04, 2011 08:16 AM

    I completely disagree about having a limited amount of pitching changes per inning. The important innings – the ones a manager is likely to make the most pitching changes in – rarely go as planned (though it seems this one more or less did for LaRussa), and limiting the number of pitching changes allowed ties the managers hands if he put a guy in there who clearly doesn’t have it but he can’t remove him because he’s already crossed an arbitrary line. This would make games faster (though probably only about 5 minutes faster every few games, considering how rarely such a rule would be invoked) but in the rare cases where fans have to watch a struggling reliever get lit up while a shut down closer is stuck in the bullpen it would be outrageous.

  10. Jeff G

    October 04, 2011 03:30 PM

    Anyone have any idea what the email addresses are for the powers-that-be?

  11. Matty

    October 06, 2011 06:46 AM

    Jim, I don’t know what the mice thought, but the guys there thought the 4-0 lead was more than enough with Lee on the mound.

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