Tony LaRussa by the Numbers

Tony LaRussa announced yesterday that he will not return to manage the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He used the word “retirement” so we’ll take him at his word that after 5,097 Major League Baseball games, LaRussa’s managed his last one.

You’re likely familiar with his career highlights:

• 2,738 career wins as manager, 3rd most after Connie Mack and John McGraw
• .537 career winning percentage as manager
• 3 World Series titles as manager
• 3 American League pennants as manager
• 3 National League pennants as manager
• 14 postseasons as manager
• 4 Manager of the Year Awards (with another one likely this year)

But these numbers only begin to scratch the surface of Tony LaRussa’s managerial career.  Let’s take a closer look.

Manager, Chicago White Sox (1979-1986)

LaRussa began his managerial career with the  White Sox during the 1979 season when then-manager Don Kessinger was fired. The White Sox were 46-60 when LaRussa took over and played .500 ball over the remaining 54 games.

The next season the White Sox finished 70-90 for a .438 winning percentage, the lowest in LaRussa’s career for a full season. (The lowest winning percentage for less than a full season was the White Sox’ record of 26-38 (.406) through 64 games of the 1986 season, at which point LaRussa was fired.)

By 1981, the White Sox had the best offense in the American League, as measured by wRC+ (112). Their .331 wOBA was second in the league to the Red Sox at .336.  That was the only season the White Sox led the American League in either wOBA or wRC+ during LaRussa’s tenure.  When the White Sox finished first in the American League West in 1983, they had sixth best wOBA (.332) and the sixth best wRC+ (104).

Under LaRussa, the White Sox never led the American League in either ERA or FIP. The closest they came was 1982, when the White Sox were second in FIP (3.58) behind the New York Yankees (3.49).

Awards were in short supply for White Sox players during LaRussa’s tenure. La Marr Hoyt captured the American League Cy Young Award in 1983 and Mike Squires won the Gold Glove for his play at first base in 1981.

Manager, Oakland Athletics (1986-1995)

White Sox GM Ken “Hawk” Harrelson fired LaRussa one-third the way through the 1986 season. But LaRussa was out of work less than three weeks when he was hired to take over the Oakland A’s.  He managed the A’s for 1,471 games over nine-and-a-half seasons, winning 798 games, for a .572 winning percentage. The only losing seasons for the A’s under LaRussa were 1993 (68-94), the strike-shortened season of 1994 (51-63), and 1995 (67-77).

The A’s were American League pennant winners in 1988, 1989 and 1990, but won only one World Series, in 1989, sweeping the San Francisco Giants in four consecutive — but earthquake-interrupted — games.

LaRussa’s A’s led the American League in ERA in 1988 (3.44), 1989 (3.13) and 1990 (3.18) but led the league in FIP only in 1988 (3.63).  Bob Welch won the American League Cy Young Award in 1990, going 27-6 with an ERA of 2.95.

That pitching dominance didn’t last. In 1991, the A’s had the second-to-worst ERA (4.57) and FIP (4.49) in the league. By 1993, it was the worst ERA (4.90).

1992 was a mediocre year for A’s pitching, but a stellar year for one A’s pitcher in particular. Dennis Eckersley recorded a 1.91 ERA/1.72 FIP with 51 saves and captured the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, Cy Young Award and Rolaids Reliever Award. Eckersley also won the Rolaids Reliever Award in 1988.

The A’s also excelled at the plate in the LaRussa years. In 1988 and 1989, the A’s were second only to the Red Sox in wRC+. In 1990 and 1992, the A’s led the American League in that offensive category.

Many A’s flourished individually under LaRussa. A’s players took home the American League Rookie of the Year Award in three consecutive seasons: Jose Canseco (1986); Mark McGwire (1987); and Walt Weiss (1988). Conseco was also named Most Valuable Player in 1987. Rickey Henderson captured that award in 1990.

Manager, St. Louis Cardinals (1996-2011)

The Cardinals tapped LaRussa as their skipper in 1996. In 16 season, LaRussa managed the Redbirds for 2,590 games, winning 1,408 games, for an overall winning percentage of .544. Under LaRussa, the Cardinals were National League Champions three times — 2004, 2006 and 2011 — and won the World Series twice — this year and in 2006.

This season, the Cardinals led the National League in wRC+ (111), a feat they accomplished only two others time in LaRussa’s tenure: in 2004, when they lost to the Red Sox in the World Series and in 2008 when they finished the season in fourth place in the National League Central.  In 2001, 2002 and 2003, the Cards’ offense generated the second-most wRC+behind the San Francisco Giants (2001, 2002) and the Atlanta Braves (2003).

One particularly interesting thing to note about the Cardinals’ offense under LaRussa is the team’s walk rate. Interesting in the sense that last week, when Game 6 of the World Series was delayed by rain, LaRussa saw Moneyball and had some unflattering things to say about the concept of on-base percentage:

“On-base percentage is one of the most dangerous concepts of the last seven, eight years,’’ [LaRussa] said, “because it forces some executives and coaches and players to think that it’s all about getting on base by drawing walks. And the fact is that the guys that have the best on-base percentage are really dangerous hitters whenever they get a pitch in the strike zone.”

In fact, in 11 out of 16 seasons with LaRussa at the helm, the Cardinals’ walk rate was higher than the National League average:

On the pitching side, we looked last week at LaRussa’s bullpen management over his 16-year Cardinal career but didn’t discuss much in the way of the pitchers’ success. And there was a great deal of success.

The Cardinals led the National League in ERA in 2004 (3.74), 2005 (3.49) and 2010 (3.50), and led the league in xFIP in 2009 (3.83).  The worst year for Cardinals pitching under LaRussa was 2003, when the relievers posted the worst xFIP in the National League at 4.78.

Several Cardinals accumulated a mantle-full of awards while playing for LaRussa. Albert Pujols, of course, collected quite a few, including National League Rookie of the Year in 2001 and Most Valuable Player in 2005, 2008 and 2009. Mike Matheny was the reigning Gold Glove winner at catcher between 2002 and 2005; Yadier Molina took over that award in 2008 and has held it ever since. Chris Carpenter won the National League Cy Young award in 2005.

For 33 years in the major leagues, LaRussa managed players with a range of talents. LaRussa’s talent was bringing out the best in the players individually and as a team.




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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


20 Responses to “Tony LaRussa by the Numbers”

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  1. Pogotheostrich says:

    “This season, the Cardinals led the National League in wRC+ (111), a feat they accomplished only one other time in LaRussa’s tenure, in 2008.”

    They also finished first in wRC+ in 2004.

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  2. Brian says:

    His smart, even handed, verbal TAKEDOWN of money ball was masterful…

    Seriously, that answer he gave to the media about moneyball should be shown at seminars under “this is how you calmly pick apart something and expose its flaws without going over the top and distorting your message”

    Oh, and being the best manager of this era is pretty cool as well

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  3. stan says:

    “When Joe Torre left to become manager of the Yankees?” Torre was fired in midseason 1995 by the Cardinals.

    Why on earth would anyone leave the Cardinals to manage the Yankees anyway? Managing in New York would take 10 years off anyone’s life.

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  4. JP says:

    Ah, the difficulty in assessing managers. Using a manager’s win-loss record, or pitching/hitting stats is inadequate. It’s entirely possible that the managers we peg as being good or great, are merely the managers who were lucky enough to have strong talent over the course of their careers.

    This is not like pitcher win-loss record, where overtime, record will give you a half-decent if still flawed measure of the pitcher’s skill.

    Rather, a manager’s job is optimizing whatever talent he has available. This involves a pretty detailed analysis of moves the manager made or didn’t make, and then comparing them to possible alternatives.

    On team specific blogs, writers might routinely do this, and during the post-season managers moves get this kind of scrutiny. Overall though, basically, if a manager has good talent at his disposal, he wins, and we think he’s a good manager.

    Ron Washington has an excellent record over the last two years, but if his post-season managing is any indication, he is an unbelievably poor manager in that he does not even come close to maximizing his team’s chance of winning.

    Is there any way we can measure a manager’s true abilities?

    Perhaps we could look at the change in Win Expectancy whenever the manager makes a move, but this would only provide a tiny slice of information. For example, pitching changes won’t affect WE (unless WE adjusts according to platoon advantage?). It also wouldn’t measure moves that were not made. i.e. Ron Washington would not have been penalized for leaving Colby Lewis in to bat with the bases loaded.

    I would love some sort of objective measure that could control for differences in talent at managers’ disposal.

    Maybe Tony La Russa just got old, which is why he’s retiring. Maybe he just had a bad series. But like Washington, if this World Series was any indication of his overall management, then his teams have won despite him, not because of him.

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  5. joser says:

    White Sox managerial highlight: once he did this, it was all downhill from there.

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  6. Fred says:

    The Cardinals tapped LaRussa as their skipper in 1996.

    tabbed

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    • B N says:

      Either is grammatically correct, but with different connotations. Tabbed would mean selected, tapped implies that they took advantage of his talents. You can tab your new manager or you can tap him for his managing talents. Either is applicable here.

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  7. Bigmouth says:

    Have you guys ever done a series on great managers who don’t practice what they preach (in a good way)?

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  8. Ron Swanson says:

    This is a really oddly written recipe….

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  9. bonestock94 says:

    Maybe it’s society

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  10. Robbie G. says:

    George Bell won the MVP award in 1987. It was in 1988 that Jose Canseco won it. According to WAR, the winner should have been Wade Boggs, who finished with 8.7 WAR. Canseco had his big “40-40″ year in 1988, though, and Boggs only hit five homers. How many times in MLB history did a guy with five or fewer HRs lead all position players in WAR? Was this the only time? I’d like to know the answer to that question.

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  11. Graham says:

    What would the starting lineup of the top players LaRussa Managed be?
    1. Rickey Henderson 2. Eckstein (b/c LaRussa loved him) 3. Pujols 4. Edmonds 5. Rolen 6. Canseco 7. Old Carlton Fisk/Yadier Molina 8. (any notable 2b play for him?) 9. Wainwright/Carp for pitchers

    McGwire and Harold Baines off the bench

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  12. EdwardM says:

    Nice article. I ususally rooted against LaRussa’s teams but generally felt that if there was an advantage to be gained, however slight, he would find it.

    BTW, don’t forget Ron Kittle’s 1983 AL ROY award. Poor Mike Boddiker. He was robbed!

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