Tony LaRussa, Ron Washington and the World Series

The Cardinals victory in the World Series has sealed Tony LaRussa’s reputation as one of the most important managers in history and made his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame even stronger. LaRussa has now won more regular season games than any manager other than Connie Mack and John McGraw, and is likely to pass McGraw next year. He is second only to Mack in total games managed. LaRussa is now tied for sixth most pennants won, and is one of only five managers to win six or more pennants for teams other than the Yankees. This Cardinal team was an extremely unlikely World Champion, but it is not clear that winning the 2011 World Series was LaRussa’s most impressive post-season accomplishment. In 2006, he won a World Series with another Cardinal team that had only won 83 regular season games.

The primary criticisms of LaRussa’s career as a manager are that he was the manager of the A’s when Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were blazing the steroid era trail and that he continued to ignore steroid abuse when the artificially bulked up McGwire played for LaRussa’s Cardinals. There is, however, another side of LaRussa’s managerial career that is often overlooked. He is currently second all time in losses, which is not a surprise given that he is a close third in games managed. More notably, although his post-season winning percentage over 128 games is an impressive .546, his overall career winning percentage is only .536, good for only 34th among managers who have managed more than 1000 games.

LaRussa’s accomplishment of winning the World Series with two different teams, in 2006 and 2011, that were clear underdogs is extraordinary, but it is sometimes forgotten that he also managed the losing side of not one, but two huge World Series upsets. The 1988 World Series upset is relatively well known. After Kirk Gibson’s game one winning home run, the A’s never really recovered and ended up losing to the Dodgers in five games. The A’s that year had won 10 more games than the Dodgers and had a run differential that was 96 runs greater than that of the Dodgers.

In a short series anything can happen, so while LaRussa should get some of the blame for that loss, it also can be excused in the context of a long career-except that two years later, the same thing happened again. The 1990 World Series is not one that has a defining moment or game, but it ranks among the greatest World Series upsets. The heavily favored A’s had won 12 more regular season games and had a run differential 67 points greater than their opponents, the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds swept the A’s. Between these two defeats, LaRussa’s A’s swept the Giants in 1989, but being upset in two World Series is still not a great record.

A friend of mine who has been an A’s fan for his whole life used to complain in those years that LaRussa had “no plan B,” meaning that if things went right, as they did in 1989, LaRussa was fine, but once things started to go wrong, he was unable to adapt. Had LaRussa stopped managing after leaving the A’s that would have been a good description of his career, but that is not what happened.

LaRussa has evolved from the man who was unable to recover from a dramatic game one home run, or to two straight losses on the road, to a manager who seemed to have an endless amount of pinch hitters, relievers and other tricks at his disposal. In game six this year, LaRussa emptied his bench using 22 different players, three more than he used in his team’s 1989 World Series sweep, albeit one where he only needed two starting pitchers because of the delay after the Loma Prieta earthquake. During game six he was masterful, although in game five he failed to get the reliever he wanted ready, but throughout the series LaRussa was making decisions and thinking several moves down the chessboard. This is the LaRussa we have come to expect, but not the one that managed the A’s in the late 80s and early 90s.

Interestingly, Ranger manager Ron Washington has now lost two World Series in a row. In both of these World Series, Washington’s Rangers were slight favorites. Washington’s current situation is not entirely comparable to LaRussa’s. The Rangers defeats in 2010 and 2011 were not upsets comparable to 1988 or 1990. However the 108 run gap in run differential between the 2011 Rangers and Cardinals during the regular season was substantial. Additionally, unlike LaRussa, Washington has no World Series victory sandwiched between these upsets.

Washington is, on balance, not a bad manager. He has won two consecutive pennants with teams that, while good, were far from being consensus favorites either year. This year, his Rangers repeated as AL champions despite losing their best pitcher. It seems likely, however, that Washington’s skill set, evaluating talent, managing people, getting the most out of his players, is better suited for the long season rather than the shorter post-season where in-game strategy becomes more important relative to these other things. This is particularly true in the World Series where Washington has had to manage half of his team’s games under NL rules, where the absence of a DH makes it necessary to manage the bench and bullpen differently.

The bad news for Washington is that he has been out-managed in the last two World Series and that there is no guarantee he will ever get back. Ironically, the more encouraging news was standing in the opposing dugout last week. LaRussa has come a long way from mostly watching the unfortunately named Bash Brothers drive in Rickey Henderson or Carney Lansford and being flummoxed when that didn’t work. LaRussa demonstrated that managers can grow and adapt even at the big league level. This may be cold comfort for Washington now, but it also should help him become an even better manager in the future.