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Perfectly Flawed

Tony LaRussa just managed his sixth team to a league pennant, and will begin his quest for a third World Series title today. He is a four-time Manager of the Year, and only one of those awards came in a year in which his team went to the World Series. His managerial record is 5,097-2,728 2,728-2,365, which includes a winning record with each of the three teams he has managed.

Tony La Russa also has a reputation as an overmanager. He was perhaps at his best/worst on April 17, 2010, when a 20-inning affair ended with a pitcher playing left field, and an outfielder on the mound. La Russa also is the king of specialized bullpen roles, and is far from afraid to change his lineup regularly and liberally.

Generally, La Russa's managerial style often flies in the face of what sabermetrics have suggested as best practices. Yet, despite that, his teams consistently win. There are even ones (like his current Cardinals) that have exceeded expectations.

Plenty has been written about the Cardinals starting rotation (or lack thereof), particularly in the NLCS. As a whole unit, it got fewer outs in the NLCS than the bullpen, and no starter made it into the 6th inning. So much for a contender needing some frontline starters to make it to the World Series.

However, maybe St. Louis's greatest weakness was actually its greatest strength. How many managers, besides La Russa, would have so willingly gone to the bullpen over and over and over, game after game after game? A part of him must have relished the chance to make so many moves - and with the way the rotation pitched, every one of La Russa's pitching changes may have been necessary. The way the Cardinals have performed this postseason was built for La Russa's overbearing managerial style.

Still, like many, I find a great deal of Tony La Russa's moves unnecessary. I definitely come out of the Moneyball style of thinking, where the manager isn't all that influential on the outcome of a game. In fact, it almost seems as if a majority of managerial options (bunting, hitting and running, stealing bases) are counterproductive. It logically follows that a manager who uses many of these seemingly damaging strategies over and over would not do well...yet here is La Russa, in yet another World Series.

My best theory is that Tony La Russa sets a tone in his team's dugout with all the moves he makes. Only a manager maniacally obsessed with winning would pull all the moves that he does. Nobody has ever accused him of lacking confidence, either. La Russa pulls all his moves with remarkable conviction, even in the face of criticism.

Perhaps La Russa's unyielding self-confidence, along with his zealous passion for winning, impart much more good on a team than the counterproductive moves that often allow those traits to shine through. Some people are more apt to perform at their best when they know someone else has confidence in them, while others perform at their peak when they have some fear. Doesn't La Russa's style seem conducive to giving players both? Wouldn't a player feel confidence when their manager backs whatever move they were involved in, even in the face of media criticism? Might a player also feel fear, knowing their manager will pull any move at any time if they feel someone else is better suited for that job? Perhaps La Russa's managerial style creates an environment that motivates a broad spectrum of players to do their best.

When a team has players performing at about as high of a level as they can, and the team's flaws can be better hidden by flurries of pitching changes, and the manager has absolutely no problems making flurries of moves during a game, maybe there is the formula for an unlikely World Series participant. Then again, baseball can be very random at times, and the Cardinals are certainly the greatest benefactor in the unlikely collapse of the Braves. Atlanta helped St. Louis at least as much as St. Louis helped themselves by competing with whatever sliver of a chance they had at the start of September.

Still, for 30 years or so, Tony La Russa has made a living by winning with what often seems to be losing strategies. Even as sabermetrics have informed the decisions of other managers, La Russa shows few signs of changing the way he manages, and his results haven't changed much either. Certainly, he's had talent to work with everywhere he's been, but at some point he deserves some of the credit. Somehow, Tony La Russa is one of the most legendary managers of all-time.