Has La Russa Cemented Himself as the Best Manager Ever?

I know I said I hate the “best ever” debate, but what Tony La Russa achieved with the Cardinals this year is extraordinary.

If you go to Baseball-Reference and rank managers in order of wins the top five are Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Tony La Russa.

Wins can be deceptive when ranking skippers as longevity and fortuitous situations come into play. For example, Casey Stengel and Gene Mauch are number 11 and 12 respectively. Mauch oversaw one of the greatest collapses in baseball history with the Phillies in 1964, but stuck around to manage 26 years, thus accumulating a bunch of wins. Stengel happened to be running the Yankees when they had more talent than anyone else. Does it take a genius to win 5 straight titles with players such as DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, and Ford? Stengel stepped into a legacy team and didn’t screw it up; unless, of course, you talk to those who believe he was the reason they lost to Pittsburgh in 1960. None of Stengel’s teams in Brooklyn, Boston, or the Mets overachieved.

What La Russa has done is two-fold. First, he revolutionized the game (for better or worse depending on your perspective) by redefining how a bullpen works. Situational pitching has made tons of relievers very wealthy and allowed teams to compete, and win, with less than spectacular starting pitching. Anyone who transcends the game belongs in the Hall of Fame. La Russa’s vision with a pitching staff certainly fits into that category.

But La Russa is more than just a game changer; he seems to know how to maximize his talent. Players have some of their better seasons under him. The sum of the parts is great than the whole an awful lot.

His Oakland team was clearly the best in baseball from 1988-1990. They also were one of the top payroll teams of the time; however players such as Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Dennis Eckersley revived their career under him. He got the most out of role players like Tony Phillips, Mike Gallego, and Luis Polonia. There wasn’t a free agent star at every position, but players that fit the right role.

His work in St. Louis has been even more remarkable. During his tenure he’s won 2 World Series and 3 pennants. St. Louis is ninth overall in spending the last ten years, yet has more playoff appearances than the Boston Red Sox. They have won more World Series than the Yankees, who spent over a billion dollars more during the same time.

What makes this so remarkable is how he seems to out-manage his opponent in every short series. Forget the whole bullpen phone fiasco in Game 5; that stuff happens. He found a way the entire postseason to massage his starters, put his relievers in positions to succeed, and call on unlikely individuals to produce. When Matt Holliday went down Allen Craig stepped in and hit 3 HRs in the World Series. Do you think the Yankees would have confidence in going with David Freese as the starting third baseman this year? I think that answer is obvious.

Managing big payroll/big ego teams is a challenge in the modern game. It wasn’t the same back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s when the money wasn’t what it is today. What makes me give La Russa the nod is how he transformed the game and continues to win despite needing to work his roster like a NCAA team. It’s been Albert Pujols and the gang on offense. It’s been Chris Carpenter and the gang with the rotation, and the bullpen has been the flavor of the year. Remember, he’s had to do this with 3 rounds of playoffs. Unlike McGraw, Stengel, Mack or Alston, La Russa has to win more games with lesser talent. It’s truly remarkable. In a lot of ways the Cardinals of the last 5 years remind me of the Yankees of the 90s. They don’t have the most talent, but they know how to maximize what they do have. When players put on Cardinal red they automatically become better. Sort of like we use to see in pinstripes.

If Pujols leaves the challenge for TLR might be his greatest ever. Regardless, he has shown me once again why he is the best manager in baseball. Let’s not forget his pitching coach, who clearly is the best in the game at what he does as well. Dave Duncan deserves a ton of the credit as well. Is there a better tandem in baseball history?

I probably would have given La Russa the nod for just getting the 2011 Cardinals to the World Series. The fact that he won it just validates my belief that he is the best manager of all-time.

By Mike Silva
Monday, 31 Oct 2011


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