This day in baseball history

On May 10, 1963, Tony LaRussa made his major league debut at the age of 18. Playing for the Kansas City Athletics, LaRussa appeared as a pinch-runner for Chuck Essegian.

Pinch-running would be LaRussa’s role for the next three months. It wasn’t until August 15 that he recorded his first plate appearance, after coming on as a “caddy” for Jerry Lumpe in a rout of the A’s by Detroit. He flied out against Hank Aguirre.

LaRussa experienced very little success as a player. His lifetime batting average, over the course of 132 games and 176 at bats in six seasons, was .199. His OPS was .491. He never hit a home run.

Even Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza Line – baseball measure of batting futility — is named, managed to hit .215 for his career.

But LaRussa went on to become one of baseball’s all-time great managers. In 33 years, his teams won 2726 games, which ranks third on the all-time list.

His teams made it to the World Series six times, winning three. They won their division 13 times.

LaRussa was a true innovator. For example, he is credited (correctly, I think) with developing the now-standard formula for using the modern “closer” – the relief pitcher who appears late in close games.

For many years, the bullpen ace was expected to pitch up to three innings (more on rare occasions). He could enter the game at any crucial junction of a close contest, and frequently did so in the midst of an inning. Indeed, the reliever trudging in from the bullpen with men on base (warm-up jacket over his shoulder) was one of the signature sights of baseball when I was growing up.

The bullpen ace would often enter the game with the score tied. Sometimes he might even enter if his team was a run behind.

Under La Russa’s formula, much of this was relegated to baseball lore. With very few exceptions, his ace reliever – starting, I believe with Dennis Eckslerly in Oakland — entered the game only under a precise set of circumstances. His team had to be ahead, but by three runs or less. There couldn’t be runners on base; indeed, it had to be the beginning of an inning. And almost always that inning was what would be the final one, if the reliever could hold the lead.

Does this formula make sense? It never did to me. For example, a top reliever seems more valuable pitching, say, the ninth inning of a tie game than pitching the ninth inning of a game his team leads by three runs. And a reliever’s value seems highest when he is bailing out a pitcher who loaded the bases with, say, one out.

It also seems desirable to preserve the flexibility to bring in a bullpen ace in the eighth inning with a one run lead. Or to stay with a strong, effective starter or “set up” reliever for the ninth inning, rather than bringing on the closer.

Bill James identified and modeled the effectiveness of all the approaches to using relief pitchers (including not having relief specialists at all) that have been used in the last 100 years, or so, of baseball history. As I recall, he found that the approach used several iterations ago is superior to what I’m calling the LaRussa formula.

Yet as far as I can tell, use of the LaRussa formula is essentially universal. Why? Maybe other studies have contradicted James’ findings. Maybe considerations such as promoting relieve longevity and/or attracting free agent relief pitchers to one’s team militate in favor of the status quo approach.

But I suspect that the desire to avoid being second-guessed is a major factor. The more that managers can make their job formulaic, the fewer tough judgment calls they must make. And the fewer judgment calls they make, the less criticism they are likely to receive.

But I’m pretty confident this wasn’t La Russa’s reason for using his approach. He has always struck me as a fearless innovator. It’s those who mimic him whose courage I question.

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