I was minding my own business on Twitter this morning when the must-follow Sam Miller tweeted a link to this post from El Maquino, the results (as of Thursday morning) of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch online poll. Go check them out.
Are you done laughing yet? Can I continue? OK, I’ll wait …
Let’s get two facts out of the way first: 1) However much he made you curse and possibly destroy small household items at times, Tony La Russa was a great manager who helped guide the Cardinals to many successful seasons and two World Series titles; 2) Dave Duncan was a terrific pitching coach who had a profound effect on the team’s arms and deserves consideration as the first of his occupation to make the Hall of Fame.
With that said, to suggest that the departures of both La Russa and Duncan will impact the Cardinals more than the departure of Albert Pujols is pure lunacy. Pujols is a player on the actual baseball field doing actual baseball player things and doing them better than just about anyone, ever (analysis!). He has been worth approximately eight wins above replacement per season in the major leagues. This is a rare feat. The Cardinals probably have enough good pieces even without Pujols to reach the playoffs again in 2012, but to suggest his exit to Los Angeles of Anaheim doesn’t make St. Louis clearly worse is as nutty as suggesting the team should have brought back Corey Patterson.
As I guessed on Twitter, maybe this poll is less representative of Cardinals fans being misguided than it is of them being angry at Pujols the “trader,” to use the parlance of the seething Internet commenter. It’s probably some of both, but either way, it doesn’t speak particularly well of the BFIB.
Imagine watching a Cardinals game this season. Pujols’ absence will be highly conspicuous, what with someone else batting third, likely nobody hitting like one of the best players on Earth, and all of the players politely yielding to Jose Oquendo’s stop signs at third base.
How conspicuous will the lack of La Russa and Duncan be? Sure, the TV cameras won’t capture TLR glowering behind his shades in the corner of the dugout or Dunc walking out to the mound with a reminder to throw more two-seamers. But on an individual game basis, nothing likely will seem amiss. Over the course of the season, the Cardinals might hit and run less or exhibit other small adjustments in strategy, but it won’t be anything severe.
Now, granted, a manager and pitching coach make their biggest impact behind the scenes and outside of games. I’m not one of those people, if they even exist, who says a manager doesn’t matter. He does matter in many ways, most of which are difficult or impossible to quantify. But you’re not going to find any serious baseball analyst who will tell you that impact is like the 8 WAR/season Pujols contributes (or even the 5.4 he put up in 2011). We have no idea how Mike Matheny will fare as a manager, but chances are the team won’t be significantly worse with him than it was with TLR. This isn’t, say, basketball, where a change in head coach can lead to a complete 180 in style of play.
For his part, Duncan clearly got Cardinals pitchers to buy into a philosophy that seemed to generate positive results for many more guys than not, and his binders full of copious and detailed scouting information apparently will go on leave with him. But the Cardinals have a veteran pitching staff, most of whom have spent at least a year, if not several years, absorbing Duncan’s teachings. Duncan’s replacement, Derek Lilliquist, is qualified for the job, and did it last year when Duncan was away from the team. He’s also smart enough to know not to fix something that isn’t broken, as he told Joe Strauss:
Lilliquist remains a devotee of Duncan’s theories about pitch efficiency, the “pitch-to-contact” philosophy that meshes well with sinkerball pitchers who command the strike zone.
“‘Dunc’ had a successful formula that worked for a long time,” Lilliquist said. “You’d be foolish to come in and try to change philosophies.”
In the end, the Cardinals might miss La Russa’s relentless day-to-day intensity in the dugout and his many years of battle-tested experience. They probably will miss Duncan’s knack for reviving foundering careers and his ability to call up decades of first-hand data.
They won’t miss either as much as Pujols hitting the ever-loving %&*#$ out of a baseball. Period.
And if you don’t believe me, take it from one of the smartest baseball guys around, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. Pitchers Hit Eighth recently submitted a similar question to Goldstein and Mike Ferrin on the MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM show. PH8 also included former head of Cardinals amateur scouting and player development and new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow as an option. Here was Goldstein’s response:
“Was any of them creating as many wins as Albert Pujols? Look, I don’t want to talk down about how much La Russa and Duncan meant to this team, and obviously Luhnow is now the GM in Houston. I’m not gonna say a bad thing about these guys, but Pujols is so darn good and meant so much to that team on the field and the number of wins he created for that team. He’s the biggest loss, and it’s not even really that close for me.”