Sunday, June 18, 2006

Francona's a Genius, Really

"Terry Francona is experienced with the double switch having managed in Philadelphia," croons Fox's Josh Lewin. He reports this with the calmness that the Nobel Committee announced that Albert Einstein had won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for describing the photoelectric effect, having been passed over for the Theory of Relativity.

Certainly baseball managers have a variety of responsibilities, from strategy and tactics, teaching, player relations (parents sometimes call that babysitting), media massaging, and so forth. Sometimes their acumen gets raised to the level of "genius".

Tony LaRussa received acclaim for genius, although I always thought that Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Stewart, and Dennis Eckersley raised LaRussa's IQ dramatically in those years. LaRussa managed the Oaklands from 1988 to 1990 with winning percentages of .642, .611, and .636 to three pennants and one World Series Title. Inexplicably, he became mostly stupid for the next five years, managing only two clubs with records over .500 and his career winning percentage is .537.

Why did LaRussa's genius disappear? In 1990 Dave Stewart and Bob Welch combined for 49 victories, and in 1991 they garnered 23. Dennis Eckersley had an ERA of 0.61 in 1990 and 2.96 in 1991. Did success suddenly go to their heads or drain from LaRussa's?

A great baseball game has flow. Tony LaRussa's greatest contribution to contemporary baseball may be the sabotage of baseball flow, with his incessant pitching changes, often based on lefty-righty strategy. LaRussa practically raised pitching switches to an art form, turning Monets into Picassos, and Renoirs into Jackson Pollacks.

Of course, matched up against Terry Francona in the 2004 World Series, LaRussa dueled the 'witless' Sox skipper who had a .440 winning percentage in four forgettable seasons in Philadelphia and who earned the moniker Francoma from Boston scribes. LaRussa's Cardinals went home with their collective tails between their legs, done in, of course, by pitching. Pitching, moreso than college or professional school education, Kaplan courses, or tutoring makes managers geniuses.

Genius of course, comes from sustained overperformance. Are Joe Torre and Brian Cashman geniuses manipulating a 200 million dollar payroll, while the Allard Bairds of the baseball universe confined to the dark ignorance of poverty? Jim Leyland once again became a brainiac with some live arms (and distant fences) in Detroit.

Of course, baseball needs some new statistics, for example a redefinition of the "hidden ball trick." The impact of steroids in baseball can't be ignored, especially with respect to the head circumference/testicular diameter ratio. I was cleaning out my desk yesterday and found two Pfizer baseball cards of Rafael Palmeiro. We should have known something was afoot when the slugger started hawking Viagra. A few years ago I did a study looking at the ratio between homerun leaders pre and post 1980, comparing their peak homerun season output to the average of their first five full seasons. Contemporary sluggers averaged over twenty percent higher peak to 'youth' ratios, and as I recall the number was around 1.8. Palmeiro's was off the chart, as he was at around 3, having averaged 15 homers for his first five and then hit forty-seven twice.

Growth hormone increases head circumference, too. Jason Giambi really bulked up while in the Bay Area (BALCO neighborhood), then turned into Twiggy in New York. Not to worry though, because he's big as the Incredible Hulk again, no doubt because of a fantastic work ethic and healthy eating. Whatever you do, Big Guy, don't hit me with your wallet. Obviously, baseball players are much smarter than you or I think. After all, what has your union or professional organization done for you or me lately?

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