LaRussa's Curse
October 20, 2006

I've been remiss for not writing anything for the site in a while.  Know that I'm working on next year's Fantasy Baseball Scouting Handbook, although I may go with a different title.  Still, it should have just as many player profiles and a few more articles that will offer as much insight as last year's lead-off that de-mythologized Leo Mazzone.  This year's will be even better.

Anyway, I wanted to offer a quick prediction on this year's World Series, a rematch (of sorts) of the 1968 and 1934 Fall Classics.  First, congratulations to both the Cardinals and the Tigers for making it.  With that out of the way, if the Cardinals manage to avoid getting swept it will be the biggest upset in sports this year. 

They just barely beat a Mets team that was without two of it's top starters.  Had either Pedro Martinez or Orlando Hernandez been healthy, it's unlikely the NLCS would have gone more than five games.  John Maine would have been their fourth starter and Steve Trachsel probably wouldn't have seen the light of day. 

I wasn't overly suprised that Oliver Perez pitched well.  What has surprised me is how poorly he's fared the last two years.  There was a bunch of hubbub on ESPN about him being the worst Game 7 starter in history, but the fact is that the guy has an enormous amount of talent (as shown in 2004 when he posted a sub 3.00 ERA and led the majors in strikeout rate for a starter) and just needed to regain his confidence after struggling through some tough times.  The only question was whether or not he would get past the first inning jitters.  Although his career numbers aren't very good, there is no way he's the worst starter to ever start a Game 7, at least talent-wise.  Just 25-years old with plenty of career left to write, when all is said and done, there's little doubt that Perez will be regarded as a much better pitcher than Jeff Suppan, Donovan Osbourne or Atlee Hammaker and he has a decent chance to be among the A-list.

That said, two things were proven with some certainty in the NLCS: the first is that the Cardinals' hitters struggle with lefties.  The Mets' lefty starters - Tom Glavine, Oliver Perez and to a large extent, Darren Oliver who pitched six innings of relief after Steve Trachsel got bombed - posted an ERA of 2.82 in the series.  The second thing is that they can be overpowered with good fastballs: almost all of their big hits came on hanging breaking balls.  With the exception of Perez, none of the Mets starters throw much above the high 80s. 

No such luck with the Tigers.  Verlander and Bonderman routinely reach the mid-90s and Robertson is generally above 90 with his fastball.  Both he and Kenny Rogers are tough lefties, especially Rogers this postseason, as he has yet to allow a run.  Pile on that the Tigers have hard throwing Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney coming out of the pen and the Cardinals' opportunities to score runs will be quite rare.  Jim Leyland won't allow his pitchers to make the same mistakes the Mets did.  This is a Tiger's staff that held what had been called "the best line-up in history" to just 6 runs over the final 3 games of the division series and held Oakland to just 8 runs over four games in the ALCS. 

Then there're the Cardinals' rotation issues.  Dave Duncan has done a terrific job reclaiming the career of Jeff Weaver, but Weaver's ERA while he was pitching in the AL this year was 6.29.  Jeff Suppan's history against AL bats is just as discouraging.  This year he had three starts against AL teams.  He faced the Tigers once and they knocked him around for 9 hits and 3 runs in five innings (5.40 ERA).  The other two starts were against the Royals and even they smacked him for 15 hits and 4 walks scoring 6 earned runs in a little more than 11 innings work.  His career against AL teams is, well... let's put it this way - only once in the eight years he spent in the AL did he post an ERA under 4.90.  In addition, these Tigers are especially good at hitting him.  How good?  Of the expected line-up he'll face, only Placido Polanco and Craig Monroe have a career OPS less than .900 against Suppan.  And Monroe might be forgiven since he's only had 2 at bats against him.  Weaver fares a little better in that he has contained Ivan Rodriguez very well and Magglio Ordonez only has a career .858 OPS against him.  And Chris Carpenter?  His history against the current Tiger hitters is just as bad as Suppan's.  Which leaves Anthony Reyes as the Cardinals' best chance for a win.  That's no recipe for success. 

I'll admit I like to root for the underdog and figure out ways they could possibly win but sometimes the facts are just overwhelming.  There just isn't anything the Cardinals do better than the Tigers, or any kind of advantage they can exploit.  So another post-season disappointment for Tony LaRussa is almost assured. 

It's unfortunate because he has taken some hits for underachieving in the playoffs, but the reality is that his teams only choked once.  That was in the 1988 World Series, his first Fall Classic, when his heavily favored A's lost to a team who's only good offensive player (Kirk Gibson) was limited to one at bat and that had three players with a regular season on base under .300.  Mike Marshall was the only guy other than Gibson to hit more than 10 home runs.  True, the Dodgers had a very good bullpen and Orel Hershiser was on a phenomenal roll, but the fact that team was able to score 21 runs in five games is a miracle just short of the 1980 US Hockey win in Lake Placid.  They ranked 10th in on base and 9th in slugging in the NL in '88.  Their best category was stolen bases and even in that they ranked 6th.  That Dodger squad was undoubtedly the worst team to ever win a World Series.  So yes, LaRussa's squad underachieved that year.  But the rest were largely out of his control.

In 1983, his White Sox lost to an Orioles team that had a much better bullpen and a very good offense led by two Hall of Famers, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray.  That was also his first post-season as a manager.  

In 1990, his team was swept by a Reds team that is still largely underappreciated (much like the 1994 Expos) but was really one of the better teams of the last 25 years.  They had a deep line-up with several Hall of Fame-level talents (Barry Larkin, Eric Davis) plus one of the cogs in the recent Yankee dynasty (Paul O'Neill), along with perhaps the best bullpen of the last half century, the unhittable troika of Rob Dibble, Norm Chalrton and Randy Myers affectionately known as "the Nasty Boys".  That, plus they had one of the best starters in National League history (at least before his elbow blew out) Jose Rijo, who was the MVP of that series. 

In 1992, his A's were ousted by the eventual two-time champion Blue Jays, another team that was loaded with incredible talent including two Hall of Fame hitters (Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar), as well as a number of the best big game pitchers of the last generation - Jimmy Key, Jack Morris, David Wells and David Cone. 

In 1996, his Cardinals lost to a superior Braves team that not only had Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, but also five guys who had hit at least 23 homers that season.  David Justice, Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones combined for 23 more in right field that year as well.  By contrast, the Cardinals offense had only two such sluggers.  

In 2000, it was pretty much a miracle that his team got to the post-season given that his rotation was comprised almost entirely of re-treads from other teams (Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen, Andy Benes, Garrett Stephenson, along with rookie phenom and soon-to-be tale of woe, Rick Ankiel).  Why Dave Duncan has never gotten the accolades that Leo Mazzone has is completely beyond me, particularly after that 2000 season. 

In 2002, his Cards lost to steroid-inflated Barry Bonds and the Giants, but again, it was pretty much a miracle that the Cardinals made the post-season.  That year, only Matt Morris won more than 11 games for him.  He had 14 different pitchers start games that season, 9 of whom started at least 10 games.  Only Morris and Jason Simontacci started more than 20 games for the Redbirds that year.  To have made it to the NLCS with that staff is enough to earn his "genuis" label. 

In 2004, he ran into the Red Sox, not only a team of destiny but a team that presented many of the same match-up problems that the Tigers do this year. 

And last year he was just one good starting pitcher short against the Astros.  Had Mark Mulder been healthy the story would have been different, but Carpenter and Morris just couldn't pitch enough to match Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte. 

LaRussa will very likely get saddled with another post season disappointment this year.  But the fact that the Cardinals have lasted this long in this postseason is a testament to his Hall of Fame ability as a manager.