After an eight-month hiatus, we can ask the question again.
What’s Tony La Russa thinking?
Fans, sportswriters, broadcasters, players, executives, opposing managers — we had sparred with La Russa (usually in good humor) for more than three decades. But La Russa hasn’t made a second-guessable decision since October. A third World Series victory, followed by a surprise retirement, has that effect on a man’s credibility.
But now La Russa is managing again, if only for a few days. He will skipper the National League at next month’s All-Star Game (FOX, July 10, 7:30 p.m. ET). And for those who have missed the sight of those near-opaque sunglasses beside the dugout steps, let’s cram a season’s worth of rumination into a single decision: his starting pitcher.
La Russa is mulling over the options in usual hairsplitting detail. He told my colleague Ken Rosenthal last week that New York Mets knuckleball sensation R.A. Dickey is “getting as much consideration to start that game as any of the other guys.” La Russa went on to explain that he’s contemplating whom Dickey’s catcher would be — even though the rosters won’t be set until Sunday.
Typical La Russa, thinking a few moves ahead.
All-Star managers usually reveal their starting pitchers only the day before the game, so we have plenty of time to debate what La Russa should do. In the meantime, let’s consider the rationale he used the past two times he managed the All-Star Game.
In selecting Jake Peavy to start the 2007 Midsummer Classic, La Russa pointed out that Peavy’s “wonderful first half” matched his prior level of achievement. “I do think that it’s an honor to be the All-Star Game starter,” La Russa said, according to a transcript. “We’ve gone against Jake in the postseason and know what kind of competitor he is. He’s experienced that pressure. … He’ll use his postseason experience to handle tomorrow night’s assignment.”
Two years earlier, La Russa went with Chris Carpenter, his staff ace in St. Louis. He mentioned the significance of “comments from other managers and coaches based on what they have seen over the last two years.” One reason La Russa didn’t pick Dontrelle Willis, he said, was that he planned to pair Willis with his Marlins teammate Paul Lo Duca later in the game. (And he did.)
Are there clues in those five- and seven-year-old quotes? Perhaps.
For one thing, let’s just say San Francisco Giants fans have great incentive to vote for Buster Posey as the NL’s starting catcher. The Willis-Lo Duca example shows that La Russa would like to maintain regular-season batteries when possible. (He is, after all, trying to win.) If Posey maintains his lead in the fan balloting, that could tip La Russa’s decision in favor of Matt Cain, whose profile rose with a perfect game earlier this month.
Another reason for Giants fans to be optimistic about Cain’s chances to start: With Peavy and Carpenter, La Russa made reference to postseason experience and what they had accomplished in past years. Cain didn’t allow an earned run in 21 1/3 postseason innings as the Giants won the 2010 World Series. Dickey, while a consistent presence in the Mets rotation for the past two years, has yet to pitch in the playoffs.
This is one instance in which a manager can’t make a wrong choice. There’s no such thing as a lousy pitcher on an All-Star team. But there will be disappointed fans in some precincts, just as I’m sure someone out there was outraged when Ubaldo Jimenez started the 2010 All-Star Game after going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the first half.
Since I can’t help but weigh in, here’s my personal preference list for each league. These would be my top five picks, in order, if I were La Russa or AL manager Ron Washington today.
1. Matt Cain, Giants (9-2, 2.27): For Cain, the starting assignment would resemble a career achievement award. And he deserves it, after pitching superbly through so many years of meager run support. At this point he has a better ERA (2.27), WHIP (0.90) and overall track record than Dickey (2.31, 0.91). A bonus: He would be fully rested to make the start.
2. R.A. Dickey, Mets (11-1, 2.31): So he didn’t have a great game against the Yankees Sunday night. It would be foolish to suggest one outing knocked him from consideration for the All-Star start. But now that his streak of 44 2/3 scoreless innings has come to a close, the way he responds in his next start is paramount. (As with Cain, he would be pitching on his regular turn.)
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (9-2, 2.60): Do All-Star innings count against Strasburg’s phantom limit? One would assume so, which is one reason this probably won’t happen. But for sheer star power, Strasburg might be the best pick of all.
4. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (5-4, 2.74): He hasn’t been as dominant as he was last year, probably due to the plantar fasciitis he’s been pitching through. But I’m inclined to agree with La Russa’s belief that the pitcher’s prior performance holds some weight. Even in an off year, Kershaw has logged more than 100 innings.
5. Johnny Cueto, Reds (9-3, 2.21): Cueto has all the right numbers, including the lowest ERA of any NL pitcher who has thrown 100 innings. But let’s be honest. La Russa isn’t going to pick a member of the hated Reds to start his final game in uniform.
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers (8-4, 2.52): He deserves a rain check after being unable to start last year’s All-Star Game because he pitched on the final Sunday of the first half. After winning the Cy Young Award and MVP last year, this distinction was his to lose. He will be on regular rest for July 10, so how does a 103-mph first pitch sound?
2. Jered Weaver, Angels (7-1, 2.40): You may have forgotten, as it was a few no-hitters ago, but Weaver had one this season, too. He was the obvious choice to start last year when Verlander was unavailable, and he returned from the disabled list last week with six shutout innings against the Giants.
3. Chris Sale, White Sox (8-2, 2.24): If Washington is playing this game to win — and I’m certain he will — then he ought to deploy Sale in the inning(s) when the most left-handed batters are due up. Sale can’t match the All-Star intimidation of Randy Johnson … but he may come close.
4. Jake Peavy, White Sox (6-4, 2.84): He’s a close second behind Dickey in any discussion of the best pitching comebacks of 2012. If anything, he’s getting better as the season wears on: His ERA in five starts this month is 2.36.
5. C.J. Wilson, Angels (9-4, 2.36): Wilson left Washington’s Rangers to sign with the rival Angels last offseason, so I wouldn’t describe him as a likely candidate. But for all the criticism that he wasn’t a “true ace” during his time with the Rangers, Wilson had a 2.92 ERA in the World Series last year and ranks ahead of Verlander in ERA this season.