La Russa: D-backs to embrace pressure, not be slaves to analytics

Diamondbacks President & CEO Derrick Hall and Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa look on from the team box at Chase Field.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO — Change is coming to the Diamondbacks, of course. The only thing that is uncertain is the scope.

"If I can’t bring a couple of tweaks to this thing, then they made a bad decision bringing me on," new D-backs Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa told this week. "But I think there are some tweaks."

Still, La Russa said he has been impressed by what he has seen in the six weeks since the D-backs hired him to oversee all baseball operations. He has been busy, familiarizing himself with the minor-league system and evaluating the talent as it projects to the future with General Manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.

The changes will begin soon. Trade-deadline deals will be made, not only because the D-backs were 15 games under .500 at the season’s halfway point but because the division winner is more likely to win 90 games than it is to win 84, making the hill a more difficult climb.

One thing La Russa will not do is veer from the philosophy that helped him to 2,728 victories, six league championships and three World Series titles in 33 seasons as manager of the White Sox, A’s and Cardinals. He is old school — one-room schoolhouse old school — formed through a lifetime of playing and managing the game.

Translation: Analytics are good … to a point.

La Russa was a pioneer at digesting and applying information, as was his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan. La Russa was not the first manager to bat his pitcher eighth in the lineup, but he was the first to make it routine, doing so 355 times from 2007 to 2011. The idea was to create more potential baserunners for Albert Pujols, who hit third in the lineup so he could bat in the first inning of every game.

La Russa used exotic batting orders based on matchups and feel. While playing for Boston, outfielder Darren Bragg hit a grand slam off Randy Johnson on Aug. 24, 1996. When Bragg joined St. Louis and the two met again on June 25, 1999, La Russa hit Bragg second in a game against Johnson.

The numbers crunchers may cringe, but that is about as far as La Russa will take it.

"The analytical people have a valuable piece to contribute — pre-game," La Russa said. "Once they start intruding on the game, they make their teams less competitive. They make their leadership, which is their managers and their coaches, less effective. So you take all that (information) to help you prepare your team against their team. When the game starts, the game is about the effort and the urgency. 

"This game is built on execution. You make plays. You have good at-bats. You make pitches. There are certain organizations that are telling their managers what their lineup is."

La Russa will not be one of those guys, whether Kirk Gibson (the two are remarkably similar in philosophy and makeup) or someone else is managing the team beyond this season. La Russa was given full support by his general managers, Roland Hemond, Sandy Alderson, Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak, and that model is unlikely to change.

"Hell, no," La Russa said. "I know my team. I know my team better than someone who is printing out averages. Now they give you the lineup and then they tell you what your strategy must be. You can’t bunt, because only 22 percent of the time it is successful."

Strikeouts are the same as other outs?

"Bull (bleep)," he said.

One Cardinals player struck more than 100 times in La Russa’s last two years in St. Louis. He was sent away at the trading deadline the next year. The Cardinals put the ball in play, the better to pressure the defense. 

"I don’t blame the metrics guys, because they love the game," La Russa said. "But when the game is played, there are so many changes game to game, a lot of times inning to inning, that unless you encourage your manager and coaches to adjust, adapt and respond to those, you are going to win less, not more. These are human beings. That’s what happens. You can’t take these specifics. That day, this guy is different."

The D-backs’ roster will learn to relish pressure under La Russa’s watch. Thrive in it. Anxiety will be a character trait. La Russa and his third-base coach in Chicago, Jim Leyland, used to ask each other the same question. Are you nervous?

"If you said no, you weren’t ready," La Russa said. "This is not a movie with a script. You write the script when you play. So you should feel that anxiety. I don’t care if you are playing or on the bench, or in the bullpen waiting. Even if you are a starter who is not pitching, you should feel the anxiety of contributing to the win. And the truth is that anxiety will bring out the best in you.

"We’ve always used the term ’embrace the pressure and make it your friend.’ We confront it. With the Cardinals and the A’s, toward the end with the White Sox, I started understanding the value of this job. Like this job. If you pass on this opportunity, it will haunt you. If all of a sudden you have a chance to compete and you don’t compete, if you are honest with yourself, it will haunt you. The pressure is to do the best you can as an individual as a team. That’s the pressure."

As the Cardinals rolled to the 2011 World Series, good friend Rick Carlisle, the Dallas Mavericks’ coach, and Mavs assistant Keith Grant attended 15 of the Cardinals’ 18 playoff games. They brought out a quote that Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said when the Mavs beat the favored Miami Heat to win the NBA title a few months before, with Nowitzki coming up big in the fourth quarter game after game.

"I make love to pressure. That’s what I am," Nowitzki said.

"That made me feel inadequate as a coach. I was just talking embrace," La Russa said. "If I would have managed the next year, embracing would have gone out the window. Man, we were going to be Valentinos."

The opportunity knocks.

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