Ex-St. Louis Cardinals ‘genius’: Tony La Russa or Dave Duncan?

While the St. Louis Cardinals’ manager, Tony La Russa, got the accolades, a recent memoir portrays Dave Duncan as the sharper thinker.

Ex-Mets and A’s pitcher Ron Darling called a former St. Louis Cardinals bench guru “the most clinical” and “the most analytical” baseball man he ever played for in his 2019 memoir, 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. And he wasn’t talking about Tony La Russa.

While some baseball scribes have portrayed La Russa as an innovator, pioneer, and mastermind, Darling found pitching coach Dave Duncan to be the more scientific and systematic of the manager-coach combo on the 1991-95 A’s.

Duncan “was the very first person I knew who paid attention to positioning and analytics,” Darling wrote, characterizing La Russa, despite his brainiac reputation, as more of a trust-your-instincts skipper. Duncan “didn’t even tell Tony La Russa what he was doing, or why,” Darling wrote; because if the manager had “known his pitching coach was basing his moves on something other than his gut, I think his head would have exploded.”

I ran across that passage a week ago, and can’t get it out of my mind. It throws a new light on the La Russa and Duncan legacies. And it makes a lot of sense.

If you followed La Russa’s career after the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball in 2003, you know the skipper, long celebrated for baseball ingenuity, turned Luddite when objective analytics exposed, as Lewis wrote, “the illusions created by the insiders on the field.”

New data found little to no value in many of La Russa’s favored tactics, including the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base and the hit-and-run. The manager’s typical, defensive response, simplified and abridged: I know baseball; the number-crunchers don’t!

In Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August (2005), the author and La Russa extol the virtues of gut-driven managing, meaning, If it feels like the right move, do it. But there’s no data to support the genius of the “gut.” Twice in the season profiled, 2003, La Russa called for hit-and-runs that resulted in triple plays. Talk about a gut punch!

From what can be gathered, La Russa’s stoic sidekick relied less on guesswork. Duncan believed in data, and data told him, for instance, that pitchers have more success inducing ground balls than fly balls. “Ground balls rarely go for extra-base hits, (Duncan) likes to say, unless they’re mashed down the first- or third-base line,” Jonah Keri wrote in a 2014 Grantland story. “So if balls hit in the air are far more likely to end up as doubles, triples, and homers than balls hit on the ground, it makes sense to encourage pitches with downward movement.”

Duncan convinced many a hurler to throw more two-seam fastballs, i.e. sinkers, in order to induce more ground balls. That adjustment paid off handsomely for Kyle Lohse, among others. The owner of a 4.88 ERA and 1.447 WHIP over six years with the Twins, Lohse adopted Duncan’s sinker-heavy approach and sliced his ERA to 3.90 and his WHIP to 1.279 in five seasons with the Cardinals.

The Redbirds pitching coach also found data that shows that with runners in scoring position, hitters are aggressively looking for first-pitch fastballs. He advised his pitchers to throw those itchy batters first-pitch slow stuff, an approach that went counter to pitching tendencies — and an approach that usually worked.

Duncan used his brain, and research, to develop these approaches. His “gut” had nothing to do with it.

La Russa was, of course, a fine manager. You can’t be a chump and win 2,728 games and three World Series championships. TLR created (with Duncan’s assistance) the concept of the one-inning closer, and made a habit of multiple late-inning pitching switches. “Once he used five pitchers in the space of eight pitches,” Bissinger, apparently impressed, wrote in 3 Nights in August.

La Russa got results, but was he really “The Mastermind,” as titled in a 2000 Sports Illustrated cover story? What was Duncan, then? Content to work in the shadows, the pitching coach shunned publicity. No one wrote best-selling books, such as George Will’s Men at Work (1990) and Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August, about Dave Duncan, no one retired his No. 18, and most fans paid little attention when he hung it up, along with La Russa, after the 2011 World Series.

But which of the La Russa-Duncan duo turned around the most careers?

The A’s Dave Henderson got better under La Russa, and the Cards’ Ray Lankford improved a bit. But that’s nothing compared to the pitchers who went from scrubs to stars under Duncan, starting with Dennis Eckersley and Dave Stewart. A fine starter in his 20s, Eck had slogged through 1986 with a 6-11 record and a 4.57 ERA for the Cubs before Duncan turned him into the game’s most dominant closer. And, yes, that was Duncan’s idea, not La Russa’s.

A five-year flop with three previous teams, the A’s Stewart started throwing the forkball (i.e., the split-finger) on Duncan’s behest and finished top-four in Cy Young voting every year from 1987 to 1990. Mike Moore also employed the forkball/split-finger on arriving in Oakland and went from a nine-game winner with a 3.78 ERA with the ’88 Mariners to a 19-game winner with a 2.61 ERA with the ’89 A’s.

Duncan’s greatest Cardinal achievement was transforming Chris Carpenter, who had a 4.83 ERA and 1.510 WHIP in six seasons with the Blue Jays, into a Cy Young Award winner for St. Louis.

Carpenter won the award in 2005, finished third in 2006, and was runner-up in 2009. Dunc also worked wonders with Todd Stottlemyre, Jason Isringhausen, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan, Lohse, and a host of others. In a 2012 post titled “Carpenter, Lohse and Dave Duncan’s Impact,” Brian Walton and Tom Orf of thecardinalnation.com determined that “over 60 percent of Cardinals pitchers who also appeared for other clubs delivered an average ERA of over one run better under Duncan’s tutelage with St. Louis than they did over the remainder of their career.”

In the post-Duncan Cardinals days, veteran hurlers don’t transform from frogs to princes so much. John Lackey, 36, had a lovely 2015 season, compiling a 2.77 ERA for pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, and reliever Edward Mujica, 29, had an All-Star season (2.78 ERA, 37 saves) in 2013, but those were the exceptions. Miles Mikolas, 28, had a heck of a year (18-4, 2.83 ERA, 1.071 WHIP) for Mike Maddux in 2018, but he may have found his form in his three previous seasons (ERAs of 1.92, 2.45 and 2.25) with the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization.

Other experienced pitchers, such as Mike Leake and Andrew Miller — did little in a Cardinals uniform. Leake, with ERAs of 4.69 and 4.21, actually regressed during his two-year stint in St. Louis.

Since their Cardinals careers ended, La Russa and Duncan have stayed true to character, with the ex-manager often in the news for one reason or another, and the ex-pitching coach all but invisible.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, La Russa received savage reviews for his four-year performance (2014 to 2017) as chief baseball officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks. La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart’s signature move was shipping a trio of hot prospects, including Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte, to the Braves for pitcher Shelby Miller, an ex-Cardinal who battled injuries in three Arizona seasons while posting ERAs of 6.15, 4.09 and 10.69.

ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield panned the deal at the time, stating that “Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa are out of touch in the analytics game.”

Next: Deciphering Jose Martinez’s 2019 season

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La Russa must have been trusting his “gut” on the Miller deal. That doesn’t make him a moron or obliterate his past accomplishments. But given a choice, would you trust your life savings or loved ones to La Russa’s instincts or Duncan’s analysis?

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