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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Rip La Russa, but give credit to Francisco

By David Schoenfield


I'm going to begin by going off-tangent for a second: I was flipping through an old Bill James book this morning, reading about Walter Alston, the old Dodgers manager. For much of his career, Alston loved the intentional walk. In 1967, well into his career, the Dodgers led the National League with 101 free passes, one of the 10 highest totals ever. But Alston abruptly changed his strategy on intentional walks; by 1969, the Dodgers were last in the league in intentional walks, and in 1974, they issued just nine, which I believe is the lowest total ever. They also reached the World Series that year.

Alston learned what the sabermetric community later discovered through reams of research and studies: The intentional walk is bad strategy most of the time. Yes, it looks great when you load the bases and you induce a double play or the force at home, but it also leads to more baserunners and thus more runs. In a worst-case scenario, it sets up a big inning in a close game.

Tony La Russa undoubtedly knows this, both by instinct from his years in the game and from data he surely has read. So did he make a mistake in having Jaime Garcia walk Carlos Ruiz with two outs in the seventh inning and a runner on second base Tuesday? The easy answer, of course, is yes. When pinch hitter Ben Francisco belted a hanging off-speed pitch that sneaked over the fence in left-center, it gave the Phillies a 3-0 lead. If you pitch to Ruiz and he delivers an RBI single, it's 1-0; even if he hits a home run, it's 2-0, although Ruiz hadn't homered off a left-hander all season. That third run certainly loomed large as the Cardinals scored a run in the seventh, loaded the bases in the eighth and scored again in the ninth to make the final score 3-2.

So, yes, La Russa's decision is the perfect case study on why you don't issue intentional walks, especially when Ruiz is hardly Barry Bonds. On the other hand ... well, OK, I can't really defend the move. At that point, La Russa was clearly thinking "avoid all runs," rather than "avoid the big inning." He felt Garcia -- who had thrown 90 pitches as Francisco stepped in -- had a better chance to retire the pinch hitter (who hadn't homered since May 25) than Ruiz. It's one of the interesting aspects of baseball in the modern era: When are you a slave to the numbers and when do you go with your gut?

La Russa went with his gut, perhaps remembering a big hit Ruiz had delivered at some point against the Cards or thinking of him as the proverbial "tough out." And forcing a pinch hitter to come through isn't the worst idea; Francisco was 7-for-26 (.269) this season. The Cardinals, by the way, ranked 12th in the NL in intentional walks issued this season, with 44. Most clubs are all bunched with similar totals, with the Braves and Marlins way out in front and the Diamondbacks and Phillies far behind (each issued just 16.)

So, yes, criticze La Russa; that's the easy and popular thing to do. (You also could criticize him for not bringing in a right-handed reliever, either to face Ruiz or to face Francisco -- although you might have seen Raul Ibanez hit for Francisco in that scenario.) But let's give praise to Francisco. It's fun to second-guess managers in the postseason; that's what us bloggers like to do, what fans like to do, what talk radio likes to do. Nothing like a good debate to stir the discussion. But Francisco got a mistake pitch and drilled it. He's become a postseason hero for the Phillies.

In the end, the players win and lose the games. The Phillies got the big hit; the Cardinals didn't -- Allen Craig smashed that ball with the bases loaded in the eighth, but it went right to second baseman Chase Utley for an easy double play.

Phillies fans are rejoicing; Cardinals fans are in despair. That's postseason baseball.