Managers and full-time starters

Let me warn you up front: This post goes nowhere. I realize I could put this on just about every post, but this one IN PARTICULAR goes nowhere. It is basically me asking baseball questions and not really coming up with any answers. Just thought it fair to tell you up front.

I have this friend who inadvertently will say stuff that I can’t get out of my head. He will say something like, “The Cure is the best band of the last 40 years” or “If the Cleveland Browns had drafted Tom Brady, he’d be selling insurance in Michigan right now,” and five minutes later he will completely forget what he had said. But I’ll be scouring the Cure’s oeuvre and comparing it song by song with REM or U2 or something and going, “The Cure was great and all, but he’s just wrong.”

It’s my problem, not his.

The other day, my friend said something along these lines: “The only difference between a good manager and a bad manager is the ability to keep starting pitchers healthy.”

He had not done any research on the topic. He would NEVER do any research on the topic. He had probably not thought about this concept for more than five seconds before saying it. But the last couple of days I have found myself banging my head against walls trying to unravel that one.

Dammit, there’s something there. I don’t know what it is. But there’s something there. Let’s go exploring for a minute. As you no doubt know (or suspect), teams that keep their starting pitchers healthy for an entire season will do very well a very high percentage of the time. Since 1960, there have been 117 teams that had four or more starters making 30 or more starts -- that’s roughly two teams per season.

Of those 117 teams:

-- 12 (10%) won the World Series. -- 14 (12%) won 100 games. -- 28 (24%) won 95 games. -- 60 (more than half) won 90 games. -- 97 (more than 80%) had a winning record.

Now, this might not impress you at all. After all, it takes more than just health for a pitcher to start 30-plus games in a season. He has to be fairly good to get that many starts. So in a way, you could argue that all this stat REALLY shows is that teams with four reasonably effective starters will in a lot of games. Well, as we used to say: Duh.

But there’s something else. It was something Bill James talked about in his his seminal Guide to Baseball Managers (now available on Kindle). It’s something about health and pitchers.

“I have always believed that most major league pitchers would be outstanding, if they could stay healthy. MOST pitchers, if they could stay in the rotation for two or three years without breaking down, would figure out some way to get the job done.” -- The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers

I agree with Bill here. No, more, I STRONGLY agree with Bill here. I am beginning to believe, more and more, that the single most important factor in having a winning season is how healthy your starting pitchers are. It doesn’t matter as much how talented your starting pitchers are or how good they were in the past. In 2011, many of us believed the Phillies had put together the greatest four-man starting pitching staff in decades with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They had one good season together.

In 2012, Washington went into the season with Gio Gonzalez (just acquired from Oakland), Jordan Zimmermann (a 26-year-old developing talent), Edwin Jackson (a lifelong enigma) and Stephen Strasburg (a 23-year-old phenom they would “watch closely).

The Phillies super-rotation fell apart, Oswalt was gone, Halladay got hurt, Lee and Hamels were good but not great. The team went 81-81.

And Washington was completely healthy and won 100 games even while shutting Strasburg down before he come become a full-time starter.

Let’s put it this way: If I owned a baseball team and there was a manager who loved to do all the things I despise -- if he sacrifice bunted like Gene Mauch, and put together the most illogical lineups and changed pitchers in the late innings with a sort of La Russa like abandon and (Lord help me) intentionally walked everybody -- BUT he could guarantee keeping my starting pitchers healthy, I’d hire him.

Maybe this is why I find my friend’s off-handed comment so intriguing. I do believe if that you could start a season with one certainty and only one certainty, you should take “healthy starting pitchers.” It’s the best place to start.

But then we get to the second part of the equation.

Can a manager actually handle starting pitchers in a way to keep them healthy? Or is it all just dumb luck?

Well, let’s see if we can find a trend. Here’s a fun one to start with: Do you know the manager the last 50 or 60 years who has had the most seasons with four full-time starters (we’ll call pitchers making 30-plus starts “full-time starters” for ease of reference)?

Take a guess.

I would have guessed Bobby Cox or Earl Weaver, and they are both right near the top.

But No. 1 on the list is: Tony La Russa.

Really? La Russa? I didn’t see that coming. When I teased this post on Twitter over the weekend, I got dozens of comments from people specifically singling out La Russa (and Dusty Baker ... more on him in a minute) as one of those managers who has been TERRIBLE at keeping starters healthy.

You know: That’s a good excuse to stop for a second and clarify what I specifically mean by keeping starting pitchers healthy.

At the end of the day: What is a manager’s job? Every now and again, you will hear people say something a little bit obscure like “to maximize the team’s talent” or “to put players in positions where they can best succeed” or even “to not get in the way.” Maybe these things SHOULD be the manager’s job, but they are not. If you maximize a team’s talent and win 75 games, you’re fired. If you put players in position to win and win 75 games, you’re fired. If you do not get in the way and win 75 games, you’re fired.

The job is to win games and win championships. These are the things that (most of the time, anyway) will give a manager job security. Win games. Win championships. It’s harsh and it’s cynical but it’s also a fact just about everyone in the game accepts. General managers tend to believe that they put together championship type teams. Owners tend to believe that they have bought championship type teams. They may be deluding themselves, but theirs are the delusions that matter. They are the ones who will fire the manager who does not win.

So, when I say “Keep pitchers healthy,” I am not talking about long term. I am talking about one season at a time. I tweeted Tommy Lasorda as a guy who kept pitchers healthy and I was pelted with comments from people remembering how Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser and others got hurt. And they did get hurt ... AFTER they helped Lasorda win championships. His job, when seen under the harsh light of baseball reality, is not to make Hall of Famers. It is not to make sure his pitchers have long careers. It is to navigate a pitcher through a good season so the team can win a championship. And then, next year, to do it again.

Eight times -- and with three different teams -- Tony La Russa has managed teams that had stable rotations where four starters have stayed healthy and competitive the whole year. These were rarely great pitchers, often not even good ones when you look at a whole career. But for a year, they were good. And that’s what we are talking about.

La Russa was able to build stable, year-long rotations in the mid-1980s with the White Sox. He got healthy years out of LaMarr Hoyt, Rich Dotson, Floyd Bannister, an old Tom Seaver, Britt Burns. Remember the Bill James line: “I have always believed that most major league pitchers would be outstanding, if they could stay healthy.” With four good healthy pitchers, La Russa’s White Sox teams were very good in 1983 and 1985.

La Russa went to Oakland and in 1989 (won the World Series) and 1990 (lost the World Series) he got 30-plus starts out of Dave Stewart, Mike Moore, Bob Welch, Storm Davis and (after Davis signed with Kansas City) Scott Sanderson.

Then, in St. Louis, La Russa had FIVE DIFFERENT TEAMS with four full-time starters. Of course, they weren’t the same four each year. In fact there were only a few repeats.

In 1996 it was: Alan Benes; Andy Benes; Donovan Osborne and Todd Stottlemyre. The Cardinals won 88 games, which is about as many as you might reasonably hope to win with those four starters.

In 2000 it was: Rick Ankiel; Pat Hentgen; Darryl Kile and Garrett Stephenson. Better foursome, and they won 95.

In 2004 it was: Jason Marquis; Matt Morris; Jeff Suppan and Woody Williams. That team won 105 and went to the World Series.

In 2005, the team had FIVE full-time starters: Chris Carpenter; Jason Marquis; Matt Morris; Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan. That team won 100.

In 2011, the four were Carpenter, Jamie Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook. And the Cardinals won the World Series.

So, was La Russa lucky to get more healthy starter seasons than any manager in modern-day baseball? Does he deserve any of the credit? Should the credit (if credit is deserved) actually go to pitching coach Dave Duncan? Is there a secret to getting healthy seasons out of pitchers that La Russa and Duncan knew but have never shared?

Think about this: La Russa has been celebrated and extolled and praised beyond reason for his managing through the years. He’s had books written about him. He’s going into to Hall of Fame. But this simple and baffling knack for getting getting 30-plus starts out of pitchers might have been the most important part of his success. And we don’t even know if he had much to do with it.

Now, let’s reiterate: La Russa was not necessarily great at keeping pitchers healthy (mentally and physically) over a LONG period of time. Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Ankiel, many others burned out or flamed out or blew out. But this is a different point. Bobby Cox is probably the most famous example of a manager who kept getting healthy seasons out of pitchers. But I mentioned Cox on Twitter, I got a slew of “What about Steve Avery?” or “Don’t you remember John Smoltz getting hurt?” questions.

Sure, Avery had many injuries in his career. Smoltz got hurt too. But nobody’s saying that Bobby Cox is some kind of shaman capable of warding off injuries to pitchers. No, the point is Cox has had extraordinary success keeping starters healthy through seasons -- he’s had seven seasons where he’s had four full-time starters.

He did it in Atlanta in 1980 with Doyle Alexander, Rick Matula, Larry McWilliams and Phil Niekro.

He did it twice in Toronto, starring Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jim Gott, Doyle Alexander again and the oft forgotten Luis Leal, who was a good pitcher for a couple of years there.

Then, most famously, Cox did it four times in Atlanta -- and the aforementioned Steve Avery was a full-time starters on three of those teams. Did he blow out Steve Avery’s arm eventually? You can make the argument. But before that, Avery was a full-time starter on Braves teams that went to back-to-back World Series. I’m sure Cox wishes Avery has not gotten hurt. But let’s not confuse the issue. He got plenty out of Steve Avery and plenty out of John Smoltz too.

Earl Weaver also had seven seasons with four full-time starters. Bill, in his manager’s book, writes at some length about his sheer bafflement at Weaver’s ability to consistently get healthy and successful seasons out of his starting pitchers. Bill speculates that Baltimore’s great defense may have taken pressure off pitchers and that Weaver’s keep-it-simple approach may have played a role. But truth is: Bill doesn’t know. It could have been luck.

There’s one other interesting blip that is worth mentioning before getting on to Dusty Baker. For some reason, Houston had a lot success through the years getting full-years out of starters. In all, seven different Houston teams -- under five different managers -- had four full-time starters. What makes it interesting to me is that all seven played in 1997 or before, meaning all seven played IN THE ASTRODOME.

I’m just flinging theories around now but I do find it compelling that teams with good pitchers’ parks -- the Dodgers, Houston in the Astrodome, Baltimore before Camden Yards, the Mets at Shea Stadium, Oakland, the Giants recently -- have had better than expected success getting 30-start seasons out of pitchers. Is it possible that pitchers in those parks don’t strain quite as much, knowing that even well hit balls are often outs? Does that make a different for the arms?

Eh, I’m just throwing stuff at walls.

Dusty Baker is probably the most famous modern manager for blowing out pitcher’s arms. So of course I’m going to tell you: When looking at it through this prism -- where what matters is getting seasons with four healthy starters -- Dusty Baker is one of the BEST in the modern era. He’s had five teams with four full-time starters ... and he’s done it in three different places (to compare: Joe Torre has only had two, Sparky Anderson had zero).

Baker did it twice with the Giants (both teams won 95-plus games), once with the Cubs (that famous/infamous 2003 season where the Cubs were thisclose to the World Series) and the last two years with the Reds (in 2012, a 97-win season, he actually had FIVE full-time staters).

True, Kerry Wood blew out, Mark Prior blew out, and Baker has taken plenty of blame for that. But if you want to believe it’s just a manager’s job to win THIS YEAR, and you have to get the most out of your starters THIS YEAR, well, Dusty Baker has been one of the best at that over the last half century.

Here are, by the way, the managers who have gotten the most seasons with four full-time starters:

1. Tony La Russa, 8 2. Bobby Cox, 7 (tie) Earl Weaver, 7 4. Davey Johnson, 5 (tie) Tommy Lasorda, 5 (tie) Dusty Baker, 5 7. Walter Alston, 4 (tie) Art Howe, 4 (tie) Ozzie Guillen, 4 (10. Red Schoendienst, 5 (tie) Bruce Bochy, 3

Torre, as mentioned, had two. So does Joe Maddon, who is having all kinds of trouble keeping starters healthy this year.

So now, we ask the big question: Did we learn anything? And, as warned at the top, the answer is: No, probably not. The core puzzle remains. Do good managers have a knack for keeping their starters healthy over a long and grueling season? Or does the pure luck of having healthy starters make good managers? Bruce Bochy is in his 20th year of managing in the big leagues, if you can believe that. He has a career record that is almost exactly .500. Three times in his career, he has had a four-full time starters.

In 1999, while managing San Diego, he got full years out of Andy Ashby, Matt Clement, Sterling Hitchock and Woody Williams. That was actually a pretty lousy team (74 wins) ... but a year earlier, with Kevin Brown instead of Clement and Joey Hamilton instead of Woody Williams, that team won 97 games and went to the World Series.

In 2010, while managing San Francisco, Bochy got full years from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito. They won the World Series.

In 2012, while managing San Francisco, he got full years from Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Madison Bumgarner AND Ryan Vogelson. That team also won the World Series.

Is Bruce Bochy good at this or is he lucky? It’s a fascinating question. My buddy thinks he’s good at it. That’s if my buddy remembers making the statement in the first place.