Psychic Or Psycho?
You may have noticed during the St. Louis series that the Mets hitters were hitting the ball hard, but “right at people”. The Cardinals defenders seemed always to be at the right place at the right time — to the point where Matt Cerrone quipped, “… either Brendan Ryan is psychic, or the Mets are really unlucky, because the kid seems to be in the exact spot of every ground ball hit to the right side.”
Of course, Brendan Ryan is not psychic — but, neither are the Mets unlucky. The reason the Mets seemed to hit so many “at ’em” balls had much to do with the psychotic preparation of Tony LaRussa — a dugout warrior who leaves no stone unturned and reduces each game to a painstaking process of execution.
Since making his managerial debut with the White Sox in the early 1980s, the cerebral LaRussa has treated ballgames like chess matches, using every means necessary to gain an edge on the opposition. He was using computers before people knew what they were to churn out statistics and probabilities, a pioneer in the practical use of situational percentages (and a prelude to modern day sabermetrics — LaRussa was Billy Beane before Beane was playing high school ball). His teams have always been fundamentally sound, and benefitted from extensive, detailed advance scouting. These past three games were not unlike those of the 2006 NLCS, when David Eckstein seemed to be everywhere, except when balls were hit right at Ronny Belliard. LaRussa’s teams pore over the scouting reports, then act on them: the pitchers throw to specific locations, in specific counts, to specific batters, and the fielders position themselves accordingly. The results are not always perfect, but LaRussa makes certain that the odds are always on the Cardinals’ side, on every pitch. If the pitcher makes the intended pitch for a particular situation, there’s a good chance the batter will hit the ball to a general location. Many give the bulk of the credit to Dave Duncan when the Cardinals pull a pitcher off the scrap heap and turn him into a winner, but in truth, at least part of the success can be attributed to LaRussa’s intensive system.
LaRussa didn’t event this approach to the game — fielders have been “cheating” a few steps one way or the other depending on the batter and/or pitch since the 1880s, and all teams use scouting reports and preparation to some degree. And there are a few other managers who employ similar “systems” of success — Ron Gardenhire and Bobby Cox are two that immediately come to mind.
Point is, the sweep in St. Louis had little to do with a hex, luck or any other hocus-pocus. The team on the winning side had better scouting and better preparation, and did a better job of translating both into execution.