La Russa leads pack of innovative skippers

La Russa leads pack of innovative skippers

La Russa leads pack of innovative skippers
When Tony La Russa earlier this week gave himself the walk-away sign after 33 continuous seasons of managing, he left the dugout third on the all-time list of managerial wins.

But on the list of managerial innovations, La Russa probably ranks even higher.

Renowned for always thinking outside the batter's box, La Russa relied on the unconventional from the beginning, which for him was 1979, with the White Sox. Other managers wouldn't dare tinker with most of his unorthodox moves but, in one regard, La Russa changed the way the game is played.

As such, he takes his place alongside other independent thinkers who introduced ploys that once were thought outrageous but now are considered routine.

La Russa's main legacy, of course, is the manner in which relief pitchers are used. Soon after he landed in Oakland for the tail end of the 1986 season, La Russa transformed a perennial also-ran into World Series three-peaters (1988-90) with a predefined and crack bullpen shuttle.

Left-hander Rick Honeycutt was a matchup pioneer. Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk, usually, had the seventh. Gene Nelson had the eighth. And, of course, Dennis Eckersley had the ninth. The basic idea behind the plan was to set it up so that Eckersley entered with a clean slate at the start of the ninth rather than with a late-game threat already in the works, the traditional way of deploying firemen.

Those three A's teams combined to win 306 games, and people -- particularly those who managed for a living -- noticed.

La Russa had begun putting his ideas to work with the White Sox, who were annually among the American League leaders in relief appearances during his 7 1/2-season tenure, and his continuing, documented influence on perhaps the modern game's most vital element is dramatic:

• In 1979, the season prior to his first full year of managing, there were 913 complete games in the Major Leagues, and 34 relievers appeared in 50-plus games. Only one of those worked fewer than 73 innings -- Al Hrabosky, who logged 65 innings in 58 games.

• By 1987, La Russa's first full season in Oakland, complete games were down to 561.

• In 2011, there were 173 complete games and 130 relievers appearing in 50-plus contests, a staggering jump even after allowing for the fact there are four more teams than there were in 1979. Furthermore, 97 of those relievers averaged less than an inning per appearance.

• Until La Russa came along, the AL team record for relief appearances had stood since 1965, when Haywood Sullivan waved toward the Kansas City bullpen 378 times by necessity during a 103-loss season. La Russa broke that record with 392 in 1991, and that number steadily grew until peaking with Washington's Major League record of 588 pitching changes in 2007.

Yes, by extension you can also partly blame La Russa for stretching the time of the average big league game toward the three-hour mark. Not even the temporary use of golf carts helped with that.

Just as we now take for granted the liberal use of relievers -- old-time fans still can't get over the fact that of the 323 shutouts in 2011, only 74 were completed by starters -- other wrinkles also had to originate with someone.

A sampling of baseball's leading innovations, and their explorers and frontiers:

Pinch-hitter: In 1889, the National League was already in its 14th season, but no one had thought of strategically using a stronger hitter for a weaker one until James Mutrie, manager of the New York Giants, sent Mickey Welch to the plate against the Indianapolis Hoosiers as the first pinch-hitter. Welch whiffed.

Five-man infield: Though Branch Rickey is credited with actually concocting the ploy, Birdie Tebbetts, leading the 1956 Reds, was the first man in the dugout to use it liberally. Another of Tebbetts' defensive strategies is copied less often -- the four-man outfield, which he rolled out against such hitters as Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.

Double-switch: Gene Mauch, the L'il General, is credited with popularizing the move in the 1960s, but it dates back to Aug. 2, 1906, when Clark Griffith, the player-manager of the Yankees' forebears, put himself in the game in the eighth inning as a reliever. Instead of taking the pitcher's spot in the batting order, however, Griffith moved into the catcher's eight-hole and brought in a new catcher to bat ninth.

Field positioning: The Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack, a lean, 6-foot-1 (big for his time) former outfielder known as The Tall Tactician, would wave his fielders around depending on the batter.

Infield shifts vs. left-handed batters: On July 14, 1946, Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau loaded the right side of his infield against Boston's Ted Williams. As the shortstop, Boudreau positioned himself on the other side of second. But no one instantly branded Boudreau as a genius, since Williams still went 5-for-7, and the Red Sox swept a doubleheader in Fenway Park.

Coach's box -- and razzing: And, yes, the two are related. In 1887, Charles Comiskey of the St. Louis Browns would urge his players -- who, as was the custom, took turns as base coaches -- to distract the opposing pitcher with verbal assaults, which they delivered while running up and down the foul line. To curb the practice, the game's early rules committee established boundaries for base coaches.

The sacrifice bunt: OK, Dickey Pearce technically didn't invent the sacrifice bunt in 1875, but the small-fry (5-foot-3, 161 pounds) player-manager of the St. Louis Brown Stockings did start laying down what at the time were derisively called "tricky hits." The shift from that to the sacrifice was cleared when a rule instituted in 1894 did not charge batters with an at-bat for a bunt that advanced runners. Turn-of-the-century Giants manager John McGraw is credited with popularizing the sac.

The squeeze bunt: He may have been known as the "Old Fox," but in 1905, Griffith lucked into this ploy when, during a game the previous season, Jack Chesbro, the runner on third, missed a sign and broke for home as Wee Willie Keeler tried to bunt for a hit. Chesbro, who thought he'd been given the steal sign, scored easily. To his credit, Griffith made a mental note and had the squeeze in his playbook the following Spring Training.

Hit-and-run: Nicknamed "Foxy Ned," 1892 Baltimore Orioles skipper Ned Hanlon was always looking for an edge, and he was also one of the first to encourage his groundskeeper to doctor the grass. Starting runners as the pitch was being delivered was merely one of his more lasting ploys.

The bases loaded intentional walk: Well, this one hasn't caught on yet -- and it might never. But if it ever does become popular, it will be traced back to the Rays' Joe Maddon, who waved four fingers on Aug. 17, 2008, with the Rangers' Josh Hamilton at bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Rays holding a four-run lead. The pass to Hamilton, of course, shrank the lead to three, but that was as close as Texas would get after the next hitter, Marlon Byrd, struck out.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.