Liotta: La Russa challenges baseball’s orthodoxy

I’m making it official. Ican’t wait for the upcoming baseball season.

Because of the potential pennant races? Batting races? Cy Young? Nope, that stuff is old hat.

Major League Baseball will be different this year. The national pastime we’ve known since Babe Ruth ushered in the game’s modern era might just be fundamentally altered. By one team. Led by one manager.

And I’m going to be checking on it every day.

Tony La Russa is going to bat his pitchers eighth in his lineup — not ninth, like every manager on every major-league team has done since the dawn of time.

This is no crackpot experiment such as Paul Westhead’s attempt to turn pro basketball into a no-defense, all-offense exhibition — worked at Loyola Marymount, didn’t work with the Denver Nuggets. This isn’t a gimmick like football’s run-and-shoot offense, which was eventually figured out.

La Russa’s experiment could be what the two-handed backhand is to tennis, the slapshot has been to hockey and the West Coast offense has been to football — a legitimate step forward in the evolution of the game. And it’s based on what might just be sound baseball thinking.

“We’re going to have a second leadoff hitter as the ninth-place hitter,” the former A’s manager said this week at the Cardinals’ spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla.

The Cardinals actually tried this for the final 56 games last season, and the results were very positive. They played .500 ball over this period and increased their run production from 4.3 to 4.6 runs per game.

La Russa used hitters in his No. 9 spot such as Aaron Miles, who batted .325 in 20 games at the spot, and Brendan Ryan, who’d been a leadoff hitter in the minor leagues. Even better, the switch enabled Albert Pujols to come to the plate more often with runners on base.

La Russa is taking conventional wisdom — the thinking that because the pitcher is the weakest hitter in your lineup, he must bat last — and tossing it. He’s telling the rest of the game that such a conclusion might just be a little too simple. I love it.

And if La Russa proves himself right — and I’m sure there will be some debate along the way — it will be fascinating to see which managers switch over to his thinking quickest and which prove to be stubborn.

I can’t wait to watch the entire episode unfold.

Random thought

» I beg to differ. The Kevin Frandsen-Ray Durham duel for second base as far as being a spring training drama is not diminished by the injury to Omar Vizquel. It’s actually enhanced, because part of the job requirement is to be healthy every day. The more often Bruce Bochy runs both players out there over the next month, the clearer the Giants’ picture will be.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner.

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