What Tony La Russa’s last managing job might say about this one

When you move twice in a year, you start to wonder whether there’s a point in keeping all the books you’ve bought.

By hiring a manager who last held such a position 10 years ago, the White Sox vindicated my hoarding.

My baseball library includes the last 13 iterations of The Bill James Handbook, most of which I haven’t opened since the respective winters of their publication. But because Tony La Russa is returning to a dugout for the first time since 2011, I’ve been revisiting the managerial records of those books in order to understand how La Russa stood out from his peers while leading the 2011 Cardinals, and what he might bring with him to this job.

A lot has changed since La Russa last managed. MLB didn’t introduce replay challenges until 2014, and the three-batter minimum rule made its debut last year. Orthodoxy has also evolved, with managers less willing to give away outs with small ball, and less willing to let starters work deep into games. La Russa’s emphasis on the bullpen is no longer an outlier.

Some of La Russa’s trademarks must lapse, like his fondness for LOOGys. In his last year with the Cardinals, Trever Miller appeared in 39 games for a total of 15⅔ innings, which is now impossible under either the MLB rulebook or the Geneva Convention. He also led baseball in double switches with 86 when no other National League manager came within 20 of that total, but that doesn’t figure to be part of his arsenal in his return to the American League. He’s not going to have many chances to bat a pitcher eighth even if he wanted to.

Nevertheless, a number of factors remain in play, and we’ve already seen flashes of it during comments made during spring training.

A VARIETY OF SAVE LENGTHS AND SOURCES

The Handbook defines a “long save” as one requiring more than three outs. La Russa led that category in three of his last four years. The 2011 Cardinals had eight of them in 2011, while only two other NL managers recorded half that total. Fernando Salas pitched 75 innings over 68 games as the Cardinals’ main closer (24 saves), although La Russa shifted to the duties to Jason Motte for the last month of the year.

Now here comes Liam Hendriks, who recorded six such saves during the last full year’s worth of games in Oakland, then pitched extended outings in two of his three postseason appearances. The White Sox’s bullpen depth shouldn’t require Hendriks to reach his goal of 81 games, but it could free up La Russa to deploy his closer for longer situations without sacrificing load management.

Whereas Rick Renteria would spread Marshall, Bummer and Alex Colomé to multi-inning options as a means of covering up depth issues, La Russa spoke in terms of matchups and ultimately an expression of faith that there are others who can do Hendriks’ job in his stead. He believes the depth of the unit will allow him to deploy Hendriks against the best right-handers in the lineup if they pop up an inning early.

“The reason you are tempted more than anything else besides (the closer) being rested is you don’t trust that the set-up guys can get the outs,” La Russa said. “I know going in, strong expectation we are going to have real depth out there. Let’s just say if the team’s greatest right-handed hitters are coming up in the eighth inning, you’ve got to get them out to keep the lead, you use him if he only had an out or two that day. The next inning you go left to right. You’ve got Bummer or Crochet. The depth is there. I think just trust your gut, don’t cover your butt.”

No matter who’s pitching the ninth on a given day, La Russa’s closer situation is far more settled than it was in his last year. Neither Salas nor Motte represented Plan A for St. Louis in 2011. Ryan Franklin held that title, but he lost the job in May and was cut in June. Eight different pitchers recorded saves for the Cardinals, thanks to a combination of injuries and underperformance.

LOTS OF ACTIVE RELIEVERS

Along those lines, the Cardinals led all of baseball with 13 relievers who appeared in 15 games or more (four teams were tied for second with 11). This wasn’t by design. Only two of the relievers on the Opening Day roster were in the bullpen when the postseason came around.

Opening DayPostseason
Ryan FranklinFernando Salas
Jason MotteJason Motte
Mitchell BoggsMitchell Boggs
Trever MillerArthur Rhodes
Brian TalletMarc Rzepczynski
Bryan AugensteinOctavio Dotel
Miguel BatistaLance Lynn
Jake Westbrook

La Russa had to scramble for months, but he received assistance during the summer in the form of a massive eight-player trade between the Cardinals and the Blue Jays, which added Dotel, Rzepczynski and Edwin Jackson to the St. Louis pitching staff.* It was a controversial deal at the time — Colby Rasmus was the centerpiece going the other way, and he’d butted heads with La Russa — but the World Series ring and Rasmus’ decent-but-not-special career killed all regrets.

The introduction of Lynn, a starting pitching prospect who got his feet wet in the late innings, also supplemented the pitching staff where it needed help the most.

All in all, it culminated in a postseason where La Russa shattered the record for pitching changes with 75, beating the previous mark by 10. It also nearly culminated in disaster, as a phone mixup led to La Russa bringing in the wrong reliever in Game 6, but Chris Carpenter went a strong six innings in Game 7, and Lynn and Motte made easy work of the eighth and ninth. La Russa was prepared to get crazy if things got queasy.

Even with a four-run lead in Game 7, La Russa was sketching out an end game about what to do if Motte, a right-hander, was shaky in trying to close out the game and the Rangers sent up a few left-handed hitters.

His plan was to move Motte from the mound to the outfield, bring in left-hander Marc Rzepczynski to pitch to the Rangers’ left-handers, then bring Motte back to pitch to the right-handers.

“I don’t know if I’d do it,” he said. “I’ve never done it before in my life.”

(*The White Sox set up the trade by dealing Jackson and Mark Teahen to the Blue Jays for Zach Stewart and Jason Frasor, but I don’t need to tell Sox Machine readers that.)

LOTS OF LINEUPS

La Russa used 127 different lineups over the course of the 2011 season according to the Handbook, which was actually slightly below the NL average of 129. However, La Russa led that category in three of the four seasons before that, including a 2008 season where he used 153 different lineups over the course of 162 games.

His 2011 team had plenty of injuries during the first half, which might have rounded down his lineup options to mostly obvious choices. When he has a full array of players, it seems like he enjoys tinkering, even if he can’t bat the pitcher eighth anymore. He’ll use platoons, he’ll exercise the utility of utility men, and he’ll change the batting order just to see how it looks.

We’re already seeing those wheels turning with La Russa’s regard for Yoán Moncada.

While we shouldn’t expect new manager Tony La Russa to get locked into one primary batting order with his new collection of hitters, it’s apparent he is leaning toward Yoan Moncada batting fourth, which would be a new wrinkle. […]

La Russa said he likes having a switch-hitter in the 4-hole, and Moncada “has the ability to rise to the occasion, and that’s what you look for a lot in the middle of the lineup.”

This could also manifest itself in lots of action for Leury García. Guys like Skip Schumaker and Aaron Miles received plenty of playing time on previous Cardinals teams, and García can cover more positions better than either.

FEWER STRIKEOUTS

La Russa only had one hitter strike out more than 100 times in either of his last two years with the Cardinals. That was Rasmus, whose contact issues were but one way he wasn’t quite made in the La Russa mold.

The 60-game schedule made 100 strikeouts just about impossible for anybody last year, although Miguel Sanó made a run at it with 90. That said, extrapolate the White Sox’s 60-game totals over the course of a 162-game season, and eight White Sox regulars were on pace to clear 100 strikeouts by plenty, with Nick Madrigal the lone holdout.

This is partially a design flaw. as the Sox finished with the second-highest strikeout total in the American League with 571. However, a debate can be had whether this is a White Sox-specific problem, because baseball as a whole is fanning more than ever.

Moreover, the only AL team to strike out more than the Sox made it the World Series. The Rays whiffed 608 times over 60 games, a fairly comfortable margin over the Sox’s second-place total of 571, and if “paying the price” takes the form of “a six-game loss in the World Series,” you should accept the charges every time.

Should these rising strikeout totals make La Russa uncomfortable, he wouldn’t be alone. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, especially when home runs dry up, and so he’s expressed appreciation for Madrigal’s anachronistic approach.

La Russa acknowledged he has won with sluggers — see the 1983 Sox with Greg Luzinski, Ron Kittle et al, the Bash Brothers in Oakland and Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman in St. Louis — but “I’m just telling you the more guys you have in your lineup who know how to play the game of baseball,” the better.

“They know how to play the score and they know how to manipulate the bat and direct the ball to different parts of the field, and you can play whatever game you want to play with them. Then you can dictate a chance to win all kinds of games. You don’t have to win a game when the wind is blowing out. Nick, I mean, he’s an artist.”

But it’s hard to find parallels for previous La Russa teams given the seismic shift in whiffing. Pujols and Berkman combined for 68 homers and just 151 strikeouts on that 2011 Cardinals team. Moncada and José Abreu topped 151 strikeouts by themselves in 2019, and they would’ve had plenty of company a year later.

La Russa can only demand so much contact in today’s game, at least with a roster lacking an inner circle Hall of Famer in his prime. It’s something he should understand, because he’s going to be spending the second half of games trying to make opponents miserable with the variety of impressive arms in his bullpen, and other teams boast similar swing-and-miss talent. The good news is that the White Sox can reduce the strikeout totals through a lot of different avenues:

  • A full season of Madrigal
  • A (mostly) full season of Andrew Vaughn
  • Minor progress by Moncada, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez
  • A strict Adam E. platoon in right field

But if these improvements fail to materialize, or are negated by setbacks from other players, then it wouldn’t surprise me if the White Sox take another run at this issue at the deadline.

There’s danger in treasuring contact over production, but some trades manage to avoid trade-offs. For instance, when La Russa’s 2009 outfield of Rasmus, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick struggled with controlling the strike zone, John Mozeliak went out and got him a Matt Holliday. I wouldn’t complain if Rick Hahn were so similarly inspired.

(Photo by Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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NorthSideHitman

I believe TLR is intelligent enough to adapt to today’s game. He will still follow his tendencies where applicable and change those that don’t fit.

Last edited 2 years ago by NorthSideHitman
Michael Kenny

I hate to admit it, but I might be starting to get just a little bit on board, sort of, maybe, with TLR.

I still think it was a bad decision at the end of a bad process, but the guy seems energized and excited. He’s like a chess master who hasn’t played in a long time but is now coming back to the game he loves.

And sure, rooks can move like knights now, and the king’s pawn has been replaced with a designated queen, so everyone else’s gameplay has completely changed. But I think he sees that, so adapting is like a fun challenge to him after a decade of boredom.

dansomeone

“Were these plumbers supposed to be here this show…?” – Steve Martin

ForsterFTOG

Wouldn’t touch that with a Langstrom 7” Gangly wrench.

ParisSox

what happened?! what happened?! …. he spoke French!

lifelongjd

Thanks for the research, Jim!

James Fegan had a great article about TLR over the weekend that made me believe this experiment might work. Especially the “old man yells at clouds” concerns he would be too old school with the younger, outspoken talent that make up the clubhouse. He’s allowing them to be themselves, and ultimately letting the team leaders be responsible for setting the tone. He’s also ingratiating himself slowly, realizing he needs to earn their trust and respect. It was definitely reassuring and a great read.

As far as tactics, I’m sure there will be bumps in the road. Depth is a concern, especially lineup wise. They are relying on a couple younger players to produce, which is always unpredictable. The pitching seems to be pretty straightforward in terms of top to bottom talent. From Jim’s research, it seems TLR will employ common strategies such as shifting to gain an edge as he was a manager who led the league in similar approaches 10 years ago.

MrStealYoBase

I’m less and less convinced at this point that some of the more apocryphal predictions about TLRs return will come to pass.

metasox

The White Sox have a manager who has won three championships. Pinch yourself.

MrStealYoBase

Also, we have opening day pitching matchup confirmed. Giolito v Bundy

Qubort

In his last year with the Cardinals, Trever Miller appeared in 39 games for a total of 15⅔ innings, which is now impossible under either the MLB rulebook or the Geneva Convention.

Couldn’t you deploy someone for the final out of the inning and then pull them? So someone could have 39 appearances with 13 innings pitched. I think we finally found a role Rodon body might hold up for.

Qubort

I didn’t say he’d be good at it, but it’s the only way his body might avoid the IR.

dongutteridge

I would be thrilled to have my comments about the TLR hiring to be proven wrong.

Joliet Orange Sox

I usually find Jim’s suggestions well thought out and interesting but I would be vehemently opposed to Rick Hahn signing Matt Holliday. Holliday had a great career but he is 41 years old and hasn’t faced MLB pitching in almost 3 years. It seems more like a Kenny Williams move to me.

Last edited 2 years ago by Joliet Orange Sox
DrCrawdad

I love it when you analyze

soxygen

Thanks, Jim! I am looking forward to seeing how he does with the 3-batter minimum (the LaRussa rule). That was such a big part of how he managed.

The Renteria equivalent would have been a rule that he couldn’t use Jimmy Cordero in the late innings of winnable games.