Tony La Russa doesn’t have excuses for ninth-inning issues, but time’s on his side

Aug 12, 2021; Dyersville, Iowa, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks (31) reacts after giving up two home runs against the New York Yankees during the ninth inning at Field of Dreams. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A handful of decades after Tony La Russa established the modern closer role, Tony La Russa has to deal with the side effects of the modern closer role: the excusing of failure in non-save situations.

It’s always struck me as such an obvious design flaw in the job description, at least since I started devoting time to actually thinking about it. The highest-paid member of the bullpen is also somebody who is half-expected to crumble when the scenario isn’t exactly to his liking. A closer who fails in a four-run game (or a tie game) because it wasn’t a three-run game (or a one-run game) is a pilot who is liable to crash the plane when the skies aren’t a specific level of threatening. If it’s more than excuse, then it’s an indictment of the training.

La Russa deployed that logic Saturday night after Liam Hendriks’ rough 10th inning against the Yankees, which came two innings after Craig Kimbrel gave up a go-ahead homer in a tie game.

“What I saw with Kimbrel and with Liam, those are not save situations, right?” La Russa said. “Not that they can’t get the outs. You’ve got to give credit to the guys that got the hits. But that’s not their classic. Whether it’s the eighth inning with the lead or the ninth inning with the lead, I’m not making excuses for them, it’s the truth. And they both could’ve gotten the outs and the guys put swings on them. Those are not save situations and I hope the next time that you see them take the mound, we have the lead.

“We had a chance to win. The score is what it is and you send your best guy out there. And it’s Kimbrel, he’s in a tie game. You understand that that’s an adjustment and they can adjust. But you’re not going to not pitch them because we’re not ahead. It’s the reality of the competition. At times, you do what you had to do, not what you want to do. We wanted to win the game, so it didn’t work out.”

At its heart, this logic is short-term avoidance that’s hardened into a set of assumptions over time. It’s easiest on everybody — manager, team, fans — if the closer is understood to be reliable. After a game such as Saturday’s, La Russa’s immediate concern is to answer the most pressing question (“What the hell happened out there?”) without disrupting the confidence in the template everybody wants. A no-comment invites comments from the outside, and you can’t brush away every bad game with a shrug without looking negligent, so the non-standard closer appearance presents an opportunity to blame something besides the person.

There are two problems with this particular usage:

  1. Hendriks blew a traditional save situation his last time out.
  2. La Russa has kept Hendriks out of numerous high-leverage situations because they weren’t save opportunities

One of those games was against the Yankees. It’s the one where Hendriks walked the only batter he faced to force home the winning run. The shaky version of Aaron Bummer loaded the bases before Hendriks entered the fray, and La Russa said it’s because Hendriks might’ve been needed for the 10th.

Another game was the finale of the first series of the season, when Matt Foster gave up a walk-off homer in the ninth while a warmed-up Hendriks stood idle in the pen. La Russa’s reasoning?

“It’s a tie score. The best you’re going to do is, if you get three outs, you’ve still got to play the 10th. And you could make the closer get six outs,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense. […]

“Liam, if we had taken the lead, he was coming in, obviously. If we’re home, it’s different. He gets three outs, we can win it. Only thing you can do is be certain about him getting six outs, maybe win it. I don’t think that’s a good move.”

One could argue that all of those games came on the road, but the White Sox had a walk-off victory over the Rays on June 16 where Evan Marshall threw 30 pitches in the ninth and Ryan Burr pitched the 10th. Hendriks had warmed, but only for a save situation in the ninth that dissolved. Two days later, the White Sox lost in walk-off fashion to the Astros 2-1, and Hendriks didn’t pitch because he was being saved for a save.

So La Russa has played a part in the establishment of this environment. Of course, one of the reasons NL Central teams hated the Cardinals is because La Russa often acted as though his teams didn’t do the things they did. It’s not surprising to see La Russa deploy selective memory for his own purposes here. He may as well make use of his law degree somehow, but since there’s no threat of perjury, it’s up to the audience to replace the batteries on their smoke detectors.

As La Russa, Hendriks and the White Sox try to stave off a second bullpen confidence crisis this season, they should have the freedom to experiment, and freedom to fail. As uncomfortable as it is to watch Hendriks give up 11 homers over 50 innings, he may as well try to work out the kinks while the White Sox have an 11-game lead. If the Sox have to shift to Kimbrel, they should give him time to find the fatal flaws in his game. La Russa is right to say that save-situations-only mindset needs to be shed by October, so they may as well start now, even if they had ample opportunities to establish that earlier.

Ideally, the Sox would be free to rotate between both as situations dictate, but the tyranny of the save situation can turn an attempt to establish fluidity into confidence-free flailing. It’s a tricky situation that La Russa has had to navigate before, so I’m inclined to give him some room to operate, while retaining the right to roll my eyes at his reasoning.

(Photo by Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports)

Author

  • 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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soxygen

When I listened to clips from the post game I thought “I guess it’s welcome progress that I generally feel good about the way that LaRussa manages the late innings and now only object to the way that he talks about the late innings after the game is over.”

That said, what I kept thinking when he was making these comments is that on the one hand he’s maybe just trying to protect the egos of his late inning relievers…and on the other hand, he doesn’t sound like someone who is open to changing the way that he uses his late inning relievers.

soxfan

As far as the comments go, I’m inclined to agree with Jim’s implication regarding La Russia’s law degree. Lawyers aren’t incentivized to tell the truth, they’re incentivized to be zealous advocates of their clients in order to protect them. In this case, the relief pitchers are the clients and he’ll trot out whatever excuse he needs to on any given day to win the argument. That the arguments aren’t consistent is an irrelevance to an attorney. “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table.” Or something like that.

vince

Maybe our bullpen is just cursed this year. Has there been any stretch of the season longer than a few games with all cylinders firing in the pen?

soxfan

I’m going to guess (and it’s just a guess) that any agita we feel about the pen is a function of our watching it every day. Every team has problems and every team (including the one we faced last night) gives up late inning runs at inconvenient time.

I doubt that our blown save percentage or bullpen ERA is significantly deviant from the norm. I’m not going to look it up, but something about an 11-game lead suggests to me that we’re within a couple cylinders of a fully functioning engine.

jhomeslice

Probably not that deviant from the norm, but 11 homers in 50 innings is way too many and reason for concern. Liam was 10th in WAR among relievers Friday, 20th today. He is not consistent. His ERA nearly twice what it was with the A’s last year, I don’t care how impressive he looks at times.

I hope both he and Kimbrel start looking good in their current roles pretty damn soon. Otherwise flipping them makes sense, especially since Kimbrel has been better than Liam in every metric all year. He is #1 in WAR among relievers and a hall of fame closer, why make him a setup guy, given the choice?

soxfan

If you want to succumb to recency bias, then Kimbrel is an odd champion to choose. He has a negative bWAR and 83 ERA+ since joining the Sox. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but not much smaller than the one you used to described Hendriks decline.

jhomeslice

I’m not going to debate with anyone trying to make the argument that Kimbrel is not better than Hendricks. His ERA is two runs lower, is #1 in WAR for the year for relievers, and has given up 3 homers all year. Those numbers are for the season.

I only made the point about Liam’s change in WAR to show how volatile the statistic is, and that he isn’t anywhere near as great as people want to believe he is. He’s still pretty good, but not equal to Kimbrel in 2021.

vince

This is what I mean by cursed though, as in “unlucky”.

Our reliever xFIP is #2 in AL, but ERA is #7.

Our Save % is 4th to last, with only the Mariners, Rangers, and Orioles being worse.

LamarHoyt_oncrack

It’s going to be an interesting next 12 games for them against some real good teams. They are going to live or die with Kimbrel and Liam at the end of games no matter what. I hope Kimbrel closes, personally.

As Cirensica

White Sox is 5th in fWAR for relievrs. Interpret that as you will, but I am not very worried about the White Sox bullpen. It will fail from time to time. It will work too, and more often than not.

The timing of the deployment is probably the most important part of bullpen management. Knowing before hand, who will hit in the 7th, 8th, 9th innings. Who is on the bench ready to grab a bat to improve handiness. When to know your starter is running on fumes. All of that is what separate bad managers from good managers. in terms of bullpen management. I agree with Jim, TLR has some figuring out things prior to October. He has been handed new fancy toys until no long ago (Tepera and Kimbrel), there’s plenty of time for him to figure out the best mix.

lifelongjd

Can’t it be as simple as Hendriks not being able to get his breaking stuff over the plate, so the Yankees can sit dead red on his fastball? The Yankees are good at working counts and can obviously turn around good fastballs.

billm2214

Am I the only one wondering how having the two best closers in baseball on the same team will work out? I know it’s fashionable to assume that baseball card metrics will always prevail. But most of us would agree that closer personality traits/intangibles play a large role in creating the back of that baseball card. So far, it seems to me they’re both pitching worse than they did before the trade. Time will tell I guess but I don’t think the possibility can be discounted.

texag10

Here’s my biggest gripe in all of this: what we see in games doesn’t ever appear to match what we are being told.
-TLR is a bullpen whiz who is not afraid of unconventional deployments but Hendriks will just not pitch in a game for over a week because there weren’t any save situations.
-Kimbrel and Hendriks are going to share closer duties because everyone is a team player and we have yet to see Liam in the 8th and Craig in the 9th.

Everything with the bullpen just feels extremely by the book and lacking in imagination when that was supposed to be one of the main strengths coming in to this season. I’m not saying things would be different but I’m not seeing a massive shift from Renteria last year that I was supposedly promised.

LamarHoyt_oncrack

Very well put. I’d like to see Kimbrel close. And there is no excuse for Hendricks to have so much time off knowing that he gets worse when he sits that long between outings.

I’ll bet we see Liam and Kimbrel switched pretty soon. And I think it will work.