The White Sox’s 3-2 victory over the Yankees on Saturday night was one of those games where every decision mattered, and not simply because Luis Robert scored Tim Anderson on the penultimate bullet before extra innings.
The first two games of the series determined how much thought had to go into the third. Particularly Thursday, when Tony La Russa let Joe Kelly’s control problems bury the White Sox because he didn’t want to overheat a bullpen in vain. One could be more optimistic about the White Sox’s chances of pulling out a victory that night after Yoán Moncada tied the game with a homer, but La Russa prioritized the long view.
Because the White Sox can’t pound another team into submission, the long view pays off in a shorter time these days. On Saturday, La Russa once again confronted a situation where his most direct path to the victory required aggressive bullpen management. With a two-run lead rather than a tied game, La Russa managed proactively, aggressively, with less regard for the future.
But before we spent another post discussing reliever usage, let’s talk about the earliest decision La Russa made on Saturday, because it’s the one that paid off at the very end.
Nobody particularly wanted Josh Harrison to start the ninth inning against Aroldis Chapman, but the rules demanded the ninth hitter coming to the plate to open the inning, and the Sox had no standout options on the bench against a left-handed pitcher.
What the Sox could control was who came to the plate after, and by having Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert at the top of the order before the game even started, it made such a situation possible.
The inability to pick which part of the lineup comes to the plate in a given inning is why I don’t really care about particular orders, but I generally adhere to the idea that a team’s best hitters should bat the most, and if front-loading the lineup is clunky for some reason (like handedness clusters downstream), then at the very least, a team should avoid slotting its worst hitters in the way.
Somewhere in the middle between those extremes is José Abreu. I’m not sure where he fits in right now, but as Chapman fell behind 3-0 to Robert, I kinda hoped that Robert would get a chance to swing the bat. Sure, it risked an inning-ending double play, whereas loading the bases for Abreu would compromise the defensive alignment in a way that stood to benefit the Sox, but Abreu just hasn’t looked the part. Entering the inning, his highlight of the week was a single that snapped an 0-for-21 skid.
Given that Anderson and Robert both singled successfully by thinking opposite-field against Chapman, perhaps Abreu would’ve found similar success muscling something to right, but I’d hoped we wouldn’t need to find out during a situation with the highest leverage possible.
Abreu’s had slow starts before, but it gets harder to reflexively dismiss ugly early numbers as the weather warms. Should this continue, I’m curious about La Russa’s appetite for dropping Abreu down further. It’d first require somebody to swing the bat meaningfully better than Abreu, so we’re not quite there yet, but if Andrew Vaughn re-establishes himself as a threat while Gavin Sheets continues to play the part of effective platoon bat, this may be a question worth considering before the end of the month, so consider this a pre-consideration period.
Because of all the close games the White Sox have played, the bullpen is dealing with an unusual concentration of workload concerns. Because of those workload concerns, there have been a number of games where La Russa couldn’t or didn’t want to manage the game in a way that maximized his best arms. It’s a vicious cycle that only a better offense can break.
PERTINENT: With White Sox bullpen, it’s hard to get what they paid for
The conservative approach on Thursday and the thorough blowout loss on Friday afforded La Russa an opportunity to mount his best bullpen response on Saturday, and he accepted the offer. With Kendall Graveman pitching on three days’ rest for the second consecutive outing, La Russa shouldn’t have thought twice about sending Graveman out for the seventh inning after an eight-pitch sixth, and Graveman answered the call with more two-seamers that made a scary Yankees lineup look silly.
Joe Kelly isn’t yet one of La Russa’s best arms, but he’s the closest thing the White Sox have to an Aaron Bummer replacement, so he got the eighth as the Sox attempt to get him up to speed. He threw way better than he did on Thursday, but the Yankees were prepared enough for his barrage of inside sinkers to muscle them for singles, so he still found himself in a mess of trouble.
And this time, instead of leaving in Kelly batters too long, La Russa went to Liam Hendriks for a five-out save attempt instead. It didn’t work, but that had more to do with Hendriks’ unwillingness to throw a non-fastball than the strategy itself.
Such aggressive bullpen management could come at a cost, because La Russa may have to choose carefully if and when the White Sox find themselves in another nail-biter this afternoon. As noted before, La Russa chose to minimize pitcher usage during the opener of this series rather than burn arms while tied, which only makes sense if a better opportunity for a win arrives in short order. This was that opportunity, and it didn’t pass him by.
Dallas Keuchel’s mien doesn’t bother me as much as it turns off other White Sox fans, because it probably takes a certain attitude to compete in the big leagues throwing 87. He’s a little bit like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner off the edge of a cliff — it only becomes a problem when he stops what he’s doing, so it’s important to protect the ilusion.
It’s just incumbent on the other decision-makers to ensure nobody else follows him off the ledge, which is what La Russa did by limiting him to five innings and 86 pitches.
Keuchel wasn’t happy about it, for reasons team-oriented …
“I mean, I’m the pitcher. My job is to go out there and throw as many as I can. I thought  pitches I had enough to at least go ix. With how many games we’re playing, I thought I had at least 100 pitches tonight. That didn’t happen. I’m not very happy with that but that’s the competitor in me and we’re going to have to figure out something tomorrow because we have a lot more guys down now too.”
… and pride-oriented.
“I feel like my goal is to go at least six innings every start and tonight was no different. I felt like the fifth was a little bit more chaotic for the fans than it was for myself. I’m not going to be ever surprised in a situation where I’m out there. I’m always thinking. I’m always thinking ahead of what’s on the field. Anybody panicking is everybody but myself.”
Had he thrown worse, Keuchel might’ve defended any stain on the back of his pants as a tactical response, which is why I’m more inclined to laugh than to take umbrage. He has a point, in that he’s located well in consecutive starts after two outings where he walked 10 batters over nine innings, so he may deserve a longer leash at some point.
Then again, Keuchel also issued multiple walks in the fifth inning, so nobody can be blamed for thinking that Keuchel was on the verge of losing it. Perhaps there will be a more obvious time to test Keuchel’s mid-innings resilience, but based on the way La Russa managed the bullpen after Keuchel’s portion of the evening, Saturday night was not going to be one of them.
Is it me or did Tony decide to go a shade darker than usual at the salon? Maybe he’s feeling adventurous lately and that’s the source of his newfound zeal for trying to win games.
I can’t give TLR credit for doing his job adequately once in a while, with all the times he has been so far below a normal, competent manager. A few good decisions can’t make up for his shortcomings and how much he cripples this team’s upside.
It’s not about giving credit. It’s about highlighting good decision-making in order to be able to compare it to whatever comes after.
La Russa showed last season that he is managing for a 162 game schedule. Whatever decisions are made for a particular game, there is usually something else going on. People can debate method vs madness, but I am not surprised when there isn’t a win-at-all-cost approach to every game in the regular season.
Nobody will ever accuse TLR of a win at all cost approach, you are right about that. Leury and Harrison in the same lineup for the 2nd time in 3 games against the Yankees.
I don’t buy the “there’s something else that TLR knows about” that justifies his pitiful lineup choices and the number of games that costs them. This team never gets any momentum because of it, and it cost them home field vs the Astros a year ago. They’ve been a .500 team since late July with an embarrassing flop in the playoffs under TLR’s “approach”. That’s enough to erase the notion he deserves some benefit of the doubt. Any good decisions he ever makes, which are rare, would have been made by any other competent manager.
If Grandal would start producing, he could be an interesting #4. Maybe Abreu behind him would benefit from getting a look at all the pitches Grandal sees.
By the break, I have a feeling the top four will be Anderson and then some combination of Moncada, Robertson, and Vaughn. For handedness reasons if slot grandal five and then abreu but that might be too much of a slap to Abreu so he might settle in at five.
Not entirely on subject here but…
It’s D-Day on Cueto. Has anyone else had the feeling that they may just let him go instead of calling him up? I could honestly see the White Sox choosing to do just that instead of having to pay him his $4 millionish salary. Especially if they don’t believe that he’s much of an upgrade over what they’re currently running out there. Kuechel looks to have put together enough of a mirage of late to earn more looks. Considering his salary, he’s probably not going anywhere near term at least. Velasquez doesn’t have the track record, but they apparently saw something about him they liked enough to sign him in the 1st place over Cueto. I guess we’ll see…
Sox may also be considering how Lynn is progressing. I feel the team needs to stockpile starters but would not be entirely surprised if Cueto doesn’t stick.
The only problem with this logic is that absolutely everything g since his signing has been predictable and he was signed with the presumption that he’d be promoted. He hasn’t fallen on his face and neither Keuchel nor Celasqyez has been anything better than a back of the rotation guy. He met expectations in the charlotte and the need for him now is the same as the day he was signed, so why wouldn’t he be promoted.
Situation is not entirely the same in that the Sox have a better sense of Lynn’s availability
I hope you’re right. I’m just saying it wouldn’t surprise me for the White Sox to cut bait. I also agree with the sentiment that they should be stockpiling whatever depth they can get.
You would hope Keuchel’s good start does not persuade them (or give them an excuse to be cheap) to not pay/call up Cueto. 2 of Cueto’s last 3 outings were pretty damn good, I think it’s really, really likely that he would be better than VV. They need all the depth they can get.
They definitely NEED to add Cueto to the mix. If there was ever an organization perfectly set up for a 6 man rotation, it’s this one. Lynn, Keuchel and Kopech all need innings management for various reasons.
They don’t have jack shit for pitching help anywhere in the minor leagues. They need every decent pitcher that they can get before someone else goes down with an injury.
They do not have the option to let him go. It’s his option. So even if they do not call him up, they may be on the hook for the 4M. However, given their 8 games in seven days schedule, with Giolito on the covid list, I think it’s pretty clear that he is coming up to pitch against KC.
It’s a minor league deal, and the $4.2m is prorated to days in the big leagues. So, my understanding is the Sox won’t be on the hook for the $4m unless they call him up.
I believe he would keep pitching for Charlotte until he has certainty of jumping to a major league deal somewhere. Which I assume would be pretty quick given the overall need for pitching
I realize that it’s technically Cueto who has the opt out. Where it’s hazy is if they’d be on the hook for the prorated $4.2 million if they neglect to call him up, and he opts out. I certainly hope that they move him to the Big League roster today. But with this organization I’d argue that nothing is ever as clear cut as we would like it to be at times.
I hope we get an announcement that he is pitching vs KC pretty soon. But I would not put anything past Ebeneezer Jerry.
Opt outs are very common, but I don’t recall a guy getting paid for not getting called up. This is probably a standard minor league deal where he can now opt out at any point he chooses and get paid that way
How much of Keuchel’s answer is a function of him not being in track to vest? He can’t say it but is he thinking it?
All too relevant. There’s no way that hasn’t been on his mind. If he can somehow turn back the clock and pitch to his Cy Young caliber seasons, he would have a reason to be ticked off. As of now, he’s fortunate to have a spot on a Major League roster, let alone a contender. To be fair, he’s been trending in the right direction though, even if it hasn’t been pretty.
Of course. I also get the clear impression that he’s a passive-aggressive prick. Bot based on his last two starts, he is entitled to have a shot at proving that I, and many others, have been wrong about him. Having said that, he is not going to vest. The team will not be on the hook for 20M in 2023.
It would be pretty hard to see him vest. He’s going to have his 2 or 3 inning starts once in a while where he gets shelled, and probably won’t go beyond 5 or 6 very much, or at all. 160 is almost a pipe dream.
Articles like this one and the one Fegan wrote in the Athletic go a long way at calming me down. I am very reactionary and critical of the Russa because he does sacrifice for the long play, which is great most times but is annoying as hell when one sees Leury play 10 games in a row while others who may be more capable sit.
TLR can only play the guys he has. Key to remember this. Because of injuries and a confusing lack of investment in certain positions make his job more difficult. Throw in a shortened spring training which impacts your starters’ ability to go deep into games for the first third of the season and what seems like an unending amount of competitive games that require using your top bullpen guys daily, and you’ve got quite a lot to consider with every decision.