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There are roughly anywhere between umpteen and countless factors that go into a third-base coach’s calculations when deciding whether to send a runner home. How fast is he? Whose arm is he running on? Does the outfielder have his momentum? Does the baserunner have his? What’s the score? What inning? What’s the likelihood of a successful plate appearance afterward? Is the weather helping or hurting?
A third base coach has to take those elements and others — is he cutting the corner well? did he have a big meal? — and correctly prioritize them while following three moving objects over the course of three seconds. It’s not an easy job, so ill-fated calls deserve no small amount of grace.
But the White Sox ran into their 13th out at home on Thursday night, a total that leads the league and doubles the league average with an out to spare. For context, an average team runs into about 14 or 15 outs at the plate in an entire season, so the White Sox are deficit-spending forgiveness right now.
In McEwing’s defense, one shouldn’t reduce a third-base coach’s approach to the job in a single number. Back when the White Sox hired Jeff Cox to serve as third base coach, he had come off the same job with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who only had seven guys thrown out at home during the 2007 season, and none on Cox’s sends. While that sounds great, Cox was instead criticized for being overcautious and leaving runs on the board. A third-base coach isn’t doing his job well if he’s avoiding all risks.
This is especially the case with two outs, when probabilities work against the team at the plate. If McEwing doesn’t send a guy on a 50/50 call — or even a 40/60 call — with two down, he’s dependent on the batter on deck coming through with a productive plate appearance. Either way, the odds aren’t in favor of the offense, so some coaches should be emboldened to take ownership of their destiny.
But as the body count piles up, McEwing should probably be de-boldened. His recent unsuccessful sends aren’t the result of minor errors in rapid-fire complicated calculations. Instead, they more closely resemble decisions that are predetermined by a Computer Science 101 student that lack the sophistication to account for any other variables than the number of outs.
IF number=2 THEN "send"
Because outs at home are high-leverage and emotionally charged, I reviewed all of McEwing’s eight unsuccessful sends this year (the other five outs were on infield plays), ranking them on a scale of 1 to 5.
While the higher number is usually better, this is a scale of least to most objectionable:
- Grade 1: Thoroughly defensible decision
- Grade 2: Calculated risk lost/failure elsewhere
- Grade 3: Looked bad, but consider other factors.
- Grade 4: Poor gamble, required a mistake.
- Grade 5: Saying “oh no” when the camera shows the progress of the runner.
I ranked them in this order because I always need a moment to remember whether a Grade 3 strain is worse than a Grade 1 strain, and that knowledge is vital for covering the White Sox in 2022.
Situation: Nobody out, runners on first and second and the White Sox trailing 2-0 in the fifth.
Play: Danny Mendick smashes a grounder inside the third-base line, and it caroms softly off the tarp in foul territory. Reese McGuire scores easily from second, but Steven Kwan throws out Adam Engel by about 20 feet.
Grade: 4. Making the first out at home is bad, especially by that distance since Kwan has a good arm for a left fielder. The fact that this game ended 2-1 is worse. But this was the game where Tony La Russa issued a lineup card with Josh Harrison batting first, Adam Haseley second and Leury García third, so when Harrison and Haseley followed by striking out on seven pitches between them, you could understand what informed McEwing’s thinking.
Situation: The White Sox are trailing 2-0, but have Luis Robert on second and Leury García on first to start the top of the fourth.
Play: José Abreu hits a deep fly to right that goes off Franmil Reyes’ glove. Robert stands on second anticipating a tag, while García hangs out 20 feet from second in the event the ball isn’t caught. Reyes indeed fails to make the catch, creating a situation where García trails Robert by 20 feet running to and rounding third, so somebody was going to be out somewhere. Robert was nailed at home by a large margin, but McEwing might’ve been lucky he stopped García from making it a double play.
Grade: 2. This was a disaster of the players’ making, but it reflected poorly on everybody in the uniform.
Situation: Bases loaded, two outs and the White Sox leading 1-0 in the third inning.
Play: Andrew Vaughn laces a single to left. One run scores, but José Abreu’s attempt to score from second is thwarted by an on-target throw by Trevor Larnach.
Grade: 1. Two outs, Abreu was only out by a few steps, and Leury García loomed on deck. It only stung because it keeps happening.
Situation: White Sox leading 4-2 with nobody out in the top of the ninth, A.J. Pollock on third and José Abreu at the plate.
Play: Abreu hits a deep fly ball to right for an apparent sac fly, but Jackie Bradley Jr. cuts down Pollock.
Grade: 1. If you’re treating fly ball distance like a game of high/low, I don’t know if you’re going to do better than 287 feet. Bradley has a great arm, and Adam Engel scored with a little bit of room to spare on a 309-foot fly an inning before, so it was worth a shot.
Situation: The White Sox trail 2-1 with two outs in the eighth inning, runners on first and second and Yoán Moncada at the plate.
Play: Moncada slashes a single to left, and McEwing waves home Josh Harrison despite reaching third at the same time Andrew Benintendi got the ball. Benintendi makes an on-target throw to get Harrison by plenty.
Grade: 3. This decision looks terrible when viewed in isolation, but the last time McEwing had a chance to wave home Harrison on a fly to Benintendi, the resulting throw could best be described as Johnny Damon-esque. Perhaps McEwing fell for the long con.
Situation: The White Sox trail 3-0 with two outs and runners on first and second, with the lead runner Yasmani Grandal.
Play: Jake Burger shoots a single through the right side, and Rafael Ortega has to cover some ground to charge the roller. Grandal is just touching third by the time Ortega picks up the ball, and Ortega makes a relaxed three-hop throw to get Grandal without a slide.
Grade: 5. This is one of those true Joe McEwing Auto-Sends.
Situation: The White Sox and Astros are tied at 3 with Leury García on second with two outs and Seby Zavala at the plate against Framber Valdez.
Play: Zavala singles to left to Yordan Alvarez, who is playing shallow because the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park loom behind him. He gets the ball on two hops before García touches third, and Alvarez makes a 93.9 mph throw on the fly to Martin Maldonado, who tags out García standing.
Grade: 5. Another Auto-Send. This one probably counted on Alvarez looking like a DH playing left field, but the path of the ball didn’t require any athleticism in fielding it. The White Sox are held scoreless the rest of the way, while the Astros run it up to 13-3.
Situation: The White Sox trail the Orioles 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth. Gavin Sheets is on second with two outs, and Leury García is at the plate.
Play: García lines a single to right field at 104.3 mph. Austin Hays fields it on a short second hop, takes a massive crow hop himself, then makes an on-target, one-hop throw to Adley Rutschman, who applies the tag to a sliding Sheets well in front of home plate.
Grade: 4. It’s the most defensible of the recent Auto-Sends, because Hays seemed to lose some of the time he gained charging the ball with the awkward way he loaded up for the throw home. Then again, the aggressiveness of the send gave Hays that margin for error in stealing the out.
The one flaw with this exercise is that one can’t easily tabulate all of McEwing’s successful coin-flip decisions. On the send side, it doesn’t take nearly as much time to look at 13 outs as it does to filter through 287 runs. I’ve tagged a couple in the Sox Machine game recaps, like McEwing sendng José Abreu to score from first on Jo Adell back on May 2 …
… and McEwing waving Luis Robert home from first on a two-out double to Fenway Park’s left-field corner on six days later:
There’s also no easy way to track smart McEwing holds, because databases like Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index or MLB.com’s video archive aren’t designed to capture the absence of an action.
Since any study of McEwing’s activity lends itself to dwelling on the outs, then it makes sense to apply such a scale to the outcomes. If McEwing’s scorecard showed all 1’s and 2’s, then it mostly merits a shrug, or a frown that he can’t catch a break. When he’s on a streak of 4’s and 5’s, it might be time to acknowledge an issue in forcing the issue.
There’s also a larger discussion to be had about the idea that McEwing has served on the coaching staff of three different White Sox managers over 11 years, and Daryl Boston can claim the same over nine, yet it’s not because of scintillating results with the team’s baserunning, infield and outfield play. But considering Tony La Russa requested a pair of McEwing’s spikes to remember him by when McEwing jumped from the Cardinals to the Mets in the late ’90s, said larger discussion would still be a short one.