Tony La Russa’s blind spots reemerge during White Sox’s disastrous road trip

So much went wrong for the White Sox over the course of their 0-6 road trip to Cleveland and Minneapolis. Generally speaking, a lot has to go wrong in order to go 0-6 against two teams that are respectable, but short of fearsome.

The White Sox offense only scored one crooked number over 55 innings, and they needed a 10th inning in order to score four runs in a game. The defense committed 11 errors over six games, giving them a league-worst 18 errors and .965 fielding percentage. Fielding percentage is normally a lazy way to evaluate defense, sure, but it does the job of describing the issue when the league is running a .985 clip.

The pitching was uneven, thanks in part to the aforementioned defense. The rotation covered the spectrum of results evenly across its five members …

  • Michael Kopech (great)
  • Lucas Giolito (good)
  • Dylan Cease (decent)
  • Vince Velasquez (bad)
  • Dallas Keuchel (LOL)

… but the positive contributions were undermined by poor bullpen work, and with results that had a negative correlation with salaries. José Ruiz, Tanner Banks and Reynaldo López did their jobs with leads, but Aaron Bummer, Kendall Graveman and Liam Hendriks all faltered to one degree or another.

And then there was Tony La Russa, who wasn’t responsible for all the of the physical errors on the field, but threw himself into the mix at the very end of the series with the first-guessable ill-fated decision to have Liam Hendriks pitch to Byron Buxton with a base open and one out in the 10th inning on Sunday.

Hendriks had to pitch to Buxton at the start of the plate appearance, because there wasn’t a base open until after the first pitch, when Hendriks bounced a curveball off Yasmani Grandal’s forearm that allowed both runners to move up 90 feet.

Even after the runners moved up, it made some sense to explore the possibility of a strikeout. Lucas Giolito had struck out Buxton in each of his first three plate appearances of the game, and Hendriks got Buxton to nearly pop out in foul territory on the 1-0 fastball to even the count. Walking Buxton loads the bases for another good hitter with Luis Arraez, so without automatic relief in a free pass, so I get working out of the zone to explore the opportunity of two outs in two batters. Both are suboptimal choices, but that’s the risk Hendriks incurred by walking a third-catching ninth hitter to bring one of baseball’s premier talents to the plate.

But once he fell behind 3-1 with two more fastballs and showed no inclination to use a breaking ball, that’s when any sense evaporated. After all, Tony La Russa saw this same scenario play out on April 16, when Hendriks fell behind fastball-mashing Ji-Man Choi 3-1 with two outs in the ninth inning, and first base opened thanks to a runner moving up.

There’s one key difference, in that Hendriks had two outs instead of one. That made it slightly easier to give Choi the pass when first base opened over the course of the battle, because then it became solely about Hendriks being able to beat Taylor Walls, which he did.

Here, walking Buxton meant facing Arraez with the bases loaded and one out, and then Jorge Polaco afterward if the game got that far. But because Buxton demolished a 3-1 Hendriks fastball, the game never even got to Arraez.


Which is ironic, because Tony La Russa made his fear of Arraez a point of emphasis in his postgame media session, to the point that warped the entire scenario. Via James Fegan:

“Yeah, there’s an option. Pitch him tough. But the guy on deck (Arraez) is hitting .300 and he feasts on fastballs. You give a pitcher a chance to make a pitch. (Hendriks) tried to bounce a curveball, created (runners on) second nd third. Any time you load the bases you better have a significant advantage with the guy on deck. Because you’re playing right into his hands and the guy on deck is a tough out. We had a better chance to do what (Giolito) did to him the first couple times up.”

This falls apart on two levels.

Level One: Arraez “is hitting .300 and feasts on fastballs,” which also describes Buxton.

Remember Andrés Muñoz, the Seattle reliever who pitched one of the most impressive innings we’ve seen against the Sox back on April 14? He was throwing 102 mph at the top of the zone and spotting his slider on both sides of the plate, and the whole arsenal looked unhittable.

Anyway, here’s Buxton turning around a Muñoz 101-mph fastball on an 0-2 count above the zone for a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning a few days earlier.

If Buxton can catch up to 100.5 mph on an 0-2 count, you can see why he wouldn’t be fazed by 98 mph on 3-1. That’s probably how he hit Hendriks’ fastball 33 feet farther.

Level Two: Hendriks would have had to face Arraez regardless.

La Russa’s explanation above makes it sound like he considered the situation Buxton OR Arraez, rather than Buxton AND Arraez. Even if Hendriks somehow retired Buxton, Arraez would’ve been coming to the plate with two outs. There’s pretty much no way to avoid that matchup unless Buxton lined into a double play, or a sac fly attempt was too shallow.

It doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny, but I can establish some logical consistency when tying it to La Russa’s attempts to rationalize other confusing decisions in the past.

If you’re looking for a baseball-centric reasoning, La Russa seems to have an unhealthy fixation on contact for contact’s sake. There’s last May, when La Russa wouldn’t pinch-hit for Leury García or Billy Hamilton because he was “looking for a single” in the eighth inning when the Sox trailed by three and both players represented the tying run.

There’s also this whole month, when he elevated García to the third and second spots in the order to get him going, as though he’s an integral part of the offense rather than somebody to be reflexively penciled in the bottom third.

There’s also the first game of this series, when he didn’t pinch-hit Grandal for Reese McGuire or Jake Burger with the tying run on third, even though Grandal was by far the best hitter available.

Grandal proved his worth by delivering a go-ahead single off the right field wall with two outs in the 10th on Sunday.

If you don’t buy that theory, the only other precedent is even less flattering:

La Russa thinking there were two outs instead of one.

Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time. Last April, La Russa let an admittedly tired Lucas Giolito face four extra batters, a decision that made sense when La Russa recounted the wrong number of outs in his summary:

“Is that what he said? Well, then, that’s my fault for not recognizing because I looked at it, he walked the leadoff guy, which wasn’t good, and he gets two outs (note: he got one out), at that point, I was confident he would get the third out.”

La Russa might’ve misspoke, but he reflected the incorrect number of outs twice. Also, then and now, the way he managed both situations reflected the idea that his pitcher only had one more batter to retire.

However, if I’m to maintain my own logical consistency, I should refer back to the Choi at-bat above, when I said that La Russa might’ve been more likely to issue the walk if Arraez were the last batter standing. Alas, when the only explanations given are so riddled with holes, it’s hard to make everything line up. Maybe we’re grasping at air after a certain point.


Regardless of the specific “why,” the result was the kind of lapse that rattles confidence even if the other facets of the White Sox eventually right themselves, and the kind that risks throwing the whole experiment into disarray if he has to contend with malfunctioning elements all season long. James Fegan’s write-up suggests such doubters are in their ranks:

The White Sox hired La Russa for his experience, instincts and feel in these situations, and they believed those traits would help the team more often than not. If you’re a fan, or even a team employee who doesn’t trust that his experience still translates to statistically optimal decisions, it’s inefficiencies in these moments that you fear could keep the Sox from reaching their World Series ceiling.

It’s too early to hammer any panic buttons, and there aren’t really any levers to pull even if you wanted to. The roster is the roster, especially as long as Lance Lynn, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez are out. That means players will have to step up, but that means La Russa has to elevate his game, too. When everybody on the field looks so unprepared, the dugout can’t really afford to exacerbate the issues, because it only makes it easier to point the fingers his way.

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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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a-t

Hendriks was brought in and paid top (closer) dollar to face an opponent’s best hitters and blow them away. He is arguably the very last pitcher on this roster who should require micromanagement from the manager.

I’m no Tony fan. But he’s not the one routinely booting routine grounders, getting hurt just running to first, or broadly flailing at the plate. The team is hitting .216/.266/.369!

BenwithVen

right, but a good manager helps the team navigate these rough stretches by playing to strengths and putting players in places where they’ll succeed.

La Russa has done none of that, instead further sabotaging the team’s chances with his awful decision making and strategic mistakes. Something we were assured would not happen under his watch.

texag10

I mean, TLR is the one responsible for setting the lineups that resulted in that triple slash. He’s the one who insists on “getaway day” lineups after 2 rain outs a week into the season. He’s the one who would probably still be sitting Vaughn against RHPs if Eloy hadn’t gotten hurt. The team has played terribly but I dare you to point to something that TLR has done that has helped the team in any meaningful way.

a-t

Leury hitting that high was ridiculous. It’s also not why Grandal is hitting .136/.188/.227, or why Burger, Leury, Harrison, Eloy, and McGuire are running sub-.600 OPSes. Engel and Robert only barely clear that bar. Meanwhile there’s only 4 guys with OPSes over .700; Pito is only 0.002 points over and another is Danny Mendick. Right now TA and Vaughn are essentially the entire offense.

As for AV not playing enough— the only guy with more games played is Abreu, and only him, TA, and Grandal have more PAs than Vaughn.

Getaway day lineups are not the issue. The issue is that only two of the supposed several star players in this lineup are both healthy and hitting effectively. One of those two has meanwhile forgotten how to play SS. Vaughn is literally the only starting position player on the roster performing up to expectations; Mendick and arguably McGuire are meeting expectations. That’s it. I’m no Tony fan but he is not responsible for guys suddenly looking like crap.

Augusto Barojas

It isn’t fair to blame TLR for all their hitting troubles. But bad vibes and energy do contribute to negative outcomes. They just do. La Russa is a walking cloud of bad energy, best to cut bait and see if something shifts out of that. They are clearly not going to win a thing under him, I’m sorry. No chance.

a-t

Yeah, Tony should go in general, I don’t disagree. I just think it’s really lazy analysis to use him as a scapegoat when there’s clearly other (bigger) issues. Why the analysis about “La Russa should have called for an IBB on 3-1” instead of why Hendriks is broken, or nearly the whole lineup is hitting like it’s 1922, or Tim’s defense suddenly looks like he’s a rookie again? That lack of 3-1 IBB is such a small thing compared to problems like “getting shut down by Bailey f—-ing Ober”. Do you really have confidence that Hendriks would have not given up a hit to Arraez and lost that way? I certainly don’t!

chipporter

I’ll try to use a less lazy analysis. The number one job of a manager is to have his team ready to play everyday.

TLR failed that last year and continues the trend.

Qubort

I had a lot more confidence in Hendriks facing anyone else in that lineup, with a fresh count, and a force at every base over Buxton with a 3-1 count. You’re correct there are much bigger issues, but that’s why such terrible decisions hurt even more. They can’t afford bizarre decisions on top of everything else.

Joliet Orange Sox

I think most managers often are assigned too much blame when players struggle. However, the flip side is that some managers get too much credit when players do well.

It can be hard to resist the blame game with TLR because his supporters are very quick to point to his winning record to defend him when discussing the mountain of crap that is part of the TLR package. It feels like TLR gets credit for any winning/success that takes place and players get blamed for any losing/struggles. I find this one-way check-valve for blame/credit used to defend TLR extremely frustrating.

mrridgman

Well actually he is responsible for the team looking like crap, at least in some respects. Last year’s defense, baserunning and some player decision-making left a bit to be desired. We were advised that TLR hadn’t had the benefoit of installing his system and discipline, and that this year the defense and baserunning would be much better.

Is there anyone on this site that can say with a straight face that this has happened? Really, it’s worse than last year. The first Guardians game, the WS were the most unprepared team (in every aspect) to play that I have ever seen in literally 1000s of games watched.

metasox

For the first three series, the team looked solid. I would say moreso than last season. Seemed to be comments on this site to that effect as well.

yinkadoubledare

He’d also tweaked his back that inning and was in his second inning of work. You and I and everyone who watches the Sox know he’s going to throw a fastball and he’s probably going to throw it over the plate. Buxton therefore of course also knows this and is waiting for it. First base is open. There’s a reason Garfein, who hardly ever rips into the manager (and it’s generally not his job, he’s the host), was pretty much apoplectic on the postgame show. As were many of us.

soxfan

This might sound like more of a defense of TLR than I intend, but isn’t that sort of the nature of managing? The game mismanagement is obvious and available for immediate criticism, but the interpersonal stuff that reportedly holds a locker room together over 162 games is definitionally behind closed doors (except when TLR wants to criticize someone for swinging on 3-0) and no one knows how it’ll work out until the end of the season.

No, I can’t point to one thing TLR is doing right – the lineups are nonsensical, the team isn’t mentally (errors) or physically (running to first without pulling a hamstring) prepared, and the in-game management is without merit. That said, we’ll eventually go on a 10-game winning streak and I won’t be able to tell you exactly what TLR did to make that happen either.

The last seven games have been a chore, but I’m still going to chalk them up to small sample size until the roster returns to full strength and the all-star break rolls around or we end up falling 10 games back.

jhomeslice

I’m sure TLR has lost track of the number of outs many more times than the instances that have been pointed out.

It’s pretty futile to analyze the decisions of someone who is clearly either in some level of cognitive decline, or is psychologically impaired from making smart (or just non-stupid) decisions. Either way, the fans have suffered enough, and it is more clear than ever that he has to go for this team to have any chance to win a playoff series, or maybe even get to the playoffs.

Hiring him was a joke and it’s long overdue to correct that. Yet no matter how obvious that is, it probably means very little in terms of actually removing him because that’s left up to the same jackass who hired him.

Trooper Galactus

I really don’t care to speculate on Tony’s health or cognitive ability; bad decisions are bad decisions. Regardless of the source of said bad decisions, he’s pretty clearly making a lot of them to the detriment of the team.

gibby32

Cognitive decline? Eh, who knows. Bad decision making and adherence to old-school baseball like a small fast guy batting second (or third!) while having the owner in his pocket? That’s quite clear

tommytwonines

It’s so frustrating as a fan – and I know this happens in other cities – to never see your team at full strength, even to start the season. Last spring it was Eloy and Engel and then some more injuries until Madrigal finally went down for the year. This year it’s Lynn, and now Eloy again and a slew of others.

That’s all.

calcetinesblancos

The White Sox hired La Russa for his experience, instincts and feel in these situations, and they believed those traits would help the team more often than not.”

Talk about whoops. The experience you can’t argue, but is there anyone following this team that would seriously say that TLR has “instincts” or “feel” for the game at this point? He doesn’t even see the obvious shit right in front of him, let alone have some baseball sixth sense for things unseen.

jhomeslice

Michael Jordan has 6 championships. That doesn’t mean the Bulls should sign him to play next year at age 60.

TLR’s best days and mental sharpness are so far behind him that his experience is completely irrelevant. He is just an embarrassment now. His first WS was 33 years ago, I mean… it’s over for him. And the Sox until they face that and get rid of him.

Last edited 27 days ago by jhomeslice
HallofFrank

This is a good and important point. If you were mounting the best “case for La Russa” you could, piecing a division win together last year from junkyard would be the top of the list. But could anyone defend his sense or feel for the game? Maybe it’s just confirmation bias, but I can’t recall any time TLR went against (today’s) conventional wisdom and it turned out well. It’s only blown up in his face.

Greg Nix

There are a lot of “veteran leaders” of one type or another on this roster (Anderson, Abreu, Harrison, Giolito, Lynn, Hendriks, Keuchel). Someone’s got to step up and rally this team. That might even mean a face-to-face with La Russa about some of this stuff. But I’ve been in enough toxic workplaces to know that if the boss stinks, someone else needs to take the mantle or you’re basically sunk.

jhomeslice

Someone needs to talk to Reinsdorf. Talking to TLR isn’t going to make him mentally sharp any more than talking to Garcia is going to make him a good hitter.

As Cirensica

Exactly. Although I can’t avoid thinking of Ozzie’s words: “Good teams win games, bad teams have meetings”

Trooper Galactus

Given how Tony has operated in the past, that seems like a pretty good way to get yourself traded.

Qubort

Unless you’re Leury, that might not sound that bad right now for a lot of the guys.

Alfornia Jones

Larussa needs to go, but he currently is operating an incomplete roster provided to him by a poor GM. They’ll never fire Larussa, and he’s probably too old to feel shame and embarrassment to resign, but Hahn should be launched as the sacrificial lamb.

Hahn could have taken the Leury security blanket away, but he signed him to a 3 year deal, probably worse than the Keppinger deal. No one in either league was giving him a three year deal.

Hahn had marketable redundant talent in Vaughn, Jimenez and Sheets. One should have been traded for a SP. An outfield with two of these guys playing at the same time is hard to think about. Jimenez is probably not worth anything now until he can re-establish value and prove he’s not a china doll.

Hahn picked up the option on Kimbrell, when that money should have been used on a SP. 2/5th’s of Larussa’s current rotation couldn’t get a job in the Atlantic League. Pollack is good salvage value, but SP was the real need.

Hahn continued to spend $15M more (2022 value only for Kelly and Graveman) on the bullpen without shoring up the SP. Keuchel was exposed in the 2H last year, he can’t pitch anymore. A playoff team with a 2 year window doesn’t go into the season with 80% of a rotation, because it can be 60% pretty quick as we are seeing now. This is a recipe for long losing streaks which demoralize teams.

The hitting will come around, and no one in the AL Central will pull away, but barely winning the AL Central is not an accomplishment. The roster was never good enough to beat the AL West or AL East counterpart. Hahn did extremely well in laying the foundation for the current team, but he doesn’t know how to finish the project.

Trooper Galactus

While I was perfectly happy to get Pollock for Kimbrel, I’m not ready to say he’s “good salvage value” when he’s only been able to play four games, hasn’t really provided an offensive boost, is probably a sub-par defender at this point, and is likely going to experience some sort of age-related decline. He might be an improvement over the incumbent options, but I expected them to do a lot better than this to address the position.

chipporter

The problem is Reinsdorfs arrogance and complete disregard for fans.

soxfan1959

THIS^^^

To Err is Herrmann

I have wondered whether part of the reason Tony La Russa took the job was so he could pass John McGraw on the all-time managerial wins list. He did it. Well done. I am just hoping that he isn’t trying to surpass Connie Mack. There are three ways he can beat Mack: 1) by getting 905 more wins, or 2) by getting 1,506 more losses, or 3) managing to the age of 88. Perhaps I should not have spoken this out loud.

Trooper Galactus

I think he saw a ring being served to him on a platter and didn’t acknowledge his buddy’s unwillingness to sign contracts that would make that happen nor the probability that he himself would undermine said team’s chances.

dongutteridge

I give TLR credit for his previous managing career.

I ask, if he didn’t have that career of so many years ago, would he have been rehired after last year?

Joliet Orange Sox

TLR definitely has had some success but he’d been out the managing for a decade and he is 78 years old.

TLR has won 2827 games (2nd most all-time) as a MLB manager over 35 seasons for a career winning percentage of 0.536.

Dusty Baker has won 1994 games (12th most all-time, he’ll move up to 9th by the end of this season) as a MLB manager over 25 seasons for a career winning percentage of 0.534.

Last edited 26 days ago by Joliet Orange Sox
chipporter

And I don’t think most folks think of Dusty Baker as a high level thinker, game and bullpen strategist, the way Reinsdorf tries to sell us TLR.

That being said, his teams look ready to play everyday, which lends credibility to the argument that team chemistry is as or more important than strategery.

Last edited 26 days ago by chipporter
Joliet Orange Sox

I think talented players matter more than strategy or chemistry. In 1983 for example, Hoyt, Dotson, Bannister, and Burns won the division – not TLR and strategy.

stevieb1953

Everyone is overthinking things. Granted TLR isn’t the greatest but he also isn’t the one not hitting, not pitching or making errors. Cease, Giolito and Kopech will be fine and as soon as we get Lynn and Kelly back from IR they will be also. Keuchel not so much, as well as Velasquez, both of which could be released before the end of the year. We know Abreu, TA, Grandal, Vaughn and Robert will also rake the long run. Don’t panic folks, it will all work out.