Tony La Russa’s blind spots reappear on disastrous White Sox road trip
So much has gone wrong for the White Sox on their 0-6 road trip to Cleveland and Minneapolis. Generally speaking, a lot has to go wrong to go 0-6 against two respectable, but not formidable, teams.
The White Sox offense scored just one twisted number in 55 innings, and they needed a 10th inning to score four runs in a game. The defense committed 11 errors in six games, giving it a league-worst 18 errors and a .965 fielding percentage. Fielding percentage is normally a lazy way to gauge defense, of course, but it describes the problem 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 (excellent)
- Lucas Giolito (good)
- Dylan Cease (decent)
- Vince Velasquez (bad)
- Dallas Keuchel (LOL)
…but the positive contributions were undermined by poor pen work, and with outcomes that were negatively correlated with wages. José Ruiz, Tanner Banks and Reynaldo López did their job 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 to blame for all the physical errors on the pitch, but threw himself into the mix at the very end of the series with the unfortunate first guess decision to have Liam Hendriks . throw to Byron Buxton with an open base and one out in the 10th inning on Sunday.
Hendriks had to throw to Buxton at the start of the plate appearance, as there was no open base before the first pitch, when Hendriks bounced a curveball off Yasmani Grandal’s forearm which allowed the two runners to climb back 90 feet.
Even after the runners moved on, it made some meaning to explore the possibility of a strikeout. Lucas Giolito had knocked out Buxton in each of his first three plate appearances of the game, and Hendriks knocked Buxton almost into foul territory on the 1-0 fastball to tie the count. Walk Buxton loads the bases for another good hitter with Luis Arraez, so no automatic relief in a free pass, so I work out of the box to explore the two-out two-hitter opportunity. Both are suboptimal picks, but that’s the risk Hendriks took in walking a third-ninth batter to get one of baseball’s best talents to the plate.
But once he fell behind 3-1 with two more fastballs and showed no desire to use a breaking ball, that’s when all sense evaporated. After all, Tony La Russa saw this same scenario unfold on April 16, when Hendriks trailed Ji-Man Choi 3-1 with two outs in the ninth inning, and first base opened up thanks to a runner. which was going up.
There is a key difference, in that Hendriks had two outs instead of one. This made it a bit easier to give Choi the pass when opening first base during the battle, as it was then only a matter of Hendriks being able to beat Taylor Walls, which he did.
Here, walking Buxton meant facing Arraez with the bases loaded and an out, then Jorge Polaco afterwards if the game went that far. But because Buxton demolished a 3-1 Hendriks fastball, the game never even got to Arraez.
What is ironic, because Tony La Russa made his fear of Arraez a point of attention in his post-game media session, to the point of twisting the whole script. Via James Fegan:
“Yeah, there is an option. Throw it hard. But the guy on deck (Arraez) is hitting .300 and he’s feasting on fastballs. You give a thrower a chance to throw. (Hendriks) tried to bounce a curve ball, created (runners on) second and third. Whenever you load the bases, you better have a significant advantage with the guy on the bridge. Because you’re playing into his hands and the guy on the bridge is a badass. We had a better chance of doing what (Giolito) did to him the first two times.
This breaks down on two levels.
Tier One: Arraez “hits .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 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 untouchable.
Anyway, here’s Buxton spinning around a Muñoz fastball at 101 mph on an 0-2 count over the zone for an eighth-inning home run a few days earlier.
If Buxton can catch up to 100.5mph on a 0-2 count, you can see why he wouldn’t be fazed by 98mph on a 3-1. That’s probably how he hit Hendriks’ fastball 33 feet out.
Level two: Hendriks should have faced Arraez regardless.
La Russa’s explanation above gives the impression that he considered the Buxton OR Arraez situation, rather than Buxton AND Arraez. Even if Hendriks somehow pulled Buxton out, Arraez would have come to the plate with two outs. There’s pretty much no way to avoid this game unless Buxton gets into a double play, or a sack fly attempt is too shallow.
It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but I can establish some logical consistency by linking it to La Russa’s attempts to rationalize other confusing decisions in the past.
If you’re looking for baseball-centric reasoning, La Russa seems to have an unhealthy fixation on contact for contact. There was last May, when La Russa didn’t hit for Leury García or Billy Hamilton because he was “looking for a single” in the eighth inning when the Sox were trailing by three and both players accounted for the tying run.
There’s also this whole month, when he lifted García to third and second in the order to push him forward, as if he was an integral part of the attack rather than someone to be reflexively entered into the lower third.
There’s also the opener of this series, when he didn’t hit Grandal for Reese McGuire or Jake Burger with the tying run in third, even though Grandal was by far the best hitter available.
Grandal proved his worth by delivering a free kick to the right field wall with two outs in the 10th on Sunday.
If you don’t buy this theory, the only other precedent is even less flattering:
La Russa thinking there were two withdrawals instead of one.
Hey, wouldn’t be the first time. Last April, La Russa let an admittedly tired Lucas Giolito face four more batters, a move that made sense when La Russa recounted the wrong number of outs in his summary:
” That is what he said ? Well, it’s my fault that I didn’t recognize because I looked at him, he took out the first guy, which wasn’t good, and he got two outs (note: he got some). pulled out one), at which point I was confident he would bring out the third.
La Russa may have misspoken, but he reflected the incorrect number of outs twice. Also, then and now, the way he handled both situations reflected the idea that his pitcher had only one batter left to retire.
However, if I want to maintain my own logical consistency, I should refer to Choi at bat above, when I said that La Russa might have been more likely to issue the walk if Arraez was the last batter standing. . Alas, when the only explanations given are so riddled with holes, it’s hard to line everything up. Maybe we cling to the air after a certain point.
Regardless of the specific “why”, the result has been the kind of failure that shakes confidence even if the other facets of the White Sox eventually recover, and the kind that risks upsetting the whole experience if faced with faulty elements throughout the season. James Fegan’s article suggests that such skeptics are in their ranks:
The White Sox hired La Russa for his experience, instincts and feel in these situations, and they believed these traits would help the team more often than not. If you are a fan, or even a team employee who doesn’t believe their experience always translates into statistically optimal decisionsit’s the inefficiencies in those moments that you fear could prevent 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 list is the list, especially as long as Lance Lynn, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez are absent. That means the players will have to step up, but it means La Russa also has to elevate their game. that facilitate pointing the way.