La Russa: Strange Days, Indeed
Here’s the thing: I think we all can piece together what was going through the mind of then 86-year-old White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf when he decided last year to pull then 76-year-old Tony La Russa out of the carbonite chamber and insert him as the manager of his exciting young team.
My guess is that Reinsdorf has reached that age where he has no faith in the younger generation. My guess is that Reinsdorf is now something like the older Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski,” griping at the kids, “Your revolution is over! Condolences! The bums lost! My advice is do what your parents did … get a job! The bums will always lose!”
In other words, Reinsdorf’s path to glory for the White Sox was not to look forward but to look back — to look back to that long-lost time when America built things, when you could keep your doors unlocked at night, when everybody could bunt, when hustle was the name of the game, when batting average and pitcher wins were all you needed, when ballplayers ran their home run trots with their heads down.
So Jerry Reinsdorf (and from what I can gather, Jerry Reinsdorf alone) hired Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to be the skipper of the Chicago White Sox (for a second time—he had managed the team from 1979 to ’86) La Russa really was the only choice with, you know, Walter Alston being dead.
And, whaddaya know, the White Sox won 93 games and ran away with the American League Central. I mean, who can argue with that? Yes, it’s true, La Russa did all sorts of kooky things, like praise an opponent for throwing at one of his players and grump his way through press gatherings and consistently forget to do things like pinch-hit for poor hitters with the game on the line or pull pitchers who were obviously fading or, you know, manage the team. Hey, the older we get, the more we all forget things.
But the bigger point, surely, was that the team won 93 games and even if they did get crushed by Houston in the playoffs, well, you could see why the now-87-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf would double down on the now-77-year-old Tony La Russa.
Well, it isn’t working as well this year. The White Sox are under .500 and, I guess, the most disappointing team in baseball so far. And, hey, I’m not saying that’s La Russa’s fault any more than I’m saying that last year’s 93-win-season proved La Russa’s genius. I’ve come to believe more and more that the relationship of a manager to the team’s success is about the same as the relationship of the President of the United State to the economy. There’s certainly stuff the President can do to help or hinder the economy, but in the end it’s going to be what it’s going to be.
Anyway, La Russa made one of the weirdest decisions I can remember on Thursday, and then explained it in the weirdest way, and I do wonder if we are getting close to the point where they’re going to have to send for the guys with the nets.
It was the sixth inning, and the White Sox were trailing the Dodgers 7-5. Freddie Freeman was on first for Los Angeles, and Trea Turner was batting against the marvelously named Chicago reliever Bennett Sousa.* There were two outs.
*Bennett Sousa sounds like the name of some old-time New York raconteur who would be quoted in the tabloids with witticisms like, “Yes, the quality of Broadway is going downhill, but so is the quality of the tourists!” or “The Christmas spirit is definitely alive and well in New York, I saw a mobster helping a little old lady across the street on his way to a hit.”
For housekeeping purposes, we’ll mention up front that Bennett Sousa is left-handed and Turner is right-handed. This plays a role in the story.
Anyway, Sousa vs. Turner, first pitch is a fastball that Turner takes for a strike. Second pitch is a slider that comes crashing in, and Turner fouls it off. The count is 0-2 and Sousa goes for the knockout. He buries a slider that gets by catcher Yasmani Grandal, and Freeman moves up a base.
OK, 1-2 count, what’s the strategy now? Another slider in? Fastball away? This is one of the reasons why we love baseball, right? We can follow the strategy of it, pitch by pitch.
There’s some sort of confusion on the field.
And now Trea Turner is going to first base. What? Why? Huh? It takes a few seconds to fully grasp that Tony La Russa really has decided to intentionally walk Trea Turner. On a 1-2 count. In the sixth inning. With two outs. With his team down two runs. With Max Muncy coming to the plate.
“There are two strikes on him, Tony!” someone helpfully yells out.
“Muncy is there,” La Russa would say afterward. “So it’s an easy call.”
Yeah. An easy call.
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People have broken down the statistical madness involved in this wacky decision — we can do that if you like, but I do feel that in so many ways this misses the point, sort of like spending time counting the number of steps that guy took before he cannon-ball jumped onto a hard sheet of ice that looked like a pool.
I mean it’s OBVIOUSLY madness to intentionally walk Turner there with two strikes. Obviously. Sure, La Russa blathered on about some ultra-specific stat — how well Turner has hit lefties this year with two strikes — which, frankly, is fairly insulting to talk about. Batters do not hit well after a 1-2 count. Which batters are were talking about?
Answer: ALL BATTERS
Wade Boggs after 1-2 count: .255/.304/.330
Mike Trout after 1-2 count: .212/303/.393
Miguel Cabrera after 1-2 count: .228/.285/.357
Barry Bonds after 1-2 count: .211/.315/427*
Chipper Jones: after 1-2 count:.200/.272/.349
*Bonds’ .742 OPS, while more than 300 points lower than his career OPS, is the HIGHEST ON RECORD after a 1-2 count.
This is pretty obvious stuff — it’s like gravity. Yes, there are a handful of amazing people who could do OK after a 1-2 count, like Tony Gwynn, who hit .292. But even that is a lot worse than Tony Gwynn the rest of the time.
Make no mistake: Nobody — and I mean nobody — hits well after a 1-2 count.
And this includes the vaunted Trea Turner, who is hitting .227/.277/.343 after 1-2 counts, exactly what you would expect.
BUT — Tony La Russa asks cheekily — do you know what he’s hitting after 1-2 counts this year?
And I do — he’s hitting .275/.296/.391, which is fine as far as that goes, but is such a small sample size that we obviously know it’s meaningless and … oh, wait, I’m sorry, that was not what Tony La Russa asked.
What he asked was: Do you know what Trea Turner is hitting this year after 1-2 counts AGAINST LEFTIES?
Ah. There’s a stat. How about — what is he hitting after 1-2 counts against lefties on a Thursday? No, wait, ask this one: What is he hitting on Thursdays after 1-2 counts in the sixth inning on the road against lefties with last names that start with S?
Isn’t it amazing how the people who most mock advanced statistics are the ones who rely on ultra-specific stats that could not possibly be more manufactured or meaningless?
Anyway, walking Turner there was simply indefensible, one of the worst intentional walks in memory, and in this particular case, Max Muncy — pleased to not have to bat with a 1-2 count — mashed a home run that put the game away.
After the game, La Russa asked the room of reporters, “Does anyone in this room really think that even with the count we should have gone after Turner?” I sure hope every single person in that room raised a hand. I mean, let’s take this to the next logical conclusion — La Russa is saying that if he has a lefty on the mound, he would rather face Max Muncy with a clean count than Trea Turner behind in the count 1-2. This is pure, unadulterated madness.
I mean, this man is the Baseball Hall of Fame. What’s even happening here?
On Friday, La Russa defended the ludicrous decision again, with the same, “It was an easy call,” line. Look, we all know the White Sox are going to stick with La Russa, because this is the way that Jerry Reinsdorf wants it. But really, for everybody’s sake, at some point they really should take the keys away from Grandpa.