There was a time when Tony La Russa was considered an inventive, forward-thinking manager. That was over a decade ago, when La Russa led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series win in 2011 and retired from baseball.
La Russa spent nine seasons away from the game before Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf brought La Russa back and entrusted him with a team that had World Series aspirations. It was a chance for the ever-loyal Reinsdorf to right a wrong after La Russa was prematurely fired by the team during the 1986 season, and a chance for La Russa to prove he still one more World Series run in him.
Instead, the only thing the 77-year-old La Russa proved in 2022 is that the game passed him by and the White Sox should cut bait before it’s too late.
The pièce de résistance of La Russa’s embarrassing return to the dugout came during Thursday’s 11-9 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the White Sox trailing by two runs in the top of the sixth, La Russa decided to walk Trea Turner with a 1-2 count so lefty reliever Bennett Souza could face lefty Max Muncy with two outs. Five pitches later, Muncy blasted a pitch to the opposite field for a three-run homer.
La Russa faced scrutiny for the move even before Muncy hit the home run. Freddie Freeman looked confused and the White Sox broadcasters — Jason Benetti and Steve Stone — were at a loss for words. Even a fan in the stands recognized the folly of La Russa’s move, shouting, “He had two strikes, Tony” so loud it was picked up on the White Sox’s broadcast.
Given hours to reflect on the decision, La Russa doubled down after the game, saying walking Turner with a 1-2 count “wasn’t a tough decision,” per NBC Sports Chicago.
“Is there some question about whether that was a good move or not? You know what he hits against left-handed pitching? With 0-1 or two strikes, you know what he hits? You know what Muncy hits with two strikes against left-handed pitching? Is that really a question? Because it was 1-2? Turner was a strike left against a left-hander, something you can avoid if you can.
“We had an open base and Muncy happened to be the guy behind him and that’s the better matchup. If somebody disagrees, that’s the beauty of this game. Welcome to it. That wasn’t a tough call.”
Some digging on FanGraphs reveals that’s not true. Turner is a .258/.313/.390 hitter with a 1-2 count against lefties over his career, good for a .703 OPS, barely above the league average. Muncy hits .253/.366/.499 against lefties over his career, good for an .865 OPS, well above league average. Muncy was more likely to get on base and hit for power in that situation. He had every right to pop off after making La Russa’s decision look foolish.
There is no rational explanation for La Russa ordering a walk to Turner in a 1-2 count. It was an inexplicable move that cost the White Sox another game.
Tony La Russa’s mistakes are piling up
It’s also far from the only egregious mistake by La Russa since his return to the dugout. In the fifth inning, La Russa allowed a struggling Dylan Cease to throw 45 pitches before pulling him. Cease was eventually charged with six runs in the frame, coughing up the White Sox’s 4-0 lead.
With Tim Anderson sidelined, La Russa used utility man Leury Garcia in the leadoff spot multiple times. Garcia has a 24 wRC+ this season, meaning he’s hit roughly 75 percent worse than the league average. La Russa has prioritized getting Garcia more plate appearances over promoting breakout sophomore Andrew Vaughn or burgeoning star Luis Robert to the leadoff spot.
The lineup is a perpetual issue for La Russa. Despite being one of the best hitters on the team, Vaughn — a 24-year-old standout — received a planned day of rest Wednesday even though the team did not play Monday. Yoan Moncada, who is hitting .136 and has battled injuries all season, continues to hit in the No. 3 spot.
La Russa mistakes aren’t limited to 2022. He also faced criticism last season for allowing reliever Liam Hendriks to run the bases in extra innings because La Russa didn’t know about the rule change.
The White Sox are underperforming
Following Thursday’s loss, the White Sox are 26-29 and sit five games back of the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. Chicago has a -57 run differential, the fourth worst figure in the American League.
La Russa’s poor decisions have played a big role in the team’s disappointing start, though the blame doesn’t solely fall on him. General manager Rick Hahn once again resorted to half measures to try and plug the White Sox’s most glaring holes. Josh Harrison, 34, was signed on the cheap to try and replicate last season’s success, unproven outfielder Gavin Sheets was slated to start in right field before a last-second trade for A.J. Pollock and the White Sox added no starting pitching depth despite going into the year with declining Dallas Keuchel and a workload-limited Michael Kopech as prominent members of the rotation.
Injuries to prominent players have made things more difficult, but there’s still enough talent in the lineup, rotation and the revamped bullpen to make the White Sox a winning team. La Russa’s refusal to adjust his lineup and pitching strategies around those injuries haven’t put the White Sox in a position to overcome their losses.
A change at manager is past due
Firing La Russa won’t guarantee the White Sox suddenly turn things around. Perhaps poor roster construction and injuries are too much to overcome and the White Sox will continue to earn the moniker “most disappointing team in baseball.”
But the Philadelphia Phillies have shown the value in replacing a manager who has run his course. The Phillies are a perfect 6-0 since firing Joe Girardi and replacing him with Rob Thomson. Changes to the Phillies’ lineup sparked the team’s winning streak. It’s also lifted morale in the clubhouse, where Phillies players celebrated so loudly they nearly drown out a Thomson press conference after another win.
History suggests the White Sox won’t make that change. Reinsdorf is loyal to a fault, and has waited until the offseason to dismiss other overmatched managers in recent years. He can’t afford to make the same mistake this time.
Expectations are much higher under La Russa. With the team finally ready to contend for a World Series title, La Russa was handpicked by the owner to take the team to the promised land.
Reinsdorf stood by La Russa after he was arrested for a DUI before the team hired him, and continues to stand by La Russa despite multiple on-field missteps. In four months, when the White Sox and La Russa amicably “part ways” after another disappointing year, Reinsdorf will likely continue to praise La Russa’s baseball acumen.
By then, of course, it will be too late. The White Sox will have wasted yet another promising season after stubbornly standing by a manager who is in over his head.
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