Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2020

An Encore Fans Didn’t Know They Wanted

Last Tuesday night, when Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash stuck to the analytics-driven process that got his team to the World Series, pulling starter Blake Snell in the 6th inning of Game 6 rather than allow him to face the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup for a third time despite Snell’s dominant performance to that point, social media lost its collective mind. Twitter feeds across the country lit up with sportswriters, players on other teams, and fans excoriating Cash for not trusting his own eyes. When reliever Kevin Anderson promptly allowed the Dodgers to seize a lead that would ultimately prove decisive, the criticism of the Rays manager redoubled. A few even went so far as to declare the death of the Great Game’s heavy reliance on advanced metrics, surely an exercise in extreme wishful thinking by a shrinking minority who presumably look back fondly on the dead ball era and insist the designated hitter rule ruined baseball.

A mere two days later, when the Chicago White Sox surprised almost everyone by announcing the hiring of 76-year-old Tony La Russa as the team’s new manager, social media once again went berserk. But this time, much of the torrent of complaints directed at Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was for the exact opposite reason, namely that La Russa, whose last decisions in a dugout were made in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series when his St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers to win the franchise’s eleventh title, was too old and had been away from managing too long to possibly understand the analytics that a modern bench skipper must embrace. There being no prizes for consistency on social media, it should come as no surprise that some of Thursday’s carping and Tuesday’s complaints were from the exact same sources.

It would be useless to suggest these posters can’t have it both ways, since at times doing just that seems to be their whole point. It is also extremely unlikely that either Cash’s ill-timed signal to the bullpen or La Russa’s return to a dugout will have any lasting impact on the commitment of every major league team to mining increasingly detailed statistics that go light years beyond the old standards of batting and earned run averages, and then using that data to inform everything from free agent signings and trade decisions to which pinch hitter to use in the bottom of the 7th with one out and a slow runner at second base in a one-run ballgame in mid-June. Welcome to the Great Game, early 21st century edition.

But Chicago’s decision to bring an apparently extremely willing La Russa out of managerial retirement is questionable beyond his understanding of, or commitment to, modern metrics. In his own antediluvian way, in fact, La Russa at his previous stops demonstrated an almost slavish devotion to the precursor of the analysis that now goes on. During a decade in Oakland that began in 1986, and half again as long in St. Louis starting in 1996, La Russa was known to make multiple pitching changes during a game to ensure the most favorable matchups between opposing batters and his chosen hurler. His repeated calls to the bullpen were based on the age-old “lefty versus righty and vice versa” mantra, not the most sophisticated analysis ever created. But the basic idea is not all that different from what’s now gleaned from pages of spreadsheets.

The approach didn’t always endear him to fans, who were forced to adapt to a pace of play that has since become all too familiar across major league baseball. Although most in both the Bay area and on the banks of the Mississippi doubtless felt that was a small price to pay for regular trips to the postseason and a total of three championships, one with the A’s in 1989 and a pair with the Cards, the first coming in 2006 before what fans and the media assumed was La Russa’s swan song in 2011.

After seven straight losing seasons that included a hundred-loss campaign in 2018, the White Sox snuck into this year’s expanded playoffs as one of the American League Wild Card teams. While Chicago lost to Oakland in three games, they were one of just two first round losers to avoid being swept, and they finished the truncated schedule with thirty-five wins, just one game behind the Twins in the AL Central and tied with Cleveland. It was a young team that showed great promise, and when manager Rick Renteria was fired it seemed like the franchise was ready to do whatever it could to take the next step. Renteria’s dismissal was accompanied by a promise that the White Sox would look for a replacement “with recent championship experience.”

Fans were probably thinking of A.J. Hinch or Alex Cora, both available with the conclusion of their suspensions from the Astros cheating scandal. But Reinsdorf apparently had a more expansive view of “recent.” He had previously stated that he regarded the firing of La Russa during the 1986 season as the biggest mistake of his ownership, and the two men have remained close. That latter fact combined with the available candidates who were passed over makes this seem like an act based on emotion rather than reason.

There’s also reason to question how well La Russa will relate to a roster that skews young, and whether he can accommodate the way the game has changed outside the lines since he last managed. Players have become more demonstrative, in ways that someone steeped in the Great Game’s traditions may find excessive. And while major leaguers are far less outspoken on social issues than their counterparts in the NBA or NFL, this season saw a level of activism that would have been unheard of a decade ago. Given La Russa’s previous negative comments on everything from Fernando Tatis Jr. homering on a 3-0 pitch to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, the answer may not be one players will be interested in hearing.

Still, there are those three titles as well as a winning record at each of his previous managerial stops, including the first time on Chicago’s south side. The White Sox will be the first team ever managed by a skipper who already has a plaque in Cooperstown. Perhaps this time next year fans in Chicago will be talking about Reinsdorf’s brilliant decision as they make their way home from a championship parade. But for now, at least, it seems far more likely that they’ll be sitting in their living rooms facing another long Chicago winter, and if they speak of the White Sox owner at all, it will only be to ask “what the hell was he thinking?”

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