The Mastermind

Tony La Russa's been doing this a long time. Has it been too long?

When I was in high school and college, there was a baseball book that I tended to read every year or so. It’s the first book I owned that actually started to fall apart from use. That book was George Will’s Men At Work. For those that haven’t read it, he used one player to illustrate and focus the decision of an aspect of baseball. For pitching, he used Orel Hershiser, not far removed from his remarkable 1988 season. For hitting, he used Tony Gwynn. For defense, Cal Ripken.

And, for managing, he used Tony La Russa.

An excerpt from the book ran in Sports Illustrated with “The Mastermind” as the headline cover. That cover brought TLR a lot of grief throughout his life, because he never claimed to have the game completely figured out. What he was, beyond very smart, was on the vanguard of the statistical revolution. He and Dave Duncan charted the result of every pitch, because as he said you remember the big double a guy hit, you forget the 10 times he grounded to third. The use of bullpens was also in part for batters to see fresh arms, something we still discuss with the third-time-through penalty, etc. The late ‘80s-early ‘90s A’s won in part because they had more information, a trait that continued into the Moneyball era.

As Harvey Dent once said, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

If TLR hadn’t gone out with that improbable World Series championship, I wonder if people would remember him as someone that had lost his edge, retiring because the game had passed him by. It seems a little crazy to think of that, but after a missed playoffs in 2010 and with the team 10 1/2 back late in 2011, there were some of those concerns.

Now he’s back in the dugout after ten years off. If the concerns were there before that magical run, you know they are going to come back out after that sort of gap. On the field, it’s not much of an issue. The White Sox are 26-19 and a game and a half clear in the division. Off the field…..well, that’s a different story.

Not knowing one of the extra inning rules is one thing. Not everyone is aware of that little wrinkle about the pitcher not having to run. It’s not a good look when the manager doesn’t know it, but it’s not something he’s had to deal with in his long career. The Yermin Mercedes issue is a different story.

There’s no doubt that Twitter and other things were probably looking for some confirmation of this idea that TLR was the old crusty guy out of step with today’s young players. Even as the White Sox players seemed to embrace the Hall of Famer, that idea was still out there. Never let it be said that La Russa does things halfway, though. When he wants to confirm something, he makes it clear.

It feels possible to me that the main issue we have here is Mercedes ignored the take sign in the game in question. If so, I can understand TLR’s frustration and complaint. As a manager, you don’t want to be ignored, even if it happens to work out.

However, to make a public case out of it was not a real smart idea. That’s an internal issue, taken care of in the clubhouse. I can’t believe anyone asked about that sort of play in a game the White Sox won by double digits, which means TLR probably brought it up himself. I’ve always admired La Russa’s way of taking the media glare off of his team and on him in tough times, but that wasn’t what happened here. TLR put the focus on Mercedes and tried to throw him under the bus. The problem for him is the bus changed course and went after the skipper.

Even if you can somehow deal with all of that, the fact that La Russa approved of the Twins throwing at Mercedes (which, let’s be honest, I can’t believe they would have done so if TLR hadn’t made a big deal about some supposed unwritten rules) is unforgivable. That’s when La Russa comes out after the game and says, “Look, I said this was an internal matter that would be dealt with. The Twins don’t have any reason to go after our players.” To agree with the vigilante justice, especially in an instance when there’s no clear INJUSTICE, does make it seem that things are too different today for La Russa to understand.

So far there have been many players coming out to support their teammate, putting their names to their comments. I have not seen any such support of the manager.

Winning solves most everything, of course, and if the White Sox continue to put distance between themselves and the Twins, things will probably be fine. However, if the White Sox start sinking, that tension is probably only going to make things worse.

The Last Time We Met……

Sorry, that intro section usually isn’t as long but La Russa has always inspired strong passions in folks. The Cardinals actually got to see the White Sox last year, given the strange configuration of just seeing Central Division teams, no matter what league they were in. The meeting of these two was pretty notable, given that it was the first series St. Louis played after a two week COVID shutdown.

The first two games were on a Saturday, meaning that they were seven inning affairs. The Cards took Game 1 by scoring four in the first, coming out of quarantine fired up. (The first run scored after Matt Carpenter was hit by a pitch, the second HBP in a row. Somehow nobody thought Lucas Giolito should have been sent to the minors.) Adam Wainwright made that stand up five innings of one run ball and baseball was back in a good way.

Game 2 was also a St. Louis victory, again in part to a four run inning. This time it came in the fifth with the big blow a Tyler O’Neill home run. This was a game that showed where COVID had made an impact, as Jake Woodford got the start, allowing a run in three innings, and was backed by four relievers, with Genesis Cabrera getting the win.

The magic ran out in Game 3, however. The White Sox scored one in the first and the game stayed 1-0 until the fifth, when Roel Ramirez replaced Dakota Hudson. You remember Ramirez, don’t you? This was the only game the third piece of the Tommy Pham trade got into but it was historic. He struck out the first batter he faced in the majors! Oh, wait, that wasn’t the historic part. It was the four consecutive home runs he allowed.

The Opponent

We’ve talked much about the White Sox already, at least some of the public issues, but overall they are a good team. They are missing Luis Robert, who is out for much of the season with a hip injury, but they continue to plug along. Eloy Jimenez is also out, residing on the 60-day IL. The fact that the White Sox are still in first is a testament to how talented this team is. (The weak AL Central doesn’t hurt either.)

Looking at the stats, the Sox are sixth in the majors in OPS at .747 but they are 25th in home runs with just 44. (The Cardinals, for comparison, have 55.) They are seventh in runs, so that would seem to indicate to me a pretty sustained attack, more likely a lot of singles with a few doubles (and triples—they have 10 of them) mixed in there.

Pitching is also a strength, which isn’t a surprise given who is in the rotation. They are sixth in ERA with a 3.33 mark but are only nine of 18 in save situations. Those blown saves must be coming from the middle relievers because Liam Hendriks has just two blown saves on the year and hasn’t allowed an earned run since April 24.

The Mound Men

Monday: Kwang Hyun Kim (1-1, 2.73 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 4.56 xERA) vs. Lance Lynn (4-1, 1.55 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 2.48 xERA)

Tuesday: Jack Flaherty (8-0, 2.53 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.06 xERA) vs. Lucas Giolito (3-4, 4.35 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 3.76 xERA)

Wednesday: John Gant (3-3, 2.04 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 5.03 xERA) vs. Carlos Rodon (5-1, 1.27 ERA, 1.91 FIP, 2.12 xERA)

xERA courtesy of FanGraphs

Hard to believe this is the fourth season Lance Lynn has pitched in something other than a Cardinals uniform. The Cardinals bet that he was going to start tailing off and didn’t try to bring him back with all the young arms they had in the system. Perhaps the young arms have paid off some but Lynn’s performance is still as steady and reliable as they come. Only once has he gone over six innings (a shutout against the Royals in his second start) but he’s only given up over two runs once this year. He gave up two runs over six innings last time out in a game the Sox lost to the Twins. He has gone against his old team only once, allowing three runs in three innings back in 2018.

The game that will get the most attention is Tuesday, when high school teammates Flaherty and Giolito hook up. We know how good Flaherty has been, of course. Giolito has two really bad outings (seven earned in one inning against the Red Sox, five in six innings against the Royals) skewing his season stats from a level that would be in line with Flaherty’s. Last time he pitched, he gave up two hits and a run in eight innings against the Twins, striking out 11 on the way. Even though the Cards got to him last year, this shapes up to be a real pitcher’s duel. (So it’ll finish 11-8.)

Rodon, of course, was just a couple of inches of break away from a perfect game earlier in the year, settling for an now-ubiquitous no-hitter. He’s been really, really good since then as well. He gave up four runs to the Royals two starts ago, but had allowed just two runs between the no-hitter and that game. He faced the Yankees in his last start and merely struck out 13 in six two-hit shutout innings. Well then.

The Hot Seat

It’s still got to be the bullpen and I think it still has to be Tyler Webb. Seth Elledge went down to Memphis when Miles Mikolas was (temporarily) activated from the IL. We’ll see if Junior Fernandez does any better. However, as we continue to note, the Cards have to find someone that they can at least somewhat rely on to not throw gas on the fire besides the Big Three (and Ryan Helsley). Daniel Ponce de Leon may move into that spot but I continue not to be able to see a situation you would actually bring Webb into a game, unless you are down by six or so.

Assorted Crudités

I have had the occasional chance to catch radio broadcasts this year while running errands during a game. The battle with COVID-19 that Mike Shannon had has left him scarred, or at least completely devoid of energy. There is very little of that chipper, crazy uncle energy that Shannon has always had. Age is a factor, of course, because even the last few years he hasn’t been quite as full of pep, but now it’s very tough to listen to him. A routine out to end an inning created crowd noise that drowned him out. The shot of him on the ESPN broadcast last night showed him looking physically worse for wear also. I’m glad that that he is still with us but I’m sure that if this wasn’t his 50th, he would have retired this offseason. Like with Albert Pujols, the last years of a legend can be hard.

As I wrote over at the blog today, the loss of Dylan Carlson at the top of this lineup can’t be overstated. The two games he has been out has shown a reversion to that limited offense that plagued the team early on. Tyler O’Neill is missed significantly as well.

I wonder if Max Moroff and Andrew Knizner have some epic card games since the odds of either one of them getting into a game are minimal. At least Knizner should, in theory, get a start during this seventeen game stretch. Moroff doesn’t even rate pinch-hitting duties unless the game is out of hand.

Edmundo Sosa hit .588 last week. I don’t care who you are or how much it may be the league not knowing who he is, that’s a remarkable week. If this keeps up, Paul DeJong can take plenty of time to heal.

Random Links

Currently listening to: Same thing as last week, though I think I have just a couple of minutes of that episode of Cardinals Off Day. Really enjoyed Kyle visiting with the Bens. Probably will pick up with the new Seeing Red when it comes out later today.

Currently reading: Same stuff. This weekend was very busy, most notably because my daughter turned 14 and had an elaborate murder mystery party yesterday, so between that and some other things not much got done this weekend. I did find time to write a Saturday post, though, which doesn’t happen that often.