‘We know what’s going on’: Inside the unlikely union of TLR and the White Sox

Sports

THIS IS IT: one last stand against the stenographers and yes-men, the bean-counters and numbers-crunchers, the button-pushers and script-readers. One last stand against those who live in mortal fear of being wrong, those who trust the numbers more than their gut, those without the stones to go against the percentages and live with the consequences.

All of this, every bunt based on a hunch, every defense of an unwritten rule, is for them. It’s for every guy in every dugout who doesn’t have the savvy or the experience to know that a one-run game sometimes reveals itself slowly starting in the fourth or fifth inning. It’s for the guys upstairs who can’t look up from their screens long enough to care that a real-life game is taking place involving real-life humans. It’s for anyone who discounts the predictive power of experience, how one game portends another and for anyone who fails to see the occasional competitive advantage of a fastball to the ribs.

This is Tony La Russa’s quest: a 76-year-old man, a Hall of Famer, engaging in the quotidian task of proving a big-league manager can still be an active participant and not simply a curator. La Russa believes many of the same things he has believed his entire managerial career, which everyone — including him — thought ended when he retired after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. He believes he can coax a hitter out of a slump by forcing him to swing on a hit-and-run. He believes there are times — many times — when giving up an out to gain a base is both necessary and prudent, and he believes anyone who disagrees is either ignorant or afraid to make a mistake.

His players are among those who do not adhere to the tenets of his faith. Catcher Yasmani Grandal is so analytically driven, and so pitch-sequencing compulsive, that he’s been known to sit down at a computer to assess a just-completed game before he removes his spikes. Starter Carlos Rodón, an All Star for the first time, breathed life back into his career this season with the help of a new-agey pitching coach, Ethan Katz, and a device called Core Velocity Belt, which helped him incorporate his lower half into his motion.

“We’re constantly using the metrics,” Rodón says. “Spin rate, carry, perceived velocity. All of it goes into knowing how to use your tools.” He threw a no-hitter in his second start of the season; his strikeouts are up, and his walks are down. In a June 8 start against Toronto, his 106th and final pitch of the night was 97 mph.

Liam Hendriks is one of the game’s best closers: second in baseball with 23 saves, 0.74 WHIP and a ridiculous K/BB ratio of 16.3. After each game he goes over his arm’s extension rates and the vertical stats on each of his pitches. These numbers dictate his workload; decreased extension generally indicates his arm is getting weary, and a lack of rise on his fastball means he’s getting under his pitches and leaving them flat in the zone.

The White Sox are not unique in their reliance on advanced metrics. They are, however, playing for a man who disparages front-office quants by saying, “I don’t think they appreciate that those percentages are just that,” La Russa says. “When you go into the reality of a game, the game is the reality.” And these players with their extension rates and perceived velocities play for a man who, as he has shown on more than one occasion, is not above publicly denouncing his own players if they choose to run afoul of an archaic code that fewer and fewer people see the need to uphold.

La Russa’s type of managing is nearly extinct, for reasons that run from the strategic to the sociological. Front offices have usurped much of the power from the man in the dugout, mostly because decisions based on probabilities have proved to be more reliable than those based on premonitions. And today’s players are much less responsive to the paternalistic, martinet approach, where one man is in charge of both defining and enforcing rules to be imposed on grown men.

And yet here is Tony La Russa, whose hiring was viewed as either comical or outrageous, managing one of baseball’s best teams, one with more than its share of big personalities and big opinions, one that could win its way through October. They coexist, manager and players, attempting to metabolize their differences in pursuit of a common goal: winning. Without this team’s vast potential, La Russa wouldn’t be here, standing in the dugout, hands in his back pockets, a familiar lean toward the field as he rocks side to side, his posture the physical embodiment of his go-to-hell attitude. He is a clenched fist in human form, directed at the game, in defense of the way it once was and never again will be.


DESPITE ALL THAT, it’s probably not entirely accurate to say La Russa is the enemy of fun. There was the scene in the dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field on June 5, for example, when he stood there in his black-with-white-pinstripes Southside uniform and heard shortstop Tim Anderson make an announcement:

“Can’t wear this hat straight,” Anderson said. “You got to have a little tilt.”

Upon hearing this news, La Russa turned from his perch, one step to the right of the dugout stairs, and faced the dugout. He grabbed the bill of his cap with his right hand and, with great ceremony, pivoted it roughly 30 degrees to the left.

“This tilted enough, TA?” he asked, then turned it a few more degrees. “Tell me, TA — is this enough?”

Everyone in the dugout laughed, because it was unexpected and funny, but also because it conformed to the ongoing sitcom that is Chicago’s season. Anderson is the team’s unquestioned leader, a remarkable talent and one of the most vibrant personalities in the game. When La Russa was hired in October to replace Rick Renteria after the White Sox’ most successful season in more than a decade, the attention immediately turned to Anderson, whom La Russa describes by saying, “Tim brings more life and spirit before, during and after a game than any player I’ve been around.” In addition to being out of the dugout for 10 years, La Russa’s hiring raised issues that are only tangential to the game. His two DUIs, one of which was not known publicly until after he was hired, would seem to indicate he lacks the discipline he preaches. And his views on social issues — he questioned Colin Kaepernick’s sincerity, a claim he has since softened — are at odds with many of the players on his roster. He frequently refers to himself as a “patriot,” as in, “Since today is D-Day and because I’m a patriot, I put The Longest Day on the television in the clubhouse at 9:30 this morning.” For years he said he would not tolerate a player kneeling for the national anthem. How could he relate to Anderson, an outspoken member of The Players’ Alliance, off the field and an exuberant entertainer on it?

“My relationship with him is great,” Anderson says. “I’m able to go into his office and tell him anything. Like a dad, he’s there when we need him, but at the same time we know he’s not going out there on the field and playing those games. We know what’s going on, and he knows it. He’s around. We deal with it — no worries. It’s a big family with all types of people, and we have fun with it.

“We know. We know. That’s all I can say: we know.”

Anderson laughs and chooses not to elaborate. The season has had it all: frustration, confusion, hilarity. It has also included far more wins than losses and an 9.5-game lead in the AL Central, success that has eased the White Sox and La Russa into a détente. There is a lot embedded in Anderson’s “We know,” most of it beginning on the night of May 17, when Yermin Mercedes hit a home run off Twins position player Willians Astudillo on a 3-0 pitch with the White Sox leading 15-4. It was hilarious on many levels: The game’s two roundest icons aligning in blissful synergy to turn a 47-mph pitch and a mighty swing into a memorable moment. The homer put Mercedes’ batting average at .364, adding to the Rule-5-draft, eight-years-in-the-minors, five-home-runs-in-April legend that had taken baseball by storm in the early weeks of the season.

La Russa, not surprisingly, saw it less enthusiastically. He criticized Mercedes, calling him “clueless” for swinging at a 3-0 pitch and allegedly ignoring a take sign. He vowed to exact some nebulous form of punishment. The next night, after Tyler Duffey of the Twins threw a pitch behind Mercedes, La Russa said, “I didn’t have a problem with what the Twins did.” Major League Baseball, however, did, hitting Duffey with a three-game suspension.

“If the other side is getting beat, they’re not happy,” La Russa tells me a few weeks later. “Why would you give them a reason to retaliate against our player? If you feel you have enough runs, why bury teams and give them a chance to get upset? When I said what I said, I’m just protecting the family. This thing gets all confused with the unwritten rules. People have fun with that stuff. But are guys throwing up three-point plays up 30 points with two or three minutes left in a game? Do you respect your profession? Would you do something to demean it?”

Mercedes’ teammates, and much of the baseball world, sided with him, possibly because setting your own player up to be targeted — and not defending him when it happens — is not how most functional families operate. White Sox starter Lance Lynn defended Mercedes and suggested the unwritten rules should be erased entirely, which caused La Russa to clap back. “Lance has a locker,” he said. “I have an office.”

La Russa also chose not to defend starting pitcher Lucas Giolito when he was thrown out of a game in early June for arguing balls and strikes from the dugout. La Russa said he told crew chief Greg Gibson that Giolito “made a mistake.” It’s nothing new. In 1995, he called his right fielder with the A’s, Ruben Sierra, a “village idiot” after Sierra criticized A’s general manager Sandy Alderson for never having played the game.

The Mercedes episode is the defining moment in the White Sox first half, and La Russa is clearly unhappy to have it detract from a team that is leading the AL Central despite significant injuries to a third of its starting lineup. “All I had to do was have one meeting to explain it,” he says, a cold undertow in his voice, “and Mercedes was fine with it. I read the number of how nobody has swung at a 3-0 pitch with that big of a lead” — 557 hitters in the past 20 years faced a 3-0 count with at least a 10-run lead, and Mercedes was the first to swing — “and then I read in the same article where the writer said, ‘That doesn’t mean the tradition is right.’ Really? Come on, man.

“Major League Baseball wants more personality in the game, and that’s why I don’t blame the players. [The league is] encouraging it. I’m all for whatever MLB says, but that’s been different. They’ve really tried to appeal to young people and see that these guys have fire and personality. It’s all to the good, but as a manager you have to do what’s best for your team.”

And while the main talking point among the White Sox is to publicly dismiss any discord between team and manager — “Tony has a lot of respect,” Katz says, “and the players respect him” — Anderson pushed back against La Russa with barbed humor. “We’re like the bad kids who don’t listen,” he said a few days after the Mercedes home run. “At the end of the day, we’re going to go out there and play the way that we want to play. We’re going to enjoy it and have fun with it.”

Three weeks later, I asked Anderson if he regretted that statement. “No – it was the perfect quote at the perfect time. Dad might have been mad for a little bit, but he’ll get over it.”


ANDERSON IS THE rare player who is worth watching even when he doesn’t do much. It feels as though he heard all the angst about how boring baseball is, and he’s come up with a solution: I’ll just play a different game. He begins every game by drawing a cross in the infield dirt and saluting the umpires, who don’t always salute back. A simple force at second, with him coming across the bag like a hummingbird to take a throw, is art. When he throws across his body, especially from deep in the hole, the movement is so liquid and the throw so forceful it’s like all his bones get out of the way. He exudes an emotion that is so infrequently expressed that it can require a double take. What is this — joy?

“It’s easy to be a good person and leave a positive impression on people,” Anderson says. “I wake up and my kids are happy. I come to the field and win and I’m happy. I go home afterward and my kids are happy again. There’s no time to be unhappy. We ain’t doing nothing but playing baseball, and I want people to be as happy as I am. Except for the other team; I want them to hate playing against me.”

The White Sox, as a team, don’t make a ton of sense. In a three-true-outcome world, they have the second-fewest homers in the American League, a statistic attributable, at least in part, to the injuries that have kept Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert sidelined for all (Jimenez) or most (Robert) of the season. Mercedes, who had already been cooling off after his record-breaking start, took a steep dive after the infamous 3-0 homer. From that day until his demotion on July 2, he hit an MLB-worst .162 with one homer in 123 plate appearances. The White Sox have just three players, Anderson, Yoan Moncada and Jose Abreu, among the top 80 in OPS. Grandal, whose offensive stats (.188 batting average, .824 OPS) are their own category of nonsense, tore a tendon in his knee in early July and could miss more than a month. They have one of the worst team fielding percentages in the big leagues. It’s their pitching — especially their starting pitching — that has carried them to the best record in the American League and a comfortable lead in the soul-crushing AL Central.

Then again, there is a great deal about La Russa that does not add up. He was, at one time, ahead of his time. He introduced the world to the granular use of the bullpen, pioneering the one-inning save with Dennis Eckersley and often using three pitchers to close out a ninth inning. “He was analytics before analytics,” White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing says. It would seem, then, that La Russa would dislike the rule that forces a reliever to throw to three batters.

“No — I like it a lot, actually,” he tells me. “Otherwise these guys would do the script thing. It would be, ‘There goes George here comes Tony; there goes Tony here comes Joe.’ I did it because of the matchups. Now it’s not so much about the matchups as what a formula says at a given time.”

La Russa may not want to hear this, but there is no debate that his masterful usage of Eckersley would have abided by every current formula. And yet he concedes nothing. He is baseball’s pope, standing for tradition in a changed world.

“There are a lot of people upstairs who will tell you batting average is irrelevant,” he says. “And that RBIs are just something you can accumulate and don’t take a special talent. I don’t agree, but if you get into that discussion you sound like you’re anti-analytics. There is a lot of good information out there, but you need a balance. I’ll give you an example: Give me a formula that measures chemistry. There’s no metric for that, but you better believe you need it if you’re going to win, and we’ve got it. It’s a tangible intangible. You can feel it.”

The game he sees is a living organism, changing shape and form, and the manager must control it. The job might have evolved from omnipotent chief to something closer to middle management, but that doesn’t mean La Russa has to evolve with it. If the mystery of a game is removed, if everything from filling out the lineup card to deciding whether to pinch hit is determined by probabilities, who needs talent? In some places, it’s become commonplace for a manager to sit in his office after a game and wait for the general manager show up with a laptop to go over that night’s decisions.

“Nope,” McEwing says. “Not happening with Tony.”

A perfect case study: The sacrifice bunt. Only the Angels have bunted more than the White Sox in the AL. They have 18 successful sacrifice bunts through 94 games; under Renteria, they had just one in last year’s 60-game season. La Russa’s ideology is clearly at odds with the metrics, which show the only time a bunt increases a team’s chance of winning is with a runner at second, nobody out in the eighth or ninth inning of a tie game.

On June 5, the White Sox lost a one-run game to the Tigers after La Russa called for Danny Mendick to bunt. Chicago was down by one with runners at first and second and nobody out in the sixth inning against reliever Derek Holland, who has shown a unique inability to get anybody out all season. Mendick’s bunt resulted in a force at third, and the White Sox didn’t score.

“The beauty of the game is what’s happening that day with your side and their side,” La Russa says. “You cannot take percentages of what you think — how you would script it — and take them into a game. You have to watch the game and see. Do you smell a close game? Do you smell a crooked-number game?”

This, of course, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you decide a game could be a one-run game, and you strategize accordingly, the odds of creating a one-run game increase dramatically. It’s the battle La Russa wages: intuition against the godlike technology that runs the world. He’s here to prove there’s still a place for a guy who tilts his head just so, inhaling the fresh scent of an imminent one-run game, and orders up a bunt in the sixth inning with runners on first and second and nobody out. The easy path is to sit back, wait for the big inning and shrug if it doesn’t materialize. The more difficult path, the one La Russa views as far more rewarding, is to initiate the action, give up an out to get a base and impose your will.

Speaking to reporters the day after the failed Mendick bunt, La Russa said, “A lot of people in positions of responsibility upstairs don’t ever believe in giving up an out to gain a base. I can’t agree with it.” Quoting Paul Richards, a former player and executive who died in 1986, La Russa said, “You trust your gut, you don’t cover your butt. Because if you cover your butt with some of these decisions and you get beaten, you’ll never know if you’re good enough. I’m not afraid because I’ve been trained well, and I believe what I believe.”


WE KNOW. Those words contain both an acknowledgement and an acceptance. They know, which is a victory in itself, and that’s allowed them to settle into a comfortable angle of repose. Sure, La Russa’s an old-school dude who occasionally points a finger at the sky and shouts at the clouds, but he’s their old-school dude pointing and shouting. “Overall, this is a clubhouse that can withstand a couple of leaks here and there,” Hendriks says. “I don’t particularly want to test it, but that’s the vibe I get. The relationship with Tony and the players has been largely overblown. Like Tim said, there are certain times when we listen and certain times when we don’t listen.”

They know. They know the season is long, the team is good and the guys yelling playfully at each other in the clubhouse will dictate where and how it all ends. Until then, they’ll obsess over spin rates and arm extension and launch angles. Grandal will remain hunched over the computer screen, searching for clues. And their manager, the bill of his cap military-straight, will occasionally angle his head just so and inhale the sweet smell of a one-run game.

“Whatever happens, you’ve got to enjoy it — always,” Anderson says. “The game’s hard enough, and we play again the next day.”

Solidarity is where you find it, and together they stride boldly forward — all of them but one, anyway — toward whatever the game’s future decides to be.

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