Tony La Russa defends bizarre intentional walking decision after it backfired on White Sox vs Dodgers

Tony La Russa defends bizarre intentional walking decision after it backfired on White Sox vs Dodgers

White Sox manager Tony La Russa, no stranger to criticism or doubts during his year-plus at the helm of Chicago, made an unusual and costly tactical error in the sixth-inning loss Thursday’s 11-9 against the Los Angeles Dodgers (box score).

The Dodgers, up 7-5, had a runner on first base and two out in the inning when Trea Turner stepped in at home plate against White Sox left-hander Bennett Sousa. Sousa worked an 0-2 count against Turner before uncorking a wild pitch that carried the runner forward. Rather than allow Sousa to continue against Turner with a 1-2 count in his favor, La Russa called for an intentional walk – the first of the coming season in a two-strike tally – to elevate Max Muncy, who was making his comeback from an elbow injury.

It turned out to be the wrong call in shorter order, as Muncy unloaded a three-run home run on the fifth pitch he saw, extending the Dodgers’ lead to 10-5:

A reasonable person might ask, what the hell was La Russa thinking? Here is our best attempt to explain his thought process. It boils down to La Russa 1) vastly overestimating Turner’s chances of getting a hit and scoring another run (we can say with certainty that La Russa wasn’t concerned about Turner drawing a goal, since ‘he issued one); and 2) grossly underestimating Muncy’s chances of extending the inning.

It’s true that Turner entered the game with a .303 batting average on the season, but that rating isn’t representative of his true chances of registering a hit given the numbers. Turner hit .269 at bat that reached a 1-2 tally this season, and even that number likely overstates his chances, considering he’s a career .226 hitter in those situations.

While we can’t tell how likely La Russa thought Turner was to get a hit, we can safely assume that his calculations had him more likely than Muncy’s chances of extending the frame. Was it a fair assumption to make, even without hindsight? No.

Muncy has always been a very good hitter; he didn’t amass a .240/.364/.499 slant line from 2019 to 21 by accident. He hasn’t played as well this season after injuring his elbow late last year, and entered Thursday having hit .150/.327/.263 in his first 168 trips to the plate. He was even worse against left-handers, hitting .125/.300/.150 in 40 at-bats. (Sousa, for his part, has reversed splits so far in his big league career.) His average and max outing speeds are down from normal, and he’s swinging less often overall. , remarkable for someone who has always shown a more passive approach. on the plate.

It’s reasonable to think that Muncy has been compromised by his elbow injury and could perform worse than expected, especially when it comes to average and punching power. Even so, the one thing he has continued to excel at is getting down to basics. Even with his putrid batting average and slugging percentage, he hit base more often than the league’s average hitter. You may doubt his ability to hit the ball hard right now, and you may be right about that, but you shouldn’t overlook his eye. Also, Sousa has walked 11% of the batters he’s faced this year, meaning a fit of insanity shouldn’t have been ruled out of the realm of possibility. (Although, to be fair, he threw an average strike rate in the league and he never had control issues in the minors.)

Muncy, for his part, seemed to be an exception Turner’s two-step walk. La Russa, meanwhile, defended his decision when he met reporters and said it was the “right choice”.

We must also point out here that an intentional walk decision is rarely as simple as the baseline state and a comparison between the marketed hitter and the chosen hitter. There is also the hitter who comes after the chosen hitter. In this case, it would be Dodgers catcher Will Smith, an above average hitter himself. If Sousa had just walked Muncy instead of giving up a three-run home run, he still should have faced Smith with the bases loaded. It’s far from an ideal result for the White Sox.

The funny thing about La Russa’s decision is that the odds were still in favor of Sousa registering a takedown and going out of the inning. That’s the beauty of playing defense: there’s a good chance that any plate appearance will end in an out, regardless of the circumstances. That’s how baseball works. Of course, that statement is also why allowing Sousa to continue his battle against Turner would have been the smarter choice, and that without diving deep into the numbers like we did above.

La Russa’s judgment has been questioned since he took over before last season, and the White Sox’s underperformance to date has left fans and members of the media wondering if he should be allowed to complete the campaign. If La Russa continues to make decisions like the one he made on Thursday — decisions that feel wrong in the moment and after the fact, and which immediately backfire — the calls for him to be fired will only intensify.

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