White Sox manager Tony La Russa, no stranger to criticism or second-guessing during his year-plus at the helm in Chicago, made an unusual and costly tactical error in the sixth inning of Thursday’s 11-9 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers (box score).
The Dodgers, up by a 7-5 margin, had a runner on first base and two outs in the inning when Trea Turner stepped to the plate against White Sox lefty Bennett Sousa. Sousa worked an 0-2 count against Turner before uncorking a wild pitch that allowed the runner to advance. 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 season to come in a two-strike count — to bring up Max Muncy, who was making his return from an elbow injury.
That proved to be the wrong decision 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 heck was La Russa thinking? Here’s our best attempt at explaining his thought process. It boils down to La Russa 1) greatly overestimating Turner’s chances of getting a hit and scoring another run (we can say for sure La Russa wasn’t concerned about Turner drawing a walk, since he issued one); and 2) greatly 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 mark isn’t representative of his true odds of recording a knock given the count. Turner has hit .269 in at-bats that have reached a 1-2 count this season, and even that number likely overstates his chances, seeing as how he’s a career .226 hitter in those situations.
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While we can’t know how likely La Russa felt Turner was to get a hit, we can safely assume his calculations had it as more likely than Muncy’s chances of extending the frame. Was that a fair assumption to make, even without hindsight? No.
Muncy has historically been a very good hitter; he didn’t amass a .240/.364/.499 slash line from 2019-21 by accident. He hasn’t played nearly as well this season after injuring his elbow late last year, and he entered Thursday having hit .150/.327/.263 in his first 168 trips to the plate. He’s been even worse against lefties, hitting .125/.300/.150 in 40 at-bats. (Sousa, for his part, has reverse splits thus far in his big-league career.) His average and max exit velocities are down compared to normal, and he’s swinging less often overall, remarkable for someone who has always shown a more passive approach at the plate.
It’s reasonable to think Muncy has been compromised by his elbow injury, and that he might perform worse than expected — specifically with regards to hitting average and power. Even so, the one thing he has continued to excel at doing is getting on base. Even with his putrid batting average and slugging percentage, he’s reached base more often than the league-average hitter. You may doubt his ability to hit the ball hard right now, and you might be right about that, but you shouldn’t discount his eye. Besides, Sousa has walked 11 percent of the batters he’s faced this year, meaning a bout of wildness shouldn’t have been ruled out of the realm of possibility. (Though, to be fair, he has thrown a league-average rate of strikes and he never had control problems in the minors.)
Muncy, for his part, appeared to take exception to the two-strike walk of Turner. La Russa, meanwhile, defended his decision when he met with reporters and said it was the “right call.”
We should also point out here that an intentional walk decision is seldom as simple as the base-out state and a comparison of the walked batter and the chosen batter. There’s also the batter who comes after the chosen batter. In this case, that would be Dodgers catcher Will Smith, an above-average hitter himself. Had Sousa merely walked Muncy instead of giving up a three-run home run, he still would’ve had to face Smith with the bases loaded. That’s far from an ideal outcome for the White Sox.
The funny thing about La Russa’s decision is that the odds were still in favor of Sousa recording an out and getting out of the inning. That’s the beauty of playing defense: the odds are that any given plate appearance will end in an out, regardless of the circumstances. That’s just how baseball works. Of course, that statement is also why allowing Sousa to carry on with his battle against Turner would’ve been the more sensible choice, and that’s without diving deep into the numbers as we did above.
La Russa’s judgment has been questioned since he assumed his post before last season, and the White Sox’s underperformance to date has led to fans and media members alike wondering if he should be allowed to finish the campaign. If La Russa keeps making decisions like the one he did on Thursday — decisions that feel wrong at the time and after the fact, and that backfire immediately — the calls for his dismissal will only grow louder.