Tony La Russa defends a strange deliberate walk decision after it backfired in the White Sox’s loss to the Dodgers


Tony La Russa defends a strange deliberate walk decision after it backfired in the White Sox's loss to the Dodgers

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

The Dodgers, leading by a 7-5 lead, had a runner at first base and two outs in the inning when Trea Turner stepped on the plate against White Sox left-back Bennett Sousa. Sousa scored 2-0 against Turner before uncorking a wild throw that allowed the runner to advance. Rather than allow Sousa to go ahead against Turner with a 2-1 count in his favor, La Russa called for a deliberate walk – the first of the season to come with a two-strike count – to bring out Max Muncy, who was returns back after an elbow injury.

That proved to be the wrong decision in less time, as Muncy unloaded a three-run home run in fifth place he saw, extending the Dodgers’ lead to 10-5:

A sane 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) grossly overestimating Turner’s chances of scoring and getting another run (we can safely say La Russa wasn’t worried about Turner taking a walk since he gave one); and 2) grossly underestimated Muncy’s chances of going over the inning.

It’s true that Turner came into the game with a .303 batting average this season, but that mark isn’t representative of his true chances of batting given the count. Turner has hit .269 in at-bats going 1-2 counts this season, and even that number likely overstates his odds given he’s a .226 career hitter in those situations.

While we have no way of knowing how likely La Russa thought Turner would score, we can safely assume his calculations were more likely than Muncy’s chances to extend the frame. Was that a fair assumption, even without looking back? no

Muncy has been a very good hitter in the past; he didn’t accidentally amass a .240/.364/.499 slash line from 2019-21. He hasn’t played nearly as well this season after injuring his elbow late last year, and he started Thursday after hitting .150/.327/.263 in his first 168 trips to the plate. He was even worse against lefties, hitting .125/.300/.150 in 40 at-bats. (For his part, Sousa has had reverse splits so far in his big league career.) His average and maximum exit speeds are slower than normal, and he swings less often overall, notable for someone who has always shown a more passive approach at the plate.

It’s reasonable to think that Muncy has been hampered by his elbow injury and that he may be performing worse than expected – particularly in terms of averages and power. Still, the only thing he has continued to excel at is standing on the base. Despite his lazy batting average and batting percentage, he has hit base more often than the league average hitter. You may doubt his ability to hit the ball hard at the moment, and you might be right, but you shouldn’t ignore his eye. Additionally, Sousa has run 11 percent of the batters he’s faced this year, meaning a bout of ferocity shouldn’t be ruled out of the realm of possibility. (Though, to be fair, he’s had a league-average strikes rate and never had control issues with the minors.)

Muncy for his part seemed offended Turner’s two-strike walk. La Russa, meanwhile, defended his decision when he met with reporters, saying it was the “right decision”.

We should also point out here that making an intentional walk decision is seldom as simple as the base-out condition and a comparison of the walk batter and the chosen batter. There is also the batter who comes after the chosen batter. In this case, that would be Dodgers catcher Will Smith, himself an above-average hitter. Had Sousa just led Muncy instead of giving up a three-run home run, he still would have had to face Smith with loaded bases. This is far from an ideal result for the White Sox.

The funny thing about La Russa’s decision is that the odds were still in Sousa’s making an out and getting out of the inning. That’s the beauty of defending: chances are every plate appearance will end in an out, no matter the circumstances. That’s how baseball works. Of course, that statement is also why allowing Sousa to continue his fight against Turner without diving deep into the numbers like we did above would have been a more sensible choice.

La Russa’s judgment has been questioned since he took up his post prior to last season, and the White Sox’s underperformance to date has left fans and media alike questioning whether he should be allowed to end the campaign. If La Russa continues to make decisions like they did Thursday, decisions that felt wrong then and in hindsight, and which immediately backfire, the calls for his sacking will only get louder.

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