With the firings of Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon just in the past week, MLB teams have shown that they’re willing to drop even the most accomplished managers early in their tenure if they don’t meet lofty expectations. So it begs the question, how much longer can the White Sox struggle before it’s considered Tony La Russa’s fault?
The White Sox were one of the biggest World Series favorites coming into the year and are currently 26-27, four games back of the lead in the worst division in baseball. Because of the expanded playoffs, they’re far from out of it. They might wake up on Sept. 1 with a .500 record and feel good about their chances, but they’re nowhere near where they should be. There have been reasons for the struggles such as injuries to key position players and starting pitchers, but the Phillies and Angels could’ve pointed to a lot of things for their shortcomings and instead fired the manager anyway.
There was nothing, at least that I saw, that pointed to Girardi being the problem in Philadelphia. It very much felt like the front office was panicking because they built a weird roster with a $230 million payroll that was struggling mightily and they needed a scapegoat. There were plenty of miscues from Maddon, like when he famously walked Corey Seager with the bases loaded earlier this season. And of course it’s easy to fire someone after a 12-game losing streak.
Even after the Angels lost their 12th straight, though, they still had a slightly better winning percentage than the White Sox, a team with higher expectations. So two managers who have won multiple World Series have been relieved of their duties in the past few days, both after just over two years with their current teams.
La Russa is just over a year into his stint with the White Sox, so maybe he’s still a year away, but there are way more examples of his mismanagement in that time than either Maddon or Girardi. Both his on-field decision making and the way he treats his players have been shown to directly contribute to poor results.
La Russa spent the early months of the 2021 season becoming the face of the unwritten rules, showing that the now 77-year-old is a relic of a bygone era. The breakout star of early 2021 was White Sox catcher Yermín Mercedes, a 10-year minor leaguer who was a 28-year-old rookie at the time. During a blowout win against the Minnesota Twins, Mercedes hit a home run off of a position player in a 3-0 count.
“There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family,” said La Russa, possibly auditioning for the Fast and Furious ride at Universal Studios. He also took the Twins’ side when they threw at Mercedes the next day. Those consequences must’ve worked because at the time Mercedes was batting .364 with a .984 OPS which dropped to .271 and .732 respectively by the end of June. Mercedes was sent down to the minor leagues, retired, unretired a day later, and has yet to play a major league game since.
In that situation there seemed like there was some tension, if only perceived from the public eye, between La Russa, the keeper of the unwritten word, and Tim Anderson, the guy who likes to bat flip more than almost anyone, but that seems to be gone today, if it was ever there. La Russa recently compared Anderson’s desire to win to Michael Jordan’s and Anderson referred to La Russa as a “best friend with the title of manager.” Maybe La Russa realized that on a sub .500 team, you want to be nice to the guy batting over .350.
But it’s not just his attitudes on the unwritten rules; there are many examples of bad on-field management. Deadspin wrote earlier this season about how La Russa put Leury Garcia, a player with a current OPS+ of 33, third in the lineup in two games. There are very few lineup decisions across all of baseball over an entire year that you can look at and definitively say, “he shouldn’t be batting there.” It’s usually pretty subjective, but that makes absolutely no sense.
Early last year, La Russa also admitted that he didn’t know about the rule about starting extra innings with a runner on second until his team actually played an extra inning game. Not to mention that he received a DUI for an incident that happened the day before he was announced as the White Sox manager.
Any one of these incidents could be looked past (except the drunk driving. I don’t want to make light of that), but when you combine them all together with the White Sox record, it’s all way worse than what Girardi or Maddon did to get fired.