Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa is known for making some head-scratching decisions.
Whether it be reprimanding his own player for hitting a grand slam, calling for opposing pitchers to hit his players who don’t follow the unwritten rules, making questionable lineup decisions that involve putting the team’s worst hitters near the top of the lineup, or just being a downright unlikable oldhead, La Russa has been one of Deadspin’s favorite characters to talk about, and today he proved that he’s the gift that keeps on giving.
It was the bottom of the fifth in the first game of today’s doubleheader between the White Sox and Cleveland Guardians. Cleveland led 4-0. Two outs, runner on second, and at the plate stood three-time All-Star José Ramírez. White Sox starter Davis Martin kicks off the at-bat with an outside changeup, which is fouled off by Ramírez. 0-1.
La Russa had seen enough. I mean, did you see how hard that foul ball went straight back? That’d scare the bejeezus out of any sane manager. You can’t risk going down six runs in the fifth! It only makes sense. After all, Ramírez had already hit a two-run single earlier that game. You have to walk Ramírez and put two men on for, arguably, the best power hitter in Cleveland’s lineup, Franmil Reyes.
Ramírez has been far and away the best hitter on the Guardians this year. He’s got a .573 OPS, and his odds of driving in that run are much higher than Reyes’, who’s striking out in 40.5 percent of his at-bats this year.
But then why wait until after Martin throws Ramírez a strike to call for the intentional walk? Why waste a pitch, or throw to Ramírez at all if La Russa was just going to put him on first base anyway? Is this some sort of elaborate mind game meant to throw the Guardians off their game? Maybe. Look how confused Ramírez was when he was told to go to first. Maybe this elaborate mind game was really a stroke of genius from La Russa. It was, but not for that reason.
By intentionally walking Ramírez, the odds of the Guardians scoring one run decreases pretty drastically. That said, their odds of scoring multiple runs increases immensely. Since 1950, there have been 1493 games that saw the home team up four in the bottom of the fifth with two outs and a runner on second. The home team won 94.91 percent of those games. Seventy-seven percent of those home teams wound up scoring 0 runs in the fifth inning. The chances of a single run being scored are about 15 percent, and the odds of two or more runs being scored is about seven percent. If we add a runner to first, the odds of zero runs stays about the same, and while the odds of Cleveland scoring multiple runs increases, at this point in the ballgame, the game is more-or-less settled. Even if the White Sox went down seven runs heading into the top of the sixth, their odds of winning would only drop from 5.09 percent to 1.19 percent. Either way, the White Sox were pretty screwed, so going all-in in the hopes that Martin could get Reyes out was actually the smartest decision. Plus, Reyes ended up striking out. It all worked out according to plan.
Now, the only question is: “Why waste a pitch?” That’s a question only La Russa can answer for certain, but I can speculate. That decision most likely came down to one of two factors in my opinion.
- La Russa just changing his mind mid at-bat (likely the case)
- Ramírez’s insane numbers in 0-1 counts
Since the start of his career, in 316 career at-bats to end in 0-1 counts Ramirez has slashed .326/.330/.529 with 18 home runs and 61 RBI. He hasn’t been as good in those situations in 2022, slashing just .240/.250/.400, but his track record over his ten-year career takes precedence over one singular season, at least in my opinion.
I know we like to make fun of La Russa here, and I went into writing this article fully intent on shredding the White Sox skipper to pieces, as has become tradition. However, after diving into the numbers, I can only applaud La Russa’s boldness in making a move like this. There’s no denying how bad this move looks on the surface. Lord knows I was befuddled beyond all belief when I first watched this clip, but the more I think about it, the more I understand it. It may not have been the prettiest, but it got the job done, so congrats La Russa. You did something smart. Now just keep doing that, and maybe your team can climb out from under .500.