Tony La Russa could shockingly be A.L. Manager of the Year for playoff-bound White Sox
You’d better get used to the idea. There’s nothing the crusty old baseball writers, or those who live like they’re crusty old baseball writers, are going to love more than handing that award to the crustiest possible candidate. They’ll ache to say they told you so, even if none of them did, and we can only hope Tony La Russa has a limo paid for that night to celebrate.
As long as the White Sox have the best record in the American League, which they do now, we’ll all have to warm up to this outcome.
And those that vote for him will have a case. The Pale Hose have seen their catcher, left fielder, center fielder, and second baseman all miss significant time, and their opening day right fielder was such a bag of cold piss in just about every way that they told him to do one before the All-Star break and he’s now in Anaheim (to be fair La Russa reportedly pushed for the signing of look-at-me, go-hard Adam Eaton, but even his fuck—ups seem to be curing themselves). The Sox have seen 13 guys get at least 100 plate-appearances, and that number jumps to 15 if you include Jake Lamb (who’s also hurt now) and Billy Hamilton, who each have 99 PAs.
And yet none of it has mattered much, as the Sox are 57-37 and far enough ahead of Cleveland in the AL Central to not even really worry about it anymore, especially if Shane Bieber takes a while to get back from his ailments. Yasmani Grandal out? Fine, Zach Collins will fill in with the same three-true-outcome-palooza that Grandal was on. Eloy Jimenez crashes into something while in the field in spring training as is his wont? Yermin Mercedes will tear the cover off the ball for a couple months before the league finds him out, journeyman Lamb will hit for more power than he has in five years. Luis Robert goes TWANG? Brian Goodwin will provide more offense than he ever has in perhaps the most bewildering facet of all of this.
And they also can do things like call up Gavin Sheets, watch him homer five times in 16 games, and do this yesterday. Credit to Twins manager for helping out the Sox by completely falling asleep/failing to locate any fuck to give about the rest of this Twins season and not noticing that Jose Berrios was laboring in the 5th inning, much less leaving him out there for the seventh.
Even going without Jimenez, Robert, Madrigal, and Grandal for chunks, the Sox are third in the AL in runs and second in team wRC+ and on-base percentage. They walk a ton, and even though they’ve struggled to hit for much power (13th in homers), they grind pitchers down by their patient approach. They do lead the league in BABIP, while only being middle of the pack in Hard-Hit percentage, which suggests some market correction could be on the way. But that’s where the return of Robert and Jimenez comes in.
The real strength of the team, which is probably La Russa independent, is the starting staff. They lead in starter’s ERA and are four wins clear of anyone in rotation fWAR. They lead in FIP and K/9 as well, in case you thought there might be any noise in there. And while the rest of the roster has been beset by various poxes and plagues, Lucas Giolito, Lancy Lynn, Carlos Rodon, Dylan Cease, and Dallas Kuechel have made all but five starts on the season, and the ones they didn’t were due to doubleheaders.
Rodon has been the real story, as he’s probably the clubhouse leader for AL Cy Young this year. He’s added four MPH to his fastball from the last time he was fully healthy(some of that due to getting farther away from injury problems that wrecked the past two seasons), has focused more on throwing that up in the zone while burying what has always been a devilish slider on the wrists and ankles of right-handed hitters. He’s essentially lapping the field in the AL when it comes to strikeout rate at 36%.
The Sox will be even more interesting as Robert and Jimenez return in the coming weeks. The strength of their offense has been their patience, which is not something they are bursting with. But both are bursting with power, which the Sox are dying for, so that’s a trade they’ll happily make. Neither are sure things, as between them they barely have two seasons of experience and really only three or four good months combined as well. But having them could give the Sox the most depth anywhere if this is what Sheets really is, along with Lamb and Adam Engel and Andrew Vaughn and Collins moving back to a backup role when Grandal is healthy (which should be before the season is up).
Which makes the Sox a prime watch before the trade deadline. Again, they don’t have to do anything to shore up the division title, other than to make sure all of the vents are working properly in the clubhouse. Trading for playoff-specific needs is always dicey, because anything can happen in the MLB postseason. Bullpen arms are always sought after, but when the Sox are rocking this rotation, do they really need to? None of the Sox top three starters are giving up more than a .280 wOBA third time through the order, so come the playoffs they may just be asking their pen to get six to nine outs at most.
The bridge to closer Liam Hendriks has been shaky and walk-happy at times, and La Russa isn’t likely to let Michael Kopech throw a ton of important innings in the fall. The Sox could go full-bonanza, trade for Craig Kimbrel, slot Hendriks down to the 8th in the way we know La Russa wants to set it up, but that seems like overkill. Infield depth might be another area they look to with Nick Madrigal out for the season, and Sox fans haven’t been shy about dreaming of raiding the Cubs across town even more for the likes of Javy Baez or Kris Bryant. Baez makes a ton of sense, but so would Trevor Story or Adam Frazier.
Even if he hasn’t always known the rules or made some baffling sacrifice bunt calls or sanctioned their main rival to plunk one of his own players, La Russa has been smart enough (most of the time) to get out of the rotation’s way, and either create an atmosphere or just let the one that was already there that allows players to come in from the cold and start contributing. Maybe it’s all Tim Anderson’s and Jose Abreu’s doing, but La Russa at least hasn’t pushed to usurp the wheel from them.
Sure, he could undo all of it with one or two goofy decisions in the ALDS where the margins are so thin, and that’s what Sox fans won’t dare mention over their MGD right now. But for all the hand-wringing and belly-aching (and crashed cars), the Sox are winning. And that was the whole point.