The New Year typically brings about personal resolutions for people seeking self-improvement and personal development. Whether that comes in the form of getting in shape or learning a new skill, a fresh turn of the calendar is usually synonymous with the promise of new beginnings. Will that be the case for Hall of Fame White Sox manager, Tony La Russa?
Long thought of as a baseball hardliner unwilling to change when he has his mind set, La Russa’s evolution to the modern game in his second season back in the White Sox dugout will be a key storyline for a team looking to be a serious World Series contender.
Adapting to the Times
Admittedly, when La Russa was brought back by his pal to right a wrong that was just a few years after my personal establishment on this planet, I was very concerned. I feared La Russa would be stuck in the 1980s way of managing baseball.
I was worried that he would use fast, slappy hitters at the top of the order because that’s how things were typically done for most of the first eight decades of this great game. To my disappointment, that was the case early on as we saw Adam Eaton quickly installed as the No. 2 hitter in the White Sox order. Eaton had a few key moments in the season’s first month that helped keep the team afloat while navigating injuries. But after his fast start, things quickly fizzled and many of our fears were realized. He was simply cooked.
La Russa stuck with Eaton in the No. 2 spot for longer than most would’ve liked, which caused a great deal of consternation within the portions of the fan base that weren’t firmly entrenched behind the 75-year-old. Eventually, Eaton’s production floundered so greatly that La Russa had no choice but to make a change and begin utilizing better options in the No. 2 spot.
There were other issues we saw with the skipper in the early months of his return after nearly a decade away from the dugout. I was worried we would see a high number of sacrifice bunts from the Sox giving away precious outs. His insistence on using high-priced reliever, Liam Hendriks, exclusively in save situations was another move that was baffling and infuriating at times. There were instances of him riding starting pitchers for too long, costing the team games during April and May.
For all those initial faults, La Russa evolved as the season progressed. He elevated Yoan Moncada elevated to the No. 2 spot in the order, where the switch-hitter got on base at a .375 clip. (Despite what you may see on Twitter dot com, that is, in fact, good.) We saw La Russa at times utilize Hendriks in multi-inning situations, a role the reliever has openly talked about craving. Despite the early-season sacrifice bunting that caused me to pull out my hair at times, the Sox ranked 18th in the league by season’s end.
So, perhaps La Russa did see some things from the dugout vantage point that caused him to re-evaluate his thought process on how the game is played today. That adaptation will continue to be important for the White Sox as they go forward in their quest to bring a championship back to 35th/Shields next season. If La Russa is willing to continue evolving without completely abandoning his baseball instincts (which we all know he won’t), the Sox will be in a better position for success.
A New Year’s Resolution
One area in which I am hopeful to see continued evolution from the longtime skipper is using all possible data that is available to him. In particular, I hope to see an increased use of shifting in 2022. This was a hot-button issue during the team’s Division Series loss at the hands of the Houston Astros. La Russa’s defenders will say the shifting didn’t matter because the pitching staff that was the strength of the team all season faltered. However, not utilizing key data at the team’s disposal exacerbated problems on the mound.
If you logged onto Twitter dot com following any of the team’s three defeats in the playoffs, you could see a slew of spray chart data showing batted ball tendencies of Astros’ hitters and White Sox defenders not properly aligned to take advantage of this data. Overall, the team ranked 27th in all of baseball in shifting during the 2021 season. This is simply something the Sox decision-makers must heavily scrutinize before the team reports to Glendale (whenever that is).
I think we can all agree that the Sox team defense in 2021 was, well, sub-optimal. One way this is by taking advantage of data and batted ball tendencies to better position players to turn said batted balls into outs. Particularly against a team like Houston that was near the bottom of the league in strikeouts, it is paramount to turn batted balls into outs when possible. If the Sox are going to get over the proverbial hump in 2022, this is an area in which they must improve.
Tony La Russa’s first year back in the White Sox dugout resulted in a division title for the first time since 2008. But the measuring stick is higher heading into 2022 as this team is firmly entrenched in their contention window. With the heightened expectations will come a need for the Sox and their manager to take advantage of all information at his disposal.
I’m not asking Tony La Russa to pull a 180 and morph into Kevin Cash utilizing a Tampa Bay Rays model where every decision seemingly comes from an algorithm. Going to that extreme is simply not practical, just see Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. However, the Hall of Fame manager must continue to evolve his thought process, utilize all information available, and adapt his strategies to put this talented roster in the best position to win.
Does that mean I want to see the White Sox lead the league in shifts in 2022? Not necessarily, but I want them to make calculated decisions based on all available information without discarding data and approaches that are commonly used by some of the most successful organizations in the sport currently.
Tony La Russa showed some willingness to evolve in 2021, and his continuing to do so would only mean sustained and enhanced success for the White Sox in 2022.
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