Tony La Russa defends strange decision to intentionally walk after it backfired in White Sox defeat to Dodgers

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

The Dodgers, leading 7-5, had one runner on first base and two out in the inning when Trea Turner moved into the pot against White Sox southpaw Bennett Sousa. Sousa worked 0-2 against Turner before untapping a wild pitch that allowed the runner to advance. Rather than allowing Sousa to continue against Turner with a 1-2 count in his favor, La Russa called for a deliberate walk – the first of the season with a two-stroke count – to bring out Max Muncy, who was returning from a elbow injury.

This proved to be the wrong decision in a shorter order, as Muncy dumped a three-point home run on the fifth shot he saw, taking the Dodgers lead to 10-5:

A reasonable person might ask, what the hell was La Russa thinking? Here is our best attempt at explaining his thought process. It boils down to La Russa 1) greatly overestimating Turner’s chances of getting a hit and scoring another point (we can confidently say La Russa wasn’t worried about Turner looking like a walk in the park, since he delivered one); and 2) greatly underestimating Muncy’s chances of extending the innings.

It’s true that Turner came into play averaging .303 beats in the season, but that mark isn’t representative of his true odds of registering a hit given the count. Turner hit .269 in at-bat that have hit a 1-2 tally this season, and even that number probably overestimates his chances, as he’s a career .226 hitter in those situations.

While we can’t know how likely La Russa thought Turner was successful, we can safely assume that his calculations were more likely than Muncy’s chances of extending the frame. Was it a fair hypothesis to make, even without hindsight? No.

Muncy has historically been a very good hitter; he hasn’t accumulated a .240 / .364 / .499 cut line since 2019-21 by accident. He hasn’t played quite as well this season after injuring his elbow late last year, and joined Thursday after scoring .150 / .327 / .263 in his first 168 trips to the pot. He was also worse against lefties, hitting .125 / .300 / .150 in 40 bars. (Sousa, for his part, has thus far had reverse splits in his career in a big league.) His average and maximum exit speed is slower than normal and overall fluctuates less often, notable for someone who has always shown a more passive approach to the plate.

It is reasonable to think that Muncy was compromised by the elbow injury and that he may perform worse than expected, particularly when it comes to average and power. Even so, the one thing he has continued to excel at is to base himself. Even with his putrid batting average and hit rate, he’s hit base thicker than the league’s average hitter. You may doubt his ability to hit the ball hard right now, and you may be right about that, but you shouldn’t ignore his eye. Additionally, Sousa has beaten 11% of the hitters he has faced this year, meaning a fit of madness shouldn’t have been left out of the realm of possibility. (Although, to be fair, he pulled an average strike rate in the league and never had any control issues in minors.)

Muncy, for his part, seemed to be an exception at Turner’s two-stroke walk. La Russa, meanwhile, defended her decision when she met with reporters and said she was the “right choice”.

We should also point out here that an intentional walk decision is rarely as simple as the base-out state and a confrontation between the hitter walked and the hitter chosen. There is also the hitter who comes after the chosen hitter. In this case, that would be Dodgers catcher Will Smith, himself an above average hitter. If Sousa had simply walked into Muncy instead of giving up a three-point home run, he would still have had to face Smith with bases charged. 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 favor registering an exit and exiting the inning. This is the beauty of playing defense: the odds are that any appearance in the pot will end in an out, regardless of the circumstances. That’s just how baseball works. Of course, this statement is also why allowing Sousa to carry on her fight against Turner would have been the most sensible choice, and this without going into the numbers as we did above.

La Russa’s judgment has been questioned since he took office before last season, and the White Sox’s underperformance to date has led fans and members of the media to question whether he should be allowed to end the campaign. If La Russa continues to make decisions like the one he made on Thursday – decisions that seem wrong at the moment and after the fact, and that backfire immediately – the demands for dismissal will only increase.

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