Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa made one of the weirdest strategic decisions of the season in June, when he issued an intentional walk to a batter who his pitcher had already staked out a 1-2 count against. The call backfired, as the next batter unloaded a home run that put the White Sox in a hole from which they could not recover. La Russa defended his decision afterward, and on Friday night he doubled-down, in a sense, by doing the same thing against the Cleveland Guardians as part of a 5-2 loss (box score).
Here’s how it went down:
The White Sox led the Guardians 2-1 entering the seventh inning. Cleveland would subsequently score a pair of runs with two outs in the frame to take a 3-2 lead before La Russa inserted left-handed reliever Jake Diekman. Diekman would then walk two consecutive batters before giving up a single to Andrés Giménez to plate two more runs, making it 5-2 with runners on first and second. At that point, the Guardians rookie outfielder Oscar Gonzalez had a chance to blow the game open.
Diekman would get ahead of Gonzalez 1-2 before the Guardians’ baserunners succeeded on a double-steal attempt. With first base open and two outs, La Russa called for the intentional walk. It should be noted that Gonzalez, though right-handed, has performed worse against lefty pitchers this season, and that he’s struck out in nearly 40 percent of the plate appearances that have reached two strikes.
Nevertheless, La Russa evidently wanted to force Cleveland manager Terry Francona’s hand with the next spot in the order. Lefty-swinging rookie Nolan Jones was due up, but Francona subbed him out for righty Owen Miller. La Russa then strolled to the mound to replace Diekman with right-hander Jimmy Lambert, who subsequently induced an inning-ending flyout on the second pitch of the at-bat.
The results will spare La Russa from the intensity of criticism that he received in June, but that doesn’t make it a sound process. We know from various studies conducted by smart analysts that microsplits, including those of the platoon and count variety, require regression toward the mean to have any actual predictive value. Maybe La Russa had those numbers on hand from the White Sox’s analytical department, but we’re going to guess that he made his call based on Gonzalez’s two-strike average (.265) and Miller’s average against righties (.262 this year or .242 career).
After all, if intentionally walking batters who are stuck in two-strike counts was a sound tactical decision based on the numbers, the odds are that the Los Angeles Dodgers or … well, the Guardians would be the ones doing it; not La Russa.
It may have not factored into the final score on Friday, but the White Sox can’t be thrilled that their manager seems committed to making the same mistake twice.