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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Tony La Russa has been a great manager, but he didn't build much respect this time

Tony La Russa walks on a practice field

Tony La Russa walks on a practice field during White Sox spring training at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 24, 2021. Credit: TNS/Armando L. Sanchez

Imagine if Tony La Russa wasn’t a Hall of Fame manager with three World Series rings, six appearances in the Fall Classic and 12 division titles on his 33-year resume.

What do you think the outcry over Yermin Mercedes would have been then?

We say that tongue-in-cheek, of course, because La Russa was absolutely destroyed after chastising Mercedes this past week — for, of all things, hitting a home run in the White Sox’s 15-4 blowout of the Twins.

And that’s the baseline we’re talking about here. The fury over everything else just sort of depends whether you’re on Team La Russa or not — and in this case, that group doesn’t include the players in his own clubhouse.

The fact that Mercedes, already a Sox folk hero as a 28-year-old rookie, smashed that homer off Willians Astudillo — a Twins infielder drafted for mop-up duty in the blowout — is the crux of baseball’s latest controversy. Mercedes had a 3-and-0 count and had been given the take sign when he teed off on Astudillo’s 47-mph pitch, essentially a desperation lob from a position player lunging for the finish line.

But within that one swing, and La Russa’s loud objection, there was plenty to unpack. The sport’s "unwritten rules." How the ending of a rout should be handled. A manager ripping his own player. Whether the 76-year-old La Russa was unfit to lead the White Sox.

The incident kicked up such a tornado on the South Side that it was easy to forget that the White Sox visited the Bronx this weekend atop the AL Central standings despite missing two of their best players in Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

The root of the problem — in La Russa’s mind, anyway — was Mercedes ignoring the take sign on 3-and-0 and hacking away in the very best of hitter’s counts. To La Russa, it was unsportsmanlike given the situation, with the Twins basically waving the white flag.

"Big mistake," La Russa said. "The fact that he's a rookie, and excited, helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he's got a clue."

Turns out La Russa, and maybe the Twins, were the only people who felt that way. La Russa was blasted by a few of his own players, most notably Tim Anderson and Lance Lynn.

Anderson tweeted, "The game wasn’t over! Keep doing you big daddy."

Lynn was a bit more expansive. "If a position player is on the mound, there are no rules," Lynn told NBC Sports Chicago. "Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there."

Everyone loves to talk about the amusement factor in these situations. But when a team uses a position player to pitch, it’s to preserve the bullpen for the remainder of the series, which is a key strategical advantage. Sure they’re conceding that night’s game, but why should the White Sox let them off the hook? Isn’t La Russa in a much-improved spot for the subsequent games if he forces the Twins to burn an actual reliever for those outs instead of Astudillo?

As the third-winningest manager (2,753 victories), behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw, La Russa obviously knows that. So why cling to the "unwritten rules"? Makes the whole stance nonsensical, besides having to stand there and watch a meatball float past just because the count is 3-and-0. This is professional baseball, not Little League, and it’s ridiculous to condemn Mercedes for adding a home run to a resume that could come under scrutiny in arbitration someday.

While La Russa is unapologetically old school, the modern player is increasingly not, and calling them out in such a public fashion is frowned upon in the 21st century clubhouse. Managers are hired for their ability to communicate with the players (i.e., keep them in a productive, happy mindset), and that’s why La Russa's decision to sacrifice one of his own at the altar of tradition created such a backlash. Some took it a step further.

"Tony La Russa is out of touch with the game," former Yankee CC Sabathia said on his R2C2 podcast. "He should not be managing one of the best teams in the American League — period. If you're going to put a [expletive] position player in there to pitch, guess what? If he's going to lob [expletive] over the plate, we going to [expletive] tee off."

Again, La Russa seemed to be on an island with this one. But the Twins still apparently felt the need to exact some sort of revenge (see "Rules, Unwritten) and Tyler Duffey — yes, an actual pitcher this time — threw a fastball behind Mercedes the following day. The message was obvious.

"I wasn't that suspicious," La Russa told reporters afterward. "I'm suspicious when someone throws at someone's head. I didn't have a problem with how the Twins handled that."

His response was hardly surprising. But La Russa defending the Twins more than his own player? That’s not a smart strategy for any manager in 2021, even one with a plaque already hanging in Cooperstown.

Too fast, too furious

Atlanta’s Jacob Webb was the pitcher who threw the 95-mph fastball that caused the traumatic injuries to Kevin Pillar’s face. But the real culprit may be the game’s obsession with velocity — a dangerous trend that is quickly sprinting past the ability to harness these upticks in speed.

In 2019, a record 1,984 players were hit by pitches. In last year’s shortened 60-game schedule, it was 821 — a pace that would have resulted in more than 2,200. This season, the number is 582, a rate that also is on target to eclipse 2,000, with more players getting drilled up-and-in, as Pillar was.

"It's a pretty simple answer," Pillar said, his face swollen with black eyes and a crooked, bruised nose. "I just think velocity has become the primary factor in determining whether a guy can pitch at the highest level of baseball, as opposed to pitchability. You're seeing more and more guys that throw hard and teams are hoping that they can develop pitchability and control, and a secondary pitch. You're not seeing as many guys that throw in the lower 90s or 90 that have very high pitchability with multiple pitches that get guys out. Those guys are kind of a dime a dozen now."

According to Statcast (minimum of 50 pitches), there are 121 pitchers whose average fastball is 95 mph or higher this season and 32 pitchers at 97 mph or higher. The top average so far is 100.5.

Compare that to 2017 — the first year Statcast began tracking such info — when 94 pitchers averaged 95 mph or better, with 18 getting to 97 mph or higher (and a max average of 98.6).

Pillar was lucky, in the sense that he escaped catastrophic injury. But MLB’s need for speed likely means he won’t be the last to absorb a runaway fastball somewhere above the letters, where the lack of control becomes a serious safety concern.

"I can't speak about all the scenarios, but I know this guy didn't want to hit me," Pillar said. "Accidents do happen."

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