The articles had been written. The math had been done. The “Fight for the AL Central” graphics had been made for the games.
And in a matter of hours, it was all over.
After losing the first game of last week’s homestand to the Guardians, it felt as though the final nail had at long last been put in the White Sox’s 2022 coffin. All of the “what if” scenarios and eyes on the loss column all said the same thing: the final three games against the Guardians meant everything. And, after the first one, it all meant nothing. Those who have played organized sports know: there is no magic “flip” that switches as you’re competing. You’re either in it or you’re not mentally. And when the light goes out on a once-promising season, it’s not easy to continue forward with the same energy as before.
That doesn’t make it right. And this weekend, after the leading comment out of the dugout before the series was “it’s not over,” it was clear the players no longer believed what they said. On the other side of the fence, fan frustrations boiled over for a final time this season, and with nine games to go, the White Sox sit in a place with more questions than answers as it relates to what happens next for this contention window after a failed season right in the middle of it.
This past week wasn’t the first time this season that White Sox nation has expressed their complete dissatisfaction with the product on the field. Depending on your level of pessimism heading into the season, you likely saw this collapse coming at a different time. Roster flaws inconsistent with a World Series-caliber team were apparent as far back as Spring Training, but it didn’t really matter at the time – get into the playoffs, and anything can happen. It was clear to most that while World Series aspirations were attainable, the course towards getting there wasn’t necessarily paved as easily as it could have been.
What followed has been nearly six months of baseball that has been underwhelming, uninspired, and heavily scrutinized – even by those who may have at one time been the closest to the team.
The most public calls began as Scott Podsednik – about as mild-mannered as they come – challenged La Russa and the club to ask themselves: “Has this been acceptable?” This came following game one of a doubleheader on July 12th in which it took Shane Bieber just two hours and nine minutes to carve up the White Sox in a complete-game 4-1 victory. The team was five games back of the Twins in the AL Central at a measly 41-45.
Manager Tony La Russa never said what Podsednik challenged him to say. Or rather, if he did, it had just a temporary impact. The team proceeded to win four of their next five games heading into the All-Star Break, finding themselves at .500 and just three games back of the division. The sorts of conversations that media and blogs alike were having – as a result – stopped, or at least quieted. After all, for the time being, fans, media, blogs, and analysts were now once again distracted by the playoff race that the White Sox inexplicably found themselves in the middle of – all the way up to a crucial series with Cleveland in late September to decide it all.
Fans know what happened next. The 10-7 heartbreaking loss in extra innings has been followed by uninspired baseball against the Guardians and basement-dwelling Tigers. Heading into today, White Sox starting pitchers have thrown six consecutive quality starts in games that mattered the most. The team has lost all six games. All six games have been at home.
Fans certainly felt as though the team had up and quit on the season.
The bigger problem here? Acting manager Miguel Cairo seemed to agree with the fans’ thoughts on how the winless homestand went.
To Cairo’s credit, this is the first time in recent memory that someone in the managerial seat for the White Sox has been outwardly critical of his player’s effort, matching the same tone that fans have echoed for a while. It’s a level of “he gives a crap” that is refreshing, even if he is the captain of the sinking ship right now.
When comparing some of Cario’s quotes to those that came from La Russa, fans are rightly questioning if the original person at the helm was ever able to deliver a message that needed to come in a way that would leave an impact.
“Everyone’s got a little bit more pep in the step. It’s one of those mantras of just, ‘Fuck it. Fuck it, let’s just go.’ This is who we are. We need to embrace who we are instead of trying to be that stoic, old-timey baseball plater. Show some emotion, get angry and piss everybody off.”– Liam Hendriks (via Vinnie Duber of CHGO Sports) on the state of the White Sox’ season
While the above quote may have been from a few weeks ago, it was clear that Cairo has been delivering a message in a way that La Russa either wouldn’t or couldn’t. For a time, it worked. The White Sox were 13-5 at the beginning of Cairo’s tenure as manager. The six-game losing streak has pushed that to a more pedestrian 13-11, leading to claims that Cairo is no different than La Russa at the helm. Fans will see Cairo call out the players’ effort and rightly disagree with that premise.
However, at the end of the day, the White Sox are a team that, in the biggest series of the season, completely folded when it mattered most. A week ago today, they were just four games back in the division. They enter today 10 games back with Cleveland keeping the throttle down and turning a once-close division into an absolute laugher.
Meanwhile, out in Cleveland, the Guardians have had a great time – at the White Sox’s expense – celebrating their AL Central title. It’s a title that most people – including many of the White Sox themselves – felt as though the White Sox were prepared to cakewalk to in a very subpar AL Central.
You can understand why the Guardians may have taken such umbrage to those thoughts, and in the process, turned the White Sox into a main laughing point of their own celebrations.
The questionable bullpen decisions. The decision to allow Leury Garcia to accumulate 315 PAs on the season (for what it’s worth, Garcia has started just five games with Cairo at the helm). The 1-2 intentional walk. The SECOND 1-2 intentional walk. The viral clips of La Russa looking quite fatigued in the dugout. The “Fire Tony” chants. The “Sell the Team” banners. The Yermin Mercedes saga of 2021. For the better part of two seasons, the White Sox have been in the national media in ways that no team should be in today’s game. Calls to fire a manager or sell a team aren’t uncommon in a failed season – those will happen anywhere. But as for the rest, the league has been chuckling at the White Sox for a while. In 2021, the team got to the playoffs, so it didn’t matter.
Now, in 2022, the Cleveland Guardians have had the last laugh. How the White Sox plan to respond, if at all, with their play on the field remains to be seen.
With the season now over, fans have essentially moved on to new hobbies as the final three series of the season have yet to be played. Dylan Cease‘s final start serves as probably one of the only reasons for the casual fan to watch any of the final nine games of baseball, given that the club has shown in their play that they’re thinking about what happens after the season as well.
The questions have already begun. Will Tony La Russa return? Who will the White Sox target? Will Jose Abreu return? How can the White Sox reshape what is clearly a broken roster – and who is in charge of making those decisions? The White Sox may have some of those answers, but as for the final – and most important – one, it appears that what many fans have felt for a long time is true: the club itself doesn’t even have the answer to that.
Whether or not Tony La Russa returns next season, the experiment is over. Many will argue that they knew the results before the experiment even occurred. But in the past several weeks, we have now seen several examples from media members (Ken Rosenthal and James Fegan) of situations in which Tony La Russa was actively undermining what his coaches were preaching.
First, his insistence on a high-singles, low-strikeout offense undermined his hitting coach Frank Menechino. The team was 28th in home runs and 22nd in runs scored in 2022 under La Russa. Since Cairo has taken over, the club is 4th in home runs and 5th in runs scored.
“Your relationship with coaches was another issue. Most staffs today are highly collaborative. Your style is far more autonomous. Some coaches were OK with that, I’m told. Others were not. Your emphasis on hits and contact ran counter to the hitting coaches’ goals for achieving power through patience.”– Ken Rosenthal’s “Open Letter to Tony La Russa” in The Athletic
Next, his in-game management – including the fateful 1-2 intentional walks – was a product of his own design, often undermining his pitching coach Ethan Katz in the process.
“And so, Sousa bounced an 0-2 pitch to Trea Turner to open up first base, and La Russa put up four fingers. Max Muncy followed with a three-run blast despite the lefty-on-lefty matchup. Subsequent incidents, including La Russa repeating the move and walking Guardians Rookie Oscar Gonzalez on a 1-2 count, revealed that the manager simply did not think the count is relevant to this equation at all; whereas “count leverage” is the primary emphasis of his pitching coach and all of his charges.”– James Fegan’s “White Sox moments that really sunk the season” in The Athletic
Again, the experiment is over. The results are in. It’s simply a matter of whether or not the club is willing to admit that the data is overwhelmingly not in La Russa’s favor.
Though it’s not all La Russa’s fault either – he can’t be blamed for everything the team does wrong. The level of blame will always vary based on who you ask, but at the end of the day, someone has to be held accountable – from the front office all the way down to the players. It’s likely that Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams stay in their positions, with La Russa providing enough leeway to at least make an argument that they haven’t had full control over the entirety of the product on the field that they helped to create. Should the team actually go out and conduct a full-scale managerial search, it will be clear that the two can no longer run from any shortcomings that may result in 2023 and beyond.
But, many will argue that it needs to go further than just a new manager and a new player or two. In order for the White Sox to truly be successful in 2023 and beyond, it’s going to require a shift in how they tackle the modern game.
This is a team that has gone just 78-68 over the past two seasons against the AL Central, primarily focused on beating up the brutal Tigers. They’re 13-19 against the Twins and Guardians this season. Until a recent surge that coincided with the departure of La Russa, they were not hitting home runs, still are not taking walks, and have a lack of plate discipline that at times rivals gameplay on MLB the Show. It often looks as if the team goes into at-bats with a swing-first approach against all pitchers, which we have learned does not work more than once or twice in a season based on the results. The club is consistently sloppy on the basepaths, with the triple play flyout being the most vivid of memories. Finally, perhaps because they at times choose to have as many as three first basemen on the field at once, the White Sox are 25th in overall defense with -23 runs saved, sitting near the bottom with the likes of the Royals, Reds, Athletics, and Nationals.
And, for as much as fans cite injuries to the team, the White Sox haven’t been extraordinarily hit with injuries this season either. Their injury management, however, has been rather suspect, including how the team has recently handled Luis Robert‘s left wrist sprain.
Even a cursory review of the above certainly gives the impression that the front office, coaching staff, and analytics team need to work together to make some radical changes heading into next season. Unfortunately, according to Four Rings Sports Solutions, the White Sox are behind the 8-ball there as well.
The good news is that the White Sox still have plenty of talent on the field to continue to do damage through the rest of whatever this “contention window” may look like. However, their margin for error will continue to remain small unless they radically change how they scout opponents, prepare for matchups, and – most importantly – build this team both offensively and defensively, especially with the absence of shifting starting next season. The defense can’t just be ignored by placing an emphasis on the offense, especially when the offense is structured without a good approach or the discipline to enact a good approach should one exist.
Fans have never been wrong to question how the White Sox operate or how the team on the field was built. For a long time, the team could hide behind injuries and a division title to show that the results were in place, so what else really mattered? Now, the White Sox are in a place where the poor results have caught up to the poor process. This entire season, from the results on the field to the coaching staff to the lack of an analytics staff, is a condemnation of what this team has done, how it has operated, and how severely it needs to change. The question remains: are the people in charge willing to make those changes in all facets of the game? The status quo is not good enough.
One thing remains clear: White Sox fans deserve better. Their frustrations are valid and understandable, which I’m sure will be something Rick Hahn mentions at his end-of-the-season press conference. But with a team with an interim manager that sees little fire in his team with nine to go, a division rival digging up old – and new – dirt during their clinching celebration, and a front office that is not only not on the same page, but also might not even be reading the same book, the team finds itself completely exposed from top-down with plenty of work to do. Words will ring hollow without results that follow once the final out of the World Series is recorded – and, with the amount of work to do, the club would probably be wise to start as soon as the final out on October 5th is recorded.
For now, on the day of the beginning of a series with the Twins that was supposed to mean so much, the two clubs will start their six-game battle for the coveted position of second place in the AL Central.
Perhaps that was always how it was meant to be.
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Featured Image: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports