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By the ninth inning on Monday, the Chicago White Sox had shoveled another embarrassing heap of runs on top of the Minnesota Twins’ withering playoff hopes, and Minnesota had called in Willians Astudillo — extraordinary avatar of the everyman — to pitch in the blowout.
The entrance of Astudillo, a player of virtually any other position by trade, signaled that the Twins had given up and decided to cut their losses. To everyone’s delight — it seemed at the time — fellow rotund revelation Yermin Mercedes bludgeoned a 3-0 eephus pitch into the next ZIP code.
A crusty Twins broadcast took exception, but that was about it until White Sox manager Tony La Russa showed up to his media availability on Tuesday, a whole day later, and publicly excoriated his own player, even saying (While being recorded! Knowingly!) that he might spank Mercedes if he weren’t so big and strong. The crime, as it were, was essentially running up the score.
“I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game,’” La Russa said. “No, he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents.”
That is just a patently absurd way to think about what was, in reality, a muscle-memorized split-second decision. Remember, Mercedes didn’t decide to hit a home run up 11 against a position player pitching for a sinking division rival. He decided to swing on 3-0 at a looping 47 mph pitch over the plate.
In the muddy theory of baseball’s unwritten rules, swinging on 3-0 is the violation, but of course the real “problem” is the massive home run he didn’t know he would hit.
When you rewind the tape and consider the decision made in the moment, Mercedes’ reasons are obvious. And Chicago’s rationale for putting La Russa in charge of this team — currently the best in the AL despite him — is even harder to square.
Mercedes' career is at stake on every pitch
To understand the decision suddenly in question, we need to take into account the path of the man making it. Yermin Mercedes was signed out of the Dominican Republic pretty much on a whim, and spent nearly a decade bouncing around the financially ruinous minor leagues and the even less lucrative independent leagues. When Mercedes finally earned a crucial place on Chicago’s 40-man roster after an impossible-to-ignore 2019 season in the upper minors, Baseball America explained the impact of that accomplishment this way:
In a dream scenario, the player makes the MLB roster when spring training concludes. If so, for every day on the MLB roster he’ll earn roughly $3,000 a day, meaning he’ll make more every day than he ever made in a month in his minor league career. And the club will pay for “first class hotel accommodations” as he settles into the city with his new team.
But even if the player doesn’t make the MLB roster, his minor league pay will go from roughly $2,000 a month to a minimum of $46,000 a year. That player will go from making so little that he will need to earn enough in the offseason (or get help from friends and family) to support his baseball career to making solid money.
And if that player gets to the majors for even one day. His minor league salary gets another massive boost. A player with MLB time has a minimum salary in the minors of a little more than $90,000 a year.
In 2020, he got a cup of coffee. And this season he got his first real shot — a 28-year-old catcher who isn’t defensively trusted to catch, and is thus totally dependent on his bat to justify his place on the roster. So far, so great.
But Mercedes is still only making the league minimum ($570,500) and still lives in a precarious position, long-term. Despite the warm and fuzzy sheen of his trajectory right now, his presence (and Astudillo’s, for that matter) in the big leagues must be, in part, credited to cold roster calculations that make a hitter with any level of experience at catcher extra useful.
It will be at least 2024 before Mercedes even has the chance to earn money based on his production through MLB’s byzantine arbitration system — at which point every home run and RBI will come with a very real cash value. Perhaps even more likely is the possibility he will also bounce around before then and need to point to his statistics as leverage for opportunities and marginally higher payment.
That’s what makes La Russa’s pie-in-the-sky invocation of some universal sportsmanship code so openly out of touch.
This is not analogous to similar running up the score controversies in other sports. A young NBA player with the chance to hit a three or dunk in the closing seconds of a blowout is ultimately not affecting his finances either way, and he’s certainly not forced to choose between a faux pas or a negative mark on his stats. Specifically because Mercedes plays Major League Baseball, as La Russa haughtily says, he has long known the difference between a hitless at-bat and a shot at a slugging percentage boost.
It’s not killer instinct; it’s survival instinct.
This isn’t even a situation …
Judging this decision also requires a joint understanding of what was even happening in the game. The implication is that Mercedes should see a bright line and take his foot off the gas.
There are a lot of ways that could get murky, but here are just a few:
Swinging on 3-0 is increasingly common in MLB, nearly doubling in frequency over the past decade.
There have only been seven 3-0 pitches thrown by position players pitching this year. There were only five in 2020 and 29 in the 2019 season. In the last season La Russa managed, 2011, there was precisely one all year. (For the record, then-White Sox catcher James McCann swung and singled on one of the 2019 pitches.)
If the vibe is that the game is over, maybe Mercedes could be credited with trying to just end the Twins’ misery and get things over with. You’ll recall that Astudillo lobbed a 47.1 mph pitch up there. That made it extremely unlikely Mercedes was going to hit a home run! It’s the slowest pitch on record that has left the park.
La Russa claims Mercedes disregarded a take sign, but it’s unlikely he is publicly endorsing the Twins throwing behind his player if the swing turns into a pop fly.
… but La Russa’s White Sox reign officially is
In terms of questionable decisions, few are looming larger than the call to hire La Russa out of retirement. It was widely reported that team owner Jerry Reinsdorf put his finger on the scale and brought the Hall of Fame skipper out of retirement despite legal issues stemming from a drunk driving incident and a well-documented disconnect with the way players and the wider sport operates now.
Now, the baseball world’s perplexed reaction is only collecting supporting evidence.
Veteran White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn gave voice to a level of understanding that one would think is a baseline for managing an MLB team, but La Russa is miles from that, and too stubborn to hear of it. On Wednesday he responded to that logic by saying, “Lance has a locker, I have an office.”
In a contemporary game where managers have very few ways to make or break a team’s chances, La Russa is bum-rushing the nuclear option of inspiring a mutiny.
The tactical wizard of the 1980s is also not distinguishing himself in any other facet of the job. He’s had to apologize for not knowing the actual rules of extra innings and answer questions about mind-boggling pitching and strategic decisions.
Despite a deluge of injuries, a White Sox team everyone knew was talented is off to a roaring start and headed for October baseball. There are not a lot of things that can throw a baseball team this good off a steady path, but this is a situation we do actually have context for, that we can judge. And, spoiler alert, the problem is in an office, not a locker.
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