Paul Sullivan: Tony La Russa’s bullpen management takes center stage with White Sox’s loaded corps of relievers

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read
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CHICAGO — Few managers in baseball have had as great an impact on the game as Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, whose bullpen maneuverings in Oakland and St. Louis led to the creation of a new term: “La Russaization.”

Boston Globe sports writer Bob Ryan is credited with coining the term, which he sometimes used in conjunction with an adjective, decrying the “creeping La Russaization” of the game.

In essence, La Russaization referred to the specialization of relievers, including using closers for one inning only and just in save situations, such as the Athletics’ Dennis Eckersley, and bringing in relievers to pitch to one or two batters only, depending on righty-lefty matchups.

Using a handful of relievers — or more — based on matchups not only prolonged games, but also transitioned baseball from an era when pitching matchups between two name starters — Fergie Jenkins versus Bob Gibson, or Don Drysdale versus Juan Marichal — was reason enough to venture out to the ballpark.

Legendary Chicago sports writer Jerome Holtzman invented the save rule in 1969 and made closers a ton of money. But La Russa perfected late-inning pitching strategy and made middle relievers a vital part of roster construction. He was a micromanager’s micromanager, and that strategy helped him win three World Series and got him into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his return to the game this spring after a nine-year absence from the dugout, La Russa has been handed a ready-to-win team with a bullpen full of power arms, including an elite closer in Liam Hendriks.

There’s no reason to think the man who reinvented the way bullpens are employed would veer off course. But after leaving in reliever Matt Foster too long during the fateful sixth inning of Wednesday’s 8-4 loss in Seattle — and immediately regretting that decision — La Russa opted to allow starter Lance Lynn to throw a complete-game shutout against the Kansas City Royals in a 6-0 win in the Sox home opener Thursday.

La Russa easily could’ve pulled Lynn after eight innings with a six-run lead and let someone else get in some work. It’s early in the season, and despite three blown saves already, the bullpen is supposed to be a team strength. Lynn had only one outing of more than seven innings in his 13 starts last season with the Texas Rangers, so no one would’ve batted an eye if La Russa had asked him for the ball.

But he didn’t.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you good?’ ” Lynn said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to finish it, does that sound good?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ That was pretty much it.”

So much for La Russaization.

It was baseball’s first complete game this season and notable for the Sox because they posted only three complete games last year, when only 29 complete games were thrown in all of baseball during the 60-game regular season.

San Diego Padres starter Joe Musgrove threw the second complete game Friday night — a no-hitter against the Rangers — and said after: “There was no way I was coming out of that game.”

That’s the kind of attitude you normally want from a starter. But too often it’s lacking, so bravo to Lynn, Musgrove and their managers.

Starters over the years have learned they likely are not going the distance, accepting being removed after six or seven innings or 100 or so pitches. “Bullpenning” and “openers” also have contributed to the near extinction of complete games, and the popularity of the “quality start” stat — throwing at least six innings while allowing three runs or fewer — also became an impediment.

You already have had a quality outing, so why push it?

Players are no longer paid for wins but for having superior analytics, as the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom proved by winning the Cy Young Award with a 10-9 record in 2018 and getting a well-deserved $137.5 million contract the next spring. DeGrom, the best pitcher in baseball, has three complete games in 184 career starts.

Jenkins, the former Cubs Hall of Famer who threw 267 complete games, can’t understand why modern starters aren’t allowed to pitch longer.

“Athletes are just as strong and they can endure what I did,” Jenkins said last week. “But management just won’t let them do it for some reason, and I can’t figure that out. Some guys are stronger than others. Why don’t you let them test their ability to go a little further into games, to win more ballgames and to pitch more innings?”

High salaries and risk of injuries are the main reasons, no doubt. And having a boatload of power arms in the bullpen at your disposal is another. The Sox have seven relievers whose fastball averaged between 95 and 98 mph in the first week of 2021: Codi Heuer (98.2 mph), Michael Kopech (97.0), Garrett Crochet (96.7), Hendriks (96.3), Jose Ruiz (95.9), Aaron Bummer (95.8) and Foster (94.9). You’d imagine those numbers will tick up once their arms are built up and the weather gets warmer.

With so many weapons, it’s no wonder La Russa beat himself up for leaving in Foster to take a pounding.

“Stupid, lousy, no excuse,” he said of the decision.

It was refreshing to hear a manager take the heat, but it was also right out of the La Russa playbook. In a 2007 profile in Sports Illustrated, La Russa repeatedly blamed “bad managing” for the Cardinals’ problems.

“Managing has some great moments, but there’s some savage (bleep) that you go through,” he told SI. “You win a great game, you feel great, and something will happen — a player may betray you — and it eats you. I believe your best and almost only chance to survive is to personalize it. It’s you. I sit in that office: Am I managing bad? Am I an ineffective leader? Go ahead and run with that if you want to. I believe it: I’m horse (bleep). I’ve got to do something better.”

On Thursday, La Russa skipped the pen and let Lynn finish the job himself. It probably is not a trend, but Lynn nevertheless threw down the gauntlet to his fellow starters, saying it was now “in their court” to follow the leader.

After a day off Friday and a rainout Saturday, the ball is in Dylan Cease’s hand Sunday against the Royals.

With a well-rested pen and an old-school manager, the question is: “For how long?”