Two weeks into the baseball season, and the city of Chicago has already curled up into a ball on the floor somewhere, sucking its thumb. Two teams with 5-6 records, and to listen to fans, new White Sox manager Tony La Russa has lost his marbles and is napping in the dugout. And the Cubs?
“Oh,’’ said my neighbor who has flown a Cubs flag from her front porch for years, but isn’t now. “They suck.’’
Ah, I see.
Take a deep breath, Chicago baseball fans. Go to your happy place. Your teams are 5-6, and if they were 6-5, then they’d be on pace to win 88 games and probably get into the playoffs.
Does that mean I think both teams will be just fine? Yes and no. Yes on the White Sox. No on the Cubs, who really are terrible. But we don’t know anything yet.
The mental health of Chicago baseball fans is in jeopardy because of their unfamiliar place in the baseball world. The Cubs spent a century playing terribly, and there is comfort in that. You know who you are and come to accept it. Now, they have been winners for five years, and suddenly Cubs fans are facing something they never have from the start of a season:
Meanwhile, White Sox history has mostly been made up of mediocre play. But this year, they have been built to win the World Series, with a great rotation, amazing bullpen, clutch players and power. So Sox fans are struggling with something they haven’t faced often:
Let’s start with the White Sox. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf dusted off his old friend, La Russa, who’s 76, and brought him out of managerial retirement. Sox fans were nervous from the start about bringing in such an old, grumpy manager to lead a young, vibrant team.
So La Russa left reliever Matt Foster in a little too long last week, maybe a lot too long, and you’d think fans wanted to hold a mirror under La Russa’s nose to see if he would fog it up.
“The best way to explain it is, I did a really lousy job managing that inning,’’ La Russa said afterward. “It really hurt our chances to win. . .Pushed him too far. Stupid, lousy, no excuse.’’
The sense was that at least La Russa had owned up to it. But what that really did was turn every Sox fan into a micro-manager, picking on every last thing La Russa does, every batter he puts in, everything.
On Tuesday, the Sox trailed 2-0 in the 10th inning and had Nick Williams lead off. Nick Williams? La Russa’s game management is turning this season into a disaster. When will ownership rectify this mistake and fire La Russa?
I read those things on Twitter.
Breathe in, Chicago baseball fans. Breathe out.
La Russa is doing exactly what he should be doing. He has shot down the idea of relying on analytics and invented his own term: “Observational analytics.’’
That means he’s not going to manage based on computer printouts, but instead on what he sees and feels. At this point, 11 games into a 162-game season, we’re still in the observational part.
He is seeing what he has, what people look like, whether Foster can handle 30 or 35 pitches, which player can handle left field now that star Eloy Jimenez is out hurt.
The White Sox are loaded with injuries and y0uth, and this is mix-and-match time. Years ago, the Cubs hired too-old manager Lou Piniella, who sat in the dugout for 40 games and watched the Cubs stink up the place. Fans thought Piniella was napping. Really, he was observing. He gave his veterans time to show what they could do. And a quarter of the way into the season, he had it figured out. He made all sorts of changes and the Cubs quickly made some trades, went on a tear and won the division.
I love what La Russa is doing. When the weather gets warm in Chicago, the Sox always start hitting because the ball travels through the air better at Sox park. Their pitchers are simply too powerful to hit. And La Russa just has to find someone who can actually catch the ball or pick up a ground ball because defense is killing them.
With the Cubs, well, my neighbor is right. They can’t hit. They were built by former architect Theo Epstein around the analytics model. They’re swinging for home runs on everything while not bothering to do the little things, like hitting a ground ball to the right side of the infield to advance a runner.
Swinging as hard as you can only works if you actually hit the ball. Some of the power hitters, such as Anthony Rizzo, will come along. But if they don’t, then manager David Ross is going to have to do something managers don’t do anymore: Manage.
He is already using closer Craig Kimbrel in the 8th inning, something Kimbrel hasn’t done. He’s going to have to bench swinging-and-missing power hitters, regardless of salary, in favor of anyone who can put his bat on the ball.
I think Ross is about to put his mark on the team. And the Cubs division is so bad that they could still win it.
We’re only 11 games in. Two weeks, two 5-6 teams and two fan bases that can use a straitjacket.