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When Chicago White Sox stud home run hitter Eloy Jimenez got seriously hurt last week trying to make an impossible catch (read: stupid play) in the outfield of an exhibition game, the numbers and stats crunchers went to work.
The Sox have dropped from a projected 83.1 wins this year to 80.2. That’s assuming I’m reading PECOTA analytics right, and believe me when I tell you, I might not be. In English, the Sox felt they could contend for the World Series this year and that the analytics were all wrong in the first place. Now with Jimenez out five or six months with a ruptured pectoral tendon, their chances — using all the logarithms and algebra — are even lower.
So what does that mean to the new-old Sox manager, 76-year-old Tony La Russa? How will he replace those numbers, not to mention find a left fielder?
“Someone will play out there,’’ he shrugged.
God bless Tony La Russa. I think the narrative on him has been unfair. The fear in Chicago is that an old man will ruin the fun vibe of the young White Sox. That’s possible, yes. But it’s also possible that La Russa might save baseball from itself and open the door to other smart old managers who have been put on a shelf to gather dust.
If Mike Tyson can get into a ring and fight Evander Holyfield again — that fight is on again, off again — then I don’t see why La Russa can’t just sit in a dugout for 162 games watching the White Sox instead of sitting in a chair in his house watching the games on TV.
In general, it’s not a good idea to move backward, but baseball’s present and future are all messed up. And La Russa might be just the breath of 76-year-old air that the sport needs.
The baseball season starts this week, and Opening Day always seems like such an optimistic time. We’re moving to spring weather, and this country has had enough winter in a lot of ways.
There is still a charm and nostalgia to a baseball game (or for some people, at least a whole new set of things to gamble on). The problem, though, is that baseball itself has. . .gotten. . .extremely. . .bo. . .ring.
When last we left baseball, it had forgotten how to bunt, steal a base, advance a runner. The entire encyclopedia of how to play baseball has been reduced to a Post-it.
Strike out. Home run. Wait.
Baseball games now take forever and nothing ever happens. The analytics experts have found that technically and on a percentage basis, it makes no sense to risk making outs or wasting them. Better to just stand there at the plate and swing as hard as you can.
When Chicago Cubs architect Theo Epstein, who built a World Series champion by playing the analytics right, quit during the offseason, he said this:
“The executives like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects.”
Boring baseball seems to be how to win though, as proven by these numbers guys. And Major League Baseball is hesitant to do anything to change that or even pick up the speed of the games because those changes could all be bargaining chips in their upcoming labor fight with the players.
That’s where La Russa and the White Sox fit in. La Russa isn’t overly impressed with the wave of analytics in sports, which is good because they have not only ruined baseball, but they’ve also ruined basketball. Who knows how far this analytics cancer will spread.
La Russa believes in what he calls “observational analytics.’’
“The last 10, 15 years, the most pressing question for the people in uniform is, `What is the balance?’‘’ La Russa said recently on the Mully and Haugh show, 670-AM in Chicago. “`How do you work in all this very important information that’s now available?’
“The observational analytics is that you have to watch what your guys are doing that day, what their guys are doing, and you have to be able to adjust to the dynamics of the competition. So you can’t let the percentages and scripts determine the decisions you make.’’
The White Sox are going to play on La Russa’s instincts, actually valuing the knowledge of guys who get their hands dirty over guys who push computer buttons.
La Russa won three World Series on those instincts and on what used to be a reputation as an innovative manager. The White Sox hired him the first time in 1979 when he was 34. He hasn’t managed in a decade and unfortunately still makes references to his prime as if it were yesterday. He talks about some of his former players such as Dennis Eckersley, Greg Luzinski and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
OK, that last one was a joke. But the point is, I doubt La Russa knows — or cares — what 83.1 wins even means. Can La Russa make this work? Baseball had better hope so.