He made some big blunders in the first half of the season, like not knowing the rules in a key game situation. He threw his young designated hitter under the bus for breaking the insipid unwritten rules of baseball. Sometimes he sounds like he just woke up when speaking to the media. All of this was on top of all the baggage that he brought along when he got hired before the season started. And yet, if the season ended after the first half, Tony La Russa should, rightfully, be considered for AL manager of the year.
The White Sox hold the largest lead of any division leader in baseball, eight games over Cleveland. They have a fifteen-game lead on the Minnesota Twins, the team most thought would be the biggest rival for the 2021 season. On any given day, the White Sox might have the best record in the American League.
How much of this success is a direct result of La Russa’s management? Who knows? It is often debated how many wins or losses are managers really worth. It still isn’t really clear. What isn’t debated nearly as much is the importance of a manager to get a team to play hard and stay focused, despite the personnel changes that occur in every season. So far, La Russa has the team on the same page.
A good example is injuries. It is something that separates good managers from mediocre ones, not to mention bad ones. Every team has to deal with injuries. Disappointing teams often highlight injuries as a reason their season went nowhere. In 2021, so far, the White Sox have been dealing with a lot of significant injuries. At one point their entire projected starting outfield was out. Only Adam Engel has come back. Their starting second baseman, Nick Madrigal is out for the season. The regular catcher, Yasmani Grandal, is currently out for at least a month. And yet, the White Sox are already looking toward October.
Some of that is due to the White Sox having depth through the organization. Guys keep coming up and producing. However, La Russa deserves some credit too for deploying these players and getting them in a position to win every night. At some point, this isn’t just luck or fate. It also isn’t dumb luck that La Russa and his staff have handled the pitching staff pretty well. The starters have produced, and that’s without Lucas Giolito being his best self. Sure, there have been meltdowns and the like, but that happens every year to every team. Good teams get over those bumps and the manager has at least a little to do with it.
There is still a lot of baseball left. The shaky bullpen might collapse. The young fill-in players might come back to earth. La Russa might have more damaging senior moments, especially down the stretch. Even if he isn’t the most likable manager in White Sox history, La Russa is deserving of accolades for what he’s accomplished this year. If he can keep the ship straight and make a deep run into October, his plaque in Cooperstown will need an update.