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Robin Ventura shouldn’t have worked out, and he didn’t

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The White Sox organization wasn’t strong enough to take on a project at manager

One more chance to use HSA's iconic photo.
One more chance to use HSA's iconic photo.

Considering even their sensible additions have a helluva time meeting expectations this decade, the White Sox had no right expecting Robin Ventura to work out.

Kenny Williams caught everybody by surprise when he recruited Ventura to replace Ozzie Guillen after the 2011 season. Ventura had no coaching experience outside of high school and no known managerial ambitions, but Williams was so convinced in Ventura’s aptitude that he didn’t bother interviewing anybody else. Just when we were expecting the first of the coaching search updates, the Sox announced they had found their man.

The White Sox are not a successful organization, and they had just ended a particularly toxic and unprofessional two years with the departure of Guillen. Instead of using the open position to lend new credibility to the franchise, they instead conducted an experiment to see whether managers needed any kind of experience in a non-playing capacity, or if they could just get by with the kind of tools used by high school guidance counselors. That article is still the height of hubris, by the way:

"This psychologist was asked, 'Of all the people you've tested, who impressed you the most in terms of their capabilities to lead?'" Williams said. "And his reply was, 'There's one guy who's capable of being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And if he were in the military, he would achieve four-star general status.' I'll give you one guess who the person was." [...]

"The point is, [Ventura] is a cut above," Williams said. "If he could have been a four-star general, I think he's probably equipped to run a baseball team. And he's probably equipped to lead this group of guys."

And:

"In our situation, I think the [biggest] risk would have been not hiring Robin," Williams said.

It looked ridiculous at the time, and history proved the skeptics correct four times over. The White Sox got what they deserved — or didn’t get what they didn’t deserve. Take your pick.

Perhaps Ventura would have succeeded in another organization. The same offseason the White Sox hired Ventura, the Cardinals tapped Mike Matheny, who also had zero experience in the coaching or managing ranks after his playing days, to replace Tony La Russa. Despite going from one of baseball’s legendary managers to a complete novice, the Cardinals made the postseason in each of his first four seasons, reaching the World Series in 2013. Matheny is not regarded as an especially skilled manager, but the St. Louis system is a factory that churns out above-average players.

Ventura didn’t have that advantage, because the White Sox struggle to both develop and acquire reliable talent. Instead, Ventura’s flaws were exacerbated by the Sox’ particular shortcomings.

Ventura had the league’s slowest hook, leaving in starters until they broke. That might be OK for a team with an offense that could be counted upon to tack on runs in the later innings, but it’s a self-destructive combination when the lineup only provides the thinnest of margins.

Ventura tended to be reactive more than proactive on the whole. He never could quite shake his habit of getting punished by the Times Through The Order Penalty. Perhaps that’s because he never entirely trusted his bullpen, although he compounded problems by taking forever to shift away from Matt Albers. When he tried Jose Abreu in the second spot after months/years of receiving the league’s worst production there, it was treated as a watershed moment, when it could’ve been a Plan B, C or D already attempted if only for goofs and grins.

His greatest strength was being the opposite of Guillen early on. The White Sox suffered heavy damages in 2010 (the decision to let Jim Thome go to the Twins) and 2011 (Adam Dunn getting everyday playing time) because Guillen and Williams couldn’t get along. The White Sox spent most of the 2012 season in first place mostly because 1) Chris Sale had unimaginable success as a starter, and 2) the manager actually wanted to make his team better.

Alas, Ventura almost ruined the first part by making the rash decision to shift Sale to the bullpen at the first sign of discomfort, a decision Sale was able to reverse by yelling. Ventura then had a hand in the Sox’ September collapse. He looked overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options on the expanded roster, and even Williams criticized his team for its lack of bunting on a hobbled Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers seized first place, and the White Sox spent the next four years failing to threaten any other AL Central contender. That’s reflected in the White Sox’ head-to-head record against divisional opponents since 2013:

  • vs. Kansas City: 27-49
  • vs. Cleveland: 29-47
  • vs. Detroit: 32-44
  • vs. Minnesota: 35-41

Add it up, and you get a 123-181 record against the Central, and a 167-176 record against everybody else. This characteristic of Ventura’s teams didn’t fade even as the White Sox improved from their 99-loss nadir in 2013. Over the last two years, a period during which they were ostensibly contending, the White Sox were 64-88 against the Central, and 90-82 against the rest of baseball.

The Sox were especially feeble against Kansas City, and while the talent on the field is mostly responsible, Ventura had a habit of making the White Sox look nervous. He issued intentional walks to feeble hitters like Chris Getz, Jeff Francoeur and Alcides Escobar, and called for pitchouts in unfavorable counts to make a rookie pitcher’s job harder. Royals fans who knew a thing or two about self-defeating managing came to appreciate Ventura’s help. Take it from Rany Jazayerli, when the White Sox expressed a willingness to retain Ventura...

... and when rumors of his replacement surfaced:

Ventura even found a way to lose the selling points that should’ve been difficult to erase. Before the Sox collapsed in 2012, Ventura surprised and amused us when he became the first Sox skipper since 1995 to put a position player on the mound. Three years later, he jumped the shark by pitching Leury Garcia and Alexei Ramirez in the same game ... in September.

And when Rick Hahn defended the decision to retain Ventura by praising his ability to keep a clubhouse cool, it exploded on him not once (Adam LaRoche’s retirement), but twice (Chris Sale in the clubhouse with a knife). The White Sox overcame the first one by racing out to a 23-10 start, but they couldn’t point to the second one as a galvanizing event. Instead, the jersey massacre stands as the most embarrassing moment of an embarrassing fade. They became the third team in history to start that hot and still finish below .500, and, as a result, Ventura became the first White Sox manager to oversee four consecutive losing seasons.

It wasn’t Ventura’s fault he lasted this long. He didn’t force the Sox to hire him. He didn’t force the Sox to extend him after a 99-loss season. He didn’t force the Sox to retain him for a lame-duck season after the Sox made no significant progress in what was supposed to be a moving year. Ventura wasn’t up to the challenge, but he wasn’t supposed to back down from it on his own. The front office and/or ownership is supposed to decide when enough is enough, but neither had the stomach to admit the hiring was a mistake before his contractual obligation expired. Hell, even with his deal lapsing, the White Sox awkwardly leaked an alleged desire to re-up Ventura despite all circumstantial evidence demanding a break-up. Ventura was left to fire himself, and he did so with grace.

Ventura might not have been fit for managing, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. He endured, which ran counter to the idea that he lacked the desire to be there in the first place. His teams tried, even though he wasn't fiery enough to satiate the White Sox fan’s inner meatball, although that made it more satisfying when he exploded.

Ventura was who he was. He was fundamentally decent despite the team’s lack of traction, and he had an excellent sense of humor, especially when it came to convoluted questions. Fans grew tired of his answers ("It’s just one of those where...") and the lack of catharsis, but that’s simply because the team didn't win. The man was never the problem.

The idea to hire him, on the other hand, never should have made it out of the initial brainstorming session. The decision was flawed from the get-go, and the White Sox weren’t good enough to hide him.

Time should heal Ventura’s reputation, and quickly. He’s still the best third baseman in franchise history, and he didn’t do anything as a manager to sully his standing on a personal level. The brain trust of Reinsdorf, Williams and Hahn will ultimately bear responsibility for the era.

Star-divide

This concludes the regular-season programming for South Side Sox, although this particular story will live at least one more day. Hahn is supposed to address the media later this morning, perhaps announcing the promotion of another new manager the White Sox hired without an extensive search. If Rick Renteria is the guy, at least he’s earned a long look.

Thanks to everybody that makes this an enjoyable place to discuss the White Sox despite the circumstances, even if you only read and lurk. Thanks to Josh for running twice as many South Side Sox Podcasts this season, as well as joining Larry, Patrick, Steve, Ken, HSA, Rob, Gus, Mike, Colin and Jimmy with filling out coverage.

Also, a tip of the cap to White Sox Twitter for being additional eyes, ears, mouths and noses, the beat writers for reporting on the absurdity, and the crews at BP South Side and FutureSox for the company misery allegedly loves.

If this is your first season at South Side Sox — and judging by the traffic numbers, there are plenty of newcomers despite the team being "mired in mediocrity" — here’s where I tell you that you shouldn’t break your daily habit. We’ll still be writing and talking about the Sox every damn day, starting with a deconstruction of the season (and discussion of the postseason), followed by offseason planning, hot-stove tracking, season previewing, and historical features in between. It’s bound to be rewarded one of these years.