clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Enough with the lineup games

It’s time for Tony La Russa to stop trying to game the margins and put his best players on the field.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs
In a sketchy season-plus back as White Sox manager, Tony La Russa may now be coming off of his worst series yet.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At the outset, this was going to be about Andrew Vaughn.

It’s an issue that Tony La Russa has been disinclined to let Vaughn face right-handed starters more than 50% of the time. With Yoán Moncada and AJ Pollock having seven plate appearances between them this year, there probably hasn’t been a day this season in which Vaughn hasn’t been one of the nine best available hitters on the roster. Yet two weeks into the season, he has just three more plate appearances than Gavin Sheets, whose OPS stands at .598 after two hits yesterday.

Now, the problem is a lot bigger than Andrew Vaughn.

You have to feel for Leury García. He didn’t ask to hit third. He didn’t ask to be the latest subject of the White Sox brain trust's longstanding refusal to recognize a role player when they see one. Even by April standards, however, it strains the imagination to figure in what world a self-styled World Series contender has a hitter of García’s caliber in the 3-spot.

The problem is bigger than both Vaughn and García. Vaughn’s case has the appearance of a strict old-school bias towards platoon matchups. On the surface, there’s something to that. Vaughn “only” has a .263 batting average and .837 OPS in 22 PAs against righthanders to this point. And that’s including outs like this:

And this:

And this:

You get the point. This is silly. Vaughn is going to hit righties. It really shouldn’t be in question, if you’ve watched him swing the bat now and in the past. But the team also thinks Sheets is going to hit righties. He definitely can’t hit lefties. So if Sheets doesn’t play against righties, then how do they justify having him on the roster?

The matchup games never seem to end. Whatever matchups Tony La Russa and the White Sox coaching staff are playing for, it’s led to one of the only two hitters they have with an OPS better than .710 starting in just eight of 12 possible games. That’s a problem.

That’s all this seems to be: matchup games. Between García, Josh Harrison, Jake Burger, and Danny Mendick, no Sox player has started at second or third base for more than three consecutive games. Between AJ Pollock, Adam Engel, and Gavin Sheets, the same is true for right field.

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago White Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries make things tough. There’s no question about that. Losing Pollock and Moncada for the first dozen games is no small deal. But playing musical chairs with a series of role players isn’t the solution. García, Burger, Harrison, Mendick, and Sheets have combined for -0.7 fWAR and -0.9 rWAR — and that’s with Burger breaking even.

A team like the Tampa Bay Rays could probably juggle things in just the right way to maximize the production of a group of players like that. Whatever the White Sox think they’re doing to put their players in a position to succeed, however, clearly isn’t working.

If your tactical and motivational approach means benching Vaughn for Adam Haseley while García bats third, you’ve simply lost the plot. There comes a point where plugging holes due to injuries is no longer an adequate excuse, and it’s the manager’s responsibility to figure out who his best eight or nine hitters are and play them.

The long MLB season is about rhythm, and the White Sox have no rhythm right now. Everybody loves the idea creating a platoon monster of interchangeable parts a la Tampa Bay, but emulating Tampa Bay falls squarely into the “many have tried, many have failed” bucket. Until Moncada and Pollock are at 100%, the best players need to play every day. That means no more slow-walking Vaughn, because there’s no world in which he’s not one of the five or six best hitters on the roster at the moment. That means deciding whether Harrison is actually your starting second baseman, and making a call on whether it’s worth finding out whether Burger can really hold his own or not.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe there is a timeline in which asking those guys to play a different position every game while only playing two or three out of every four days makes for an effective lineup. It almost certainly isn’t this one. Defensive performances like the ones we saw in Cleveland this week are in some degree a consequence of a Frankenstein’s monster of a lineup that has a third of the field playing out of position at any given time.

The buck stops with the manager. When La Russa was undeservedly handed the manager’s job on a silver platter — it was undeserved, like it or not, and little has happened in his tenure to make it any less so — we were assured that his half-century plus of baseball experience would lead to valuable victories on the margins. Those wins on the margins and the return-to-fundamentals we were promised have yet to materialize. It’s now incumbent on him to put the best players on the field, the minutiae of some matchups be damned. Until all of the big bats are healthy and no longer slumping — and neither of those things are guaranteed — they’re going to need to scratch and claw their way to some wins. It’s time to start putting out lineups that don’t kill that possibility from the outset.