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Yermin Mercedes Saga Highlights Huge Flaw in Tony La Russa's Managing Philosophy

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJuly 23, 2021

Chicago White Sox catcher Yermin Mercedes (73) at bat during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees on Saturday, May 22, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

On Wednesday night, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals played on ESPN, there was a conversation about whether or not the Cubs might consider sending one of their relievers to the South Side before the trade deadline. The AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox need bullpen help, and the Cubs have pitchers on the market. 

The ESPN broadcasters praised the way White Sox manager Tony La Russa has handled the bullpen—the team's only real area of deficiency—this season. Shortly thereafter, La Russa began trending for another reason: First baseman Yermin Mercedes, the same player he admonished for not knowing baseball's arcane unwritten rules, announced his sudden retirement on Instagram. 

While it seems as though Mercedes decided not to retire after all, the entire incident reignited the controversy surrounding what happened between the two of them back in May. It's impossible to draw a straight line between the two without hearing Mercedes' rationale for why he said "it's over" in a since-deleted Instagram post.

It's unfair to speculate that La Russa's handling of the situation led directly to Mercedes' decision to write that post, but that won't stop anyone. 

The timeline of events shows that two things can be true about the entire ordeal: La Russa is a knowledgable baseball manager who knows how to manage the X's and O's of the game, and Mercedes is a 28-year-old rookie struggling to achieve his dream of being an everyday big leaguer. 

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Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

But a third thing can be true as well: La Russa's strict adherence to the outdated unwritten rules is a flaw in his management style. 

La Russa's ability to manage was never really in question. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for a reason. He's guided three teams to World Series wins, and he's a four-time Manager of the Year. 

The White Sox have held the division lead all season and currently share the best record in the American League with the Boston Red Sox. Clearly, he's doing something right. 

It's difficult to get a 76-year-old to change, though some friends of La Russa have said that the longtime skipper is more open-minded than he may appear. If that's the case, then someone should pull him aside and tell him that it's completely unnecessary to throw your own player under the bus. 

Someone should tell him that the embarrassing part of that series against the Minnesota Twins in May wasn't that Mercedes swung on a 3-0 pitch in a game the White Sox winning by a large margin. The embarrassment was that the pitch came from backup catcher Willians Astudillo. 

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

And someone should also tell him that he really shouldn't talk about trying to "spank" his players. It's inappropriate for a 76-year-old to talk about punishing a 28-year-old as if he was eight. 

Many have pointed to the numbers before that game against the Twins and after, saying La Russa's comments had a direct effect on Mercedes' downfall: .344/.396/.547 with six home runs before May 18, .190/.220/.196 with one home run in 118 plate appearances after May 18. Did his manager's public shaming have a detrimental affect? Maybe. But pitchers also figured out how to pitch him. 

La Russa said this factored into his July 2 demotion. 

"I've seen a lot of young hitters come in and have early success (but) they aren't really ready for the adjustments the league is going to make to them," La Russa told reporters when Mercedes was optioned. "And it's gotten more sophisticated over the years. If they don't look good in an at-bat, someone is noticing and they're going to feed that."

Mercedes had a torrid start to the season. He hit .455 in April en route to capturing AL Rookie of the Month honors. While those awards aren't exactly the highest of baseball honors, they do mean something. Just ask Pete Alonso and Chris Paddack, who had a pseudo feud about the award in 2019. So it's understandable that Mercedes would be humbled by his offensive skid and ensuing demotion to Triple-A. He was optioned by Triple-A Charlotte on July 2. He hit just .221 with a .619 OPS over 106 plate appearances in May and .159 with a .407 OPS in 68 plate appearances in June.

It's a steep decline in production and when a rookie struggles like that, it's not a bad idea to send them down to the minor leagues. Confidence comes from having success, and Mercedes experienced it in Charlotte, hitting nearly .300 with an OPS of nearly 1.000 and a home run in 63 appearances. 

Mercedes was never going to be able hit .455 the rest of the way through the season. And when a player experiences such high highs in the major leagues but finds himself back in the minors so quickly, it can be difficult to digest.

Maybe there is a correlation between what happened on May 18 and his decline in production. It's possible that Mercedes felt that his manager didn't have his back when La Russa said he had no problem with the Twins throwing at Mercedes, and his confidence diminished as a result. 

Publicly, all parties have maintained that Mercedes and La Russa have a good relationship. La Russa reiterated that last night when he said he would call Mercedes to ask him about his "retirement," so it may not be fair to draw that conclusion just yet. 

But the one conclusion we can draw is that La Russa's old school ways and his insistence on playing the game the way it's always been played is tired. The unwritten rules don't take into account the cultural divides and language barriers that exist in baseball. Today's game is looser than in days past. Players like Fernando Tatis, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. electrify crowds with their flashy play. Alonso is a joy to watch in part because of the personality he displays on the field. 

His argument with Paddack two years ago? It was entertaining, as baseball should be. There should be a level of respect and decorum and at this point, using a position player to pitch in April is more disrespectful than swinging on a 3-0 pitch. 

This situation was avoidable from the beginning, and now the conversation about the unwritten rules is back.

You can't change a tiger's stripes and this Tony the Tiger won't be changing his anytime soon. No matter how deftly he manages the bullpen, the last 24 hours have highlighted this glaring part of his managerial style.

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