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The Twins compounded Tony La Russa’s mistakes

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Yermín Mercedes did nothing wrong. 3-0 swings are fun.

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Maybe let’s worry about getting outs next time
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The story overshadowing Tuesday’s Twins-White Sox game (which the Twins won!) had to do with the fall out from the night before when Chicago rookie (and popular fan favorite) Yermín Mercedes hit a home run off of Twins’ “pitcher” (and popular fan favorite) Willians Astudillo on a 3-0 count in a 15-4 ballgame.

In an otherwise boring contest on Monday night, with the outcome all but officially decided,Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli sacrificed Astudillo, a position player, on the mound in order to save his beleaguered bullpen.

Astudillo got two quick outs with his combination of 70-something and 40-something mile per hour eephus curveballs. In the third plate appearance of the 9th inning, Astudillo worked to a 3-0 count against Mercedes. White Sox manager Tony La Russa reportedly gave the sign for Mercedes to take the fourth pitch. Instead, Mercedes launched a home run to center field on a beer league softball pitch that clocked in at 47 miles per hour.

Mercedes’ actions drew a public flogging from his own manager after the game Monday night and on Tuesday afternoon. Remarkably, La Russa went out of his way to publicly criticize his own player and did not mince words in reprimanding the rookie for what he viewed as disrespecting the game and his opponent:

The Twins, for their part, didn’t reveal much about how they felt about Mercedes swinging away in the immediate aftermath on Monday night. There was not a big outcry from the Minnesota dugout as he was rounding the bases. The Twins broadcast team on Bally Sports North was not thrilled but hardly seemed outraged. TV color analyst Roy Smalley said “I don’t like it at 15-4... I don’t like it” as Mercedes touched home plate.

On Tuesday, Baldelli offered more detail of the Twins’ perspective and said he was surprised Mercedes had swung:

“I was surprised to see him swing, I’ll be very honest with you. That being said, every team is going to make their own decisions. Some of the more traditional, kind of hard-and-fast rules that we would play by, some of them have gone out the window.”

Given that the game was out of reach, he said, “I can understand myself and our guys not being happy about going out there and taking 3-0 swings.”

He then signaled what might be coming before Tuesday’s game:

“We got that feeling across the dugout that Tony and I think some people in the dugout were not pleased with what was going on. The message did get to me, and I appreciate that message. There’s one thing acknowledging it, but it doesn’t quell all of the emotions from all the guys in the clubhouse in and of itself. That’s just the case of it, that’s just how things go in this game. I think everyone wishes it probably didn’t play out the way it played out. I was surprised to see him swinging in a game like that, but those things occasionally do happen in this game still, and we have to deal with it.”

Tuesday night, we found out what Baldelli meant by “deal with it” in the 7th inning when reliever Tyler Duffey entered the game. After getting an out, Duffey faced Mercedes and was charged with delivering the Twins’ response:

Mercedes, at least in the estimation of La Russa and apparently the Twins, had violated one of baseball’s sacred unwritten rules the previous evening. Strangely, this created the rare specter of people on two opposing teams being on the same side of the argument that a rookie needed to be taught a lesson. At the same time, much of the Chicago locker room seemed to be on the other side.

This has created a lot of content and discussion in the days that followed, as these unwritten rules fiascos have tended to do in recent seasons. My opinion, to paraphrase La Russa’s comments about Mercedes, is that La Russa is the one who made the mistakes. Not Mercedes. And the Twins haphazardly compounded them.

Here’s five reasons why:

La Russa’s logic does not hold up to scrutiny

On Monday, the Twins were essentially waiving the white flag by having Astudillo soak up the final inning in a blowout. At that point, the competition was over and the teams were trying to end the game as quickly as possible.

La Russa said he primarily took issue with Mercedes swinging on a 3-0 count, but also admitted to the media that he would have no issue if the home run had come on a 3-1 count. Here’s the excerpt from James Fegan’s piece at the Athletic:

Near the end of a 15-minute Zoom session detailing his intention to impose an undisclosed punishment on his team’s best hitter, the White Sox manager conceded if the 47-mph eephus pitch that Twins backup catcher Willians Astudillo lobbed to the plate in the ninth inning of a blowout game had come on a 3-1 count rather than 3-0, he would have had no objection if Mercedes hit it to the parking lot.

It is true that Mercedes’ swing is such a situation is a rare occurrence and a deviation from the norm. Since 2008, it was just the third swing in a 3-0 count in a game where the score margin was 10 runs or more. But, what purpose does taking another pitch serve when both teams are at the point of understanding that ending the contest quickly is the primary goal?

How is it that swinging 3-0 is disrespecting your opponent at a level that merits a public reprimand (and who knows what else behind the clubhouse doors), but swinging 3-1 would have been acceptable? What difference does the count make as to whether your opponent is respected?

It would be one thing if La Russa declared that the discipline for Mercedes was centered specifically on his missing (or ignoring) a take sign. Disciplining a player for that makes sense because it could affect the outcome of a future game that was actually still competitive. But La Russa didn’t do that. He expanded this to be a bigger issue about respecting the game and opponents.

That he did so, while also obviously and willfully violating other unwritten baseball rules that have to do with the “airing of dirty laundry” and “keeping things in the family” struck me as ironic. For a manager that prides himself on “doing things the right way” he sure didn’t have any issues throwing his own guy under the bus for everyone to see.

Yermín Mercedes did what is in his (and his team’s) best interest

Context is important. It is worth noting that Mercedes is a 28 year old rookie who toiled in the minor leagues for nearly a decade and only made the Chicago club this season because of Spring Training injuries to other players.

He’s had a great start to his major league career and now doesn’t seem at risk to lose his spot when other players return to health. But, his big league future is far from guaranteed.

Baseball salaries and jobs are driven by numbers. Mercedes should be doing everything he can to deliver numbers while he has the opportunity, regardless of what shape that opportunity takes. In arbitration or free agency negotiations down the road, no one is going to discount a home run from his totals because it came off a utility infielder.

This is a point that La Russa himself even seemed to concede yesterday as well. Again, from Fegan’s piece:

“You can’t take at-bats away from these guys,” La Russa conceded a day after the Sox’s 16-4 win. “I could not tell a guy to just hit a ground ball. I wouldn’t do that.”

So, La Russa refuses to take the bat out of his player’s hands, but then gets salty about what they do with it? This leaves a pretty narrow line for players to have to walk. Apparently, for sportsmanship reasons, it’s important to continue playing the game in a blowout — no one would appreciate batters bunting into outs in such situations — but it’s also important not to play the game too well. Because that would be disrespectful?

Baseball history is littered with guys who had a few good months in the show before the bottom fell out. We don’t know what Mercedes future holds, but giving away at bats isn’t in his best interest. It seems to me it’s more straightforward for Mercedes to just do his job, which is to produce as much and as often as he can. That only helps Chicago, too.

— — — — —

OK, enough about the Chicago side. The Twins have seemingly escaped much blowback for their actions in this as the subsequent attention has largely been directed toward La Russa. But the Twins have little room to be upset that Mercedes hit a homer off a utility infielder in a blowout.

Let’s set aside the obvious dangers and stupidity of throwing a baseball 90+ miles per hour at another player. That should be an issue that is self-explanatory and the Twins are clearly in the wrong on this. I had two different issues with the Twins’ actions.

The Twins got what they should have expected

In making the decision to throw Astudillo instead of one of their usual relievers, Rocco Baldelli was sacrificing the game. He knew the Twins were not going to win Monday’s game, so he pivoted to doing what he could to make winning Tuesday’s game more likely.

At that point, what happened for the rest of Monday’s game was about finishing the game healthy, not the results on the field. If Astudillo had given up 3 singles that led to a Chicago run, no one would have said a word about respecting the game and the opponent. But instead, a solo home run creates ire and anger? Why? What did they expect to happen?

It’s a strange juxtaposition that it’s somehow not seen as disrespectful for a team to utilize a backup catcher to lob slow pitch batting practice in a blowout, but it is seen as disrespectful for batters to then take advantage.

If Mercedes had flown out to the warning track on the 3-0 pitch, I doubt we’d be giving this any attention either. But instead, he hit a homer and that somehow created a firestorm. Where is the line of demarcation here?

The Twins did not prioritize trying to win

The above section also says nothing of the logical contradictions in Baldelli’s decision making, which others have pointed out on social media. On Monday, Baldelli used Astudillo on the mound to avoid wasting a real pitcher. Then, because of how events transpired, he willingly wasted a real pitcher the next day to retaliate against Mercedes. This is clearly sub-optimal and does not best position the Twins to win baseball games.

In taking it upon themselves to issue justice and throw at Mercedes the Twins essentially prioritized sending Mercedes a message above doing their best to win Tuesday’s game. That’s not acceptable.

They are quickly running out of leeway to be relevant this season and certainly cannot afford to willingly give their opponents better chances to beat them. Attempting to hit Mercedes and give him first base objectively lowered the Twins chances of winning the game (by 1.7%, to be exact), which is a strange choice to make when you are 11.5 games back in the standings in mid-May.

Of course, Rocco Baldelli denied after the game there was intent behind Duffey’s pitch that sailed behind Mercedes. He has no other choice but to say that, unless he wants to be suspended (which might happen anyways).

But, in Major League Baseball in 2021, the truth is in the Statcast and Baldelli’s explanation does not hold up:

— — — — —

Aside from the logical inconsistencies these kinds of unwritten rules (and the enforcement of them) present, perhaps the most important point about all of this is a macro one.

La Tortuga vs. Yermínator is fun

The matchup of Astudillo and Mercedes on Monday night added some fun and juice to an otherwise boring and bland affair. Most people (myself included) had tuned out from the Twins-White Sox game when the Twins’ deficit ballooned in the middle innings.

But both players are social media cult heroes for their play (and let’s be honest… their body types). Astudillo taking the mound is an attention generating event on social media. That was made only that much better by matching up with Mercedes. That brought some excitement and attention. Then the two combined to do something that has never been done in baseball before:

Sure, that’s not a record that is particularly meaningful in the grand scheme of baseball history, but you know what it was?

Fun.

And more fun is something that is in the best interest of baseball because it creates attention and engagement. Given all the negative attention baseball gets about the looming labor issues, the changes to the baseball, the changes to the rules, the slow pace of play, and archane TV blackouts, baseball needs more positive attention. Events like Astudillo versus Mercedes should be celebrated and promoted, not stifled.

In the end, I think everyone would be better served following the common sense approach expressed by White Sox starter Lance Lynn:

If respect for the game and your opponent are the crux of the issue, it stands to reason that giving your best, regardless of the situation and score, is the best way to demonstrate respect and sportsmanship.

These archaic unwritten rules are slowly being unwound. I, for one, wholeheartedly support that. Let the kids play. Celebrate fun. Create buzz. Those things will only help the game we all love.

I know that other people will come down on the other side of this issue. That’s fine!

Where do you stand? Let’s discuss in the comments!


John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.