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The White Sox are playing too many hard games to avoid hard bullpen decisions

It seems every other night on White Sox Twitter, or in this website’s comment section, there’s a debate about a crucial decision Tony La Russa made. At the root of it is a performance issue. Well, there could be multiple performance issues. Bear with me for a bit.

Take, for example, the eighth inning of Thursday night’s eventual 15-7 loss to the Yankees. Newly acquired setup man Joe Kelly got two quick outs before being suddenly consumed with control problems while trying to get a feel for his timing in his second outing of the season. The bullpen was not raised quickly in light of his mounting struggles, and when it was, it contained left-handed long reliever Tanner Banks. Amid his struggles, La Russa stuck with Kelly’s elite stuff and solid track record until Aaron Judge’s two-run infield bleeder of a single broke a 7-7 tie, and then turned to Banks ahead of a series of unfavorable matchups that wound up quickly escalating the game toward the final score.

Postgame and further on Friday afternoon, La Russa explained this was sort of the point. Not that he was hoping for anything other than Banks getting Giancarlo Stanton out and keeping the game within two runs. But as the team’s probability of winning dropped, he downshifted away from a strategy of deploying his high-leverage relievers to hoping some guys lower in the pecking order could keep it close. It’s a decision that managers have to make all the time over the course of the season (La Russa pointed out he had just used it earlier that night, as Ryan Burr threw two innings before Yoán Moncada’s game-tying homer in the seventh), but rarely can fans so quickly see the pivot take place after a single pitch and due to a two-run margin with six offensive outs left.

“It’s just common sense: you try not to pitch (high-leverage relievers) in innings, in games, where the roles don’t match,” La Russa said ahead of Friday’s 10-4 loss. “You have to be really careful. You use up the bullpen and you got no chance late in the game which is where most games are decided. This stretch of a lot of games, we are still looking at 11 in a row, 11 games in 10 days. So, there are guys who have been stepping up.”

There were particulars at play in this scenario, like Reynaldo López being unavailable with a back issue or Kelly not being cleared for back-to-back days yet. But whether you agree with La Russa’s mitigation efforts or not — and I’m sure you will all make it very clear — the reason for his decision very much exists, and it exists almost nightly at this point 31 games into the White Sox season.

While La Russa touted before Thursday’s game that the Wednesday postponement provided him with a full bullpen, the Sox entered Friday with Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman, Matt Foster and José Ruiz all on pace for over 75 appearances on the season. In other words, through 30 games, the Sox had four relievers on pace to record what would have been the fifth-most appearances in baseball last season. And really, only a knee strain and injured list stint knocked Aaron Bummer off the same pace.

So far, the White Sox are 5-4 in one-run ballgames. Given how much they invested into their bullpen, or how they brought a Hall of Fame manager with a reputation built on strategic brilliance out of retirement, you could argue they were built to thrive in this environment and should fare even better. But building a winner based on coin-flip contests is usually hard to do, and harder to do consistently. Generally, good teams win a lot of blowouts — nights where they ruthlessly exploit good matchups or dominate the depth options of inferior teams. And they’re not just feel-good demonstrations that your team is as talented as they claim to be, or good for the ol’ run differential. They conserve resources, they provide for low-stress pitches. To the point: they allow you to rest your high-leverage relievers, so they can be used aggressively when they are really needed.

Baseball Reference defines a blowout win as at least a five-run margin, and it seems like an apt marker. The Sox have twice won by four runs this season, and they both involved at least two of Graveman, Hendriks, Ruiz and Bummer still pitching that night. Through 31 games, the Sox have one blowout victory — a 10-1 thumping of the Tigers in the third game of the season that still represents their biggest offensive output of the season. Last season they had 32 blowout victories. The year before that, the Sox had 14 blowout victories in 60 games. The Dodgers have 10 already this year. The Yankees, after Friday night’s trouncing of the Sox, have six. The Redsthe Cincinnati Reds — have two. No team has fewer than the Sox.

Moreover, since the Sox are not actually a bad team (though this Yankees series is sending their ERA hurtling toward the middle of the league at the moment), they are not getting blown out on a regular basis either. Friday night was their sixth blowout loss of the season, which is only enough to get them out of a tie for the fewest blowout games played all season. They didn’t use their highest leverage relievers in a game that was still close Thursday night, but when all you play are close games, the rationing has to begin somewhere.

The cause of this is not hard to figure out. It’s difficult to win by five runs when the team has only scored five or more runs seven times in 31 games. Career-long mashers José Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, AJ Pollock and even Eloy Jiménez before his injury, were all more than 10 percent below league average offense by wRC+. Slow offensive starts for Josh Harrison and Leury García have kept second base a weak spot carrying over from last season. The Sox offense’s average of 3.65 runs per game still ranks in the bottom-10 of the sport and the defense’s contribution to 21 unearned runs allowed has not helped take the stress off the pitching staff’s workload either.

“He keeps pressing a bit,” La Russa said of Abreu after Friday night’s game brought the team captain’s skid to zero hits in his last 20 at-bats. “He takes the club’s ups and downs very personal. It’s not just him struggling.”

Far from it, and Abreu’s four RBI in Boston just last weekend easily was the driving force in a sweep of such a low-scoring series. But with all the talk about starting pitching needing to get lengthened out to take the stress off the bullpen, it’s the position player production that is driving a lot of hard choices.

“It’s a game of failure, and it’s who can fail the least,” said Gavin Sheets, who might have been lumped in with the rest of the scuffling boppers before finding his stroke for three home runs in the last four games. “Right now, collectively, as a whole, we’re not swinging as well as we can. But at the same time, we’ve got a lot of guys that can really hit in here. It’s May, it’s still early. I’ll take this team, though, in the long run. Right now, it might be tough, but come September, October, I still like our chances. There’s way too much talent in here to panic.”

The manager is tasked with putting players in positions to succeed, but to some degree, it can be a two-way street. At least in terms of the return of Andrew Vaughn from injury, and the ingredients of an offense that was widely expected to mash all year, putting more crooked numbers on the board, and taking the task of figuring out how to mete out reliever usage when his team is playing a nail-biter every night.

Maybe you have more trust in the big names in the Sox batting order hitting like they always have in years past than in La Russa regularly making the right call in games with no margin for error. I’m sure you’ll let me know.

(Photo: Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

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