Entering play Tuesday night Major League Baseball had an overall batting average of .236. It’s the worst league BA since 1901. The entire league seems mystified by some combination of velocity, movement, and tunneling currently being deployed by major league pitchers. Well, everyone that is except the White Sox’ Yermín Mercedes. The 28-year-old spent 10 seasons in the minors and wasn’t on anyone’s radar until an injury to Eloy Jiménez at the end of Spring Training gave him a shot at the big league roster. Since then Yermín’s used that roster spot to post an MLB-leading .364 batting average in a season where hits are at a premium.
All Mercedes does is hit. He hits flares and he beats shifts. The longest home run in MLB in 2021 doesn’t belong to Giancarlo Stanton, it is this 485-foot bomb that Mercedes hit on April 8 [VIDEO].
Monday night, baseball fans were treated to an all-time brilliant and unlikely baseball treat when the Twins brought in Willians Astudillo (a folk hero in his own right) to pitch against the White Sox in a blowout in the ninth inning. It set up this matchup between Astudillo and his 47 mile per hour eephus vs. Mercedes and his bat. It was fun. It was epic. It resulted in this incredible home run that made me laugh out loud from pure joy [VIDEO].
You already know where this is headed. You can hear it in the way the Twins broadcasters called the home run saying sternly “I don’t like it.”
What they don’t like, apparently, is a man who’s waited a decade to get his shot in the show making the most of that shot with every single swing. This isn’t reigning MVP Freddie Freeman taking hacks off Anthony Rizzo. This is a 28-year-old that still shows up as the #20 prospect in the White Sox organization when you search for him on Statcast:
The unwritten rules always rub me the wrong way, but Dan Gartland at Sports Illustrated really captured why this application in particular is so absurd Tuesday morning:
All of baseball’s unwritten rules are stupid, but there’s something especially irritating about the ones that tell you not to try your hardest when the game is out of reach. In a sport where (via the salary arbitration system) players are paid based on their statistics, it’s wrong to ask them to take their foot off the gas when the outcome is no longer in doubt.
Enter stage left: White Sox manager Tony La Russa.
One would hope that when La Russa had a chance to address these concerns about his exciting Rookie of the Year candidate he’d emphatically side with his player, right? After all, one of the biggest concerns about La Russa’s hiring was how the Hall of Fame manager would relate to such a young, exciting White Sox team after he’d been retired for a decade. And yet, when he got the question in Tuesday’s pre-game press conference La Russa chose to talk about “consequences [for Yermín] within our family”:
Tony La Russa was 'upset' that Yermin Mercedes hit a home run on a 3-0 count last night in a blowout win.— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
"He made a mistake. There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family."
It actually gets worse.
La Russa was asked about a comparable situation from last season when superstar Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. was chastised by his manager, Jayce Tingler for hitting a grand slam. You may recall that Tingler eventually backed off that commentary after a slew of articles like this one. Not so for La Russa, who chose instead to double down:
Tony la Russa on Mercedes swinging 3-0:— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
"I took several steps from the dugout onto the field, yelling ‘take take take.’ The way he was set up, it looked to me like he was going to swing.”
If that had been the end of this, it would be bad enough. After all, a disconnect between La Russa and this young White Sox team was exactly what many fans were worried about when the hire was announced. Craig Calcaterra went so far as to predict this entire situation — last October:
May 25, 2021: Cardinals vs. White Sox in Chicago.— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 29, 2020
Just putting that out there as the night La Russa gives a quote agreeing with the opposing manager that his own player was "out of line," that "we don't play the game that way" and that "I'll have a talk with him."
But it actually gets worse, because Mercedes wasn’t about to apologize for hitting a home run. Below are his comments pre-game per Rogers:
Yermin Mercedes today before La Russa spoke: “I’m going to play my game. I can’t be another person. If I change, everything is going to change.”— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
Which set up this on NBC Sports Chicago’s Instagram page, with Tim Anderson quickly and publicly supporting Mercedes:
There was no doubt that Anderson would side with Mercedes, but I have to admit even I took notice at how quickly and clearly Anderson took his swing. The fact that Anderson didn’t hesitate to back his teammate over his manager is both telling and predictable. After all, we’ve been here with the White Sox and the unwritten rules before, when Tim Anderson had everyone in a kerfuffle about bat flips in 2019.
So the stage was set with Anderson backing Mercedes on social media and La Russa making jokes about Yermín being “too strong for a spanking” (yes, really) when the Twins decided to enforce the unwritten rules. Twins righthander Tyler Duffey threw behind Mercedes, but the important part of this clip comes towards the end. Pay close attention to Tim Anderson in the dugout:
In his postgame, La Russa, opted to go with this:
Tony La Russa on the Twins throwing behind Mercedes: "I wasn't that suspicious. I'm suspicious when someone throws at someone's head. I didn't have a problem with how the Twins handled that."— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 19, 2021
A current MLB pitcher weighs in on TLR’s comment:
I mean, what!?! It’s hard to believe how bad of a response this is https://t.co/e8vkZlAUBZ— Collin McHugh (@Collin_McHugh) May 19, 2021
Look, I am not a White Sox expert by any means. I’m just a girl who loves baseball and thinks the unwritten rules should be burned to the ground. But I know a thing or two about public relations and this is a nightmare scenario for La Russa whether he knows it or not.
The White Sox are 25-16 with a 2½-game lead in the AL Central. They have managed to climb to the top of the division despite losing, not just Eloy, but also superstar center fielder Luis Robert. They have done that on the back of a remarkable start to the season by Mercedes, who has already contributed 1.2 fWAR due to his .364/.410/.574 slash line. Mercedes is also joined by a host of other Sox players who have already put up at least one fWAR in 2021 including Robert (pre-injury), Yoán Moncada, José Abreu, Carlos Rodón, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease.
But the man who leads them all is Tim Anderson. The South Side shortstop has 1.5 fWAR, bat flips for days, a .331/.366/.488 slash line, defensive swagger and, most importantly, the back of a fiery young rookie on his team. From where I sit on the North Side, it seems painfully obvious that the person leading the first place Chicago White Sox right now is Tim Anderson, not Tony La Russa. The only question is whether La Russa will figure this out. If he doesn’t, he could risk losing the clubhouse entirely, if he hasn’t already.