Unconventional Wisdom: Balanced White Sox are Central surprise
Behind two big homers by
This isn't the 2005 world championship team, which burst onto the scene with the coverage of "Smartball" and the mythology about speed and fundamentals driving success. This team isn't quite as good as that one, which had an excellent defense; it isn't getting nearly that kind of attention, and most of the coverage of
Start with the defining characteristic of these White Sox: stability. The White Sox have used 13 position players all year, and 13 pitchers. Those totals of 13 position players and 26 players are the fewest in the majors (although the Phillies have used just 12 pitchers). The White Sox have made two transactions since opening day, swapping out the last spot on the staff between
How have those 26 players performed? Well, the Sox have a lot of balance -- they are fifth in the AL in runs scored, fifth in
The offense has become extremely un-"Smartball." We wrote a lot in 2005 about how, despite perceptions, the Sox were as reliant on the home run as any team in baseball. That has continued throughout the Guillen Era. In 2006, the Sox scored more than half of their runs on the long ball, leading the league. They slipped to seventh in the category last season in a year in which their offense tanked. This season, the Sox are once again leading the AL in the percentage of runs they score on homers, a whopping 51.1 percent in a season in which homers are way, way down in the AL. The second-place team, the Rays, are under 40 percent. That's dominating the category.
The White Sox were killed last year by their inability to do anything productive on balls in play. They were second in homers, seventh in walks drawn, and still had the fewest runs scored, lowest OBP and second-lowest SLG in the league, largely because they batted a league-low .246, and a low-by-13-points .281 on balls in play. The White Sox had fewer doubles and triples combined (269) than any AL team had doubles alone. This year, the shape of the production is much the same: second in homers, fifth in walks, 12th in doubles-plus-triples, 13th in batting average, last in
It's just a strange offense, but an effective one. As the performance with RISP tracks back to the team's averages, they will lose some run scoring, but this is still a team in the top half of the league in the two major indicators, and fifth in overall EqA.
The Sox run prevention is less of a mystery. The team just doesn't give up walks or homers: fourth in free passes allowed, first in homers, despite a staff with fly-ball tendencies in what is usually a good home-run park. That last number is a bit fluky, even noting that the Sox have slightly reduced their fly-ball rate this year. Sox relievers have allowed just five home runs in 119 innings, on 87 fly balls allowed. The HR/FB percentage of 5.7 percent is about half of the expected rate. It's not unheard of for that number to stay down all year the 2007 Mariners pulled 88 wins from a similar fluke but it is the one most likely to change the White Sox's fortunes.
Still, you have a staff with the third-best K/BB in the league and the best home-run rate. That's more than enough to drive terrific run prevention. The starters have been providing innings; in fact, one of the key similarities between this team and the 2005 one is the starters' workloads. They've been averaging just shy of 6 1/3 innings per start, allowing Guillen to keep the relievers in defined roles and preventing him from needing lots of extra innings from the back of the bullpen. That's what pitch efficiency does reduces walks and lets you get more innings from the rotation. If the offensive traits of "Smartball" aren't in evidence, and the defensive ones are harder to find (the Sox have an average DER this year), the pitching characteristics are still in play.
Can this be sustained? Despite playing above expectations as a team, the White Sox don't have a lot of negative markers. The home-run rate, especially among the relievers, is going to rise. However, the offense isn't likely to change much four guys are above expectations, while four others are substantially below. If the usual happens, that still gives the Sox a good lineup, although it would be hard to improve it substantially. The only place where the Sox are likely to add a player is second base, and finding a good-hitting second baseman in the trade market is like looking for a portly vegan. The bench is awful: seven walks and ten extra-base hits so far. That's something general manager
Mostly, with these Sox, what you see is what you get. They won't hit for average, won't knock balls into the gaps, and they won't impress you with their defense. They hit home runs and draw walks, and keep the bad guys from doing the same. Probably the biggest reason to like them is simply the inability of the Indians and Tigers to play .500 baseball so far. The buy-in for winning the AL Central eight weeks ago was 93 wins. It's lower than that now, and if the Sox weren't likely to reach that first number, it's much more likely that they can get to 88 or 89, and that may be all they need.