Despite collapsing in the final two weeks of the 2012 season and handing the division flag to the Tigers, the White Sox were expected to offer Detroit its toughest competition in the AL Central this year. Instead, Chicago has slipped into last place, and speculation has begun with regards to manager Robin Ventura's job.
Ventura took the helm just after the end of the 2011 regular season, when the White Sox made the rare move of trading manager Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins before he could spontaneously combust. At the time, Ventura — who had no previous managerial experience in the minors or the majors — was given a three-year contract. Even though the Sox squandered a three-game division lead by going 4-11 over their final 15 games to close at 85-77, Ventura finished third in the AL Manager of the Year balloting, and the team was satisfied enough with the job he did to offer him a contract extension.
Because he rebuffed that offer earlier this spring, Ventura now has to answer questions about his commitment to the team, which has lost 10 of its last 13 games and is 27-34, last in the AL Central. The questions — including whether he'd stick around if the team conducted a fire sale prior to the July 31 trading deadline — came to the forefront after he missed two games this past week to attend the graduations of his daughter (high school) and son (junior high) in California. Upon returning, Ventura was forced to address his situation. From the Chicago Tribune:
"For one reason or another, there is a whisper that because it is going the way it is, I am not going to come back," Ventura said before the game. "That is the furthest thing from the truth. For me, I'm in it for as long as I'm in it, and then you go from there.
"But in a situation like this, I would be ashamed to walk away just because it's tough. That is part of being in it with these guys. I'm here as much as they are as far as turning it around."
It's silly stuff, but beat reporters are going to ask that those questions when a team is amid a significant slide, even when the manager in question has another year on his contract and works for an owner who is so cheap he'd never fire someone to whom he'd still owe money (even Guillen wasn't axed despite having long since worn out his welcome on the South Side).
For all of that, there's little denying the Sox have underachieved, particularly at the plate. Despite playing half their games in a hitters' haven that increased scoring by 13 percent from 2010-2012 (via The Bill James Handbook), the offense is scraping together an AL-worst 3.51 runs per game and is dead last in all three slash categories at .236/.289/.366. Exactly one regular or part-timer has an OPS+ of higher than 93, Alex Rios (123, on .288/.346/.496 hitting). Six regulars — catcher Tyler Flowers, first baseman Paul Konerko, second baseman Jeff Keppinger, shortstop Alexi Ramirez, leftfielder Dayan Viciedo and designated hitter Adam Dunn, all better known for their hitting than their glovework — have on-base percentages below .300, and aside from Rios, only Alejandro De Aza has a slugging percentage above .400.
That's the kind of performance that tends to get a manager fired, but only after his hitting coach has been fed to the wolves first. In this case, the hitting coach is Jeff Manto, who's in his second year on the job, though under him the team ranked a respectable fourth in the league in scoring last year. Assisting Manto is former White Sox great Harold Baines, a ChiSox coach for 10 years but in his first in this particular tandem, the type of arrangement that has come into vogue in recent years. It's fair to wonder if the interjection of a second voice into the process of coaching hitters is doing more harm than good, but Baines is a favorite of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, so he's not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.
Incidentally, a new study by Baseball Prospectus' Russell Carleton, who formerly worked as a consultant for the Indians, found that teams that change their hitting coaches in-season tend to see increases of 10 points of on-base percentage and 15 points of slugging percentage, likely due to regression to the mean but still substantial enough to merit mention. Ventura doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Still, it's going to take much better play from the Sox before the questions surrounding his job security fade into the background.