The White Sox are worse than we thought — but better than we think
The 2020 White Sox came into the season with possibly more hype than any team coming off of a 72-win season ever has, and somewhat rightfully so. Huge free agent signings coupled with a strong young core had given fans the feeling that the rebuild was over and a contending team had finally arrived.
The power display put on in the three preseason games only exacerbated the excitement. However, yesterday the Sox were swept in a doubleheader to fall to 1-4 on the young season, and panic is starting to creep into the fan base. Shell-shocked fans are understandably mad, or even worse, “not mad ... just disappointed.”
If you are one of those fans, let's talk you down from the ledge that your Sox hopes and dreams are precariously resting on, but also give a little insight into why this slow start has occurred and some of the issues that this team faces going forward.
As fans, we can be prone to overreactions based on extremely small sample sizes. Prior to the season, White Sox fans were desperate for a winning club, so we were a little too optimistic about them — and right now, the majority of fans have swung a little too pessimistic. As my college coach Larry Owens (L.O.) would tell us after a rough stretch: “In baseball, you can’t get too high or too low; you’re never as good or bad as you think you are.”
Why the White Sox are worse than we thought
Going from 72 wins to a contender overnight is a lot harder than it seems. Many of the issues that plagued the 2019 team, although addressed and improved, are still somewhat present with the 2020 version.
CAUTION: This section is about to get dark, but keep reading; there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
A largely unproven pitching staff
Another one of L.O.'s fundamental beliefs is that the job of a starting pitcher is to get through five innings to give his team a chance to win. The first time through the rotation, White Sox starters simply did not give the team a chance to win. When you are in a huge hole early and the bullpen is coming in after three innings, the game is pretty much over. The first time through, the new and improved rotation failed miserably.
The White Sox have only two starters with a track record of both health and MLB success, Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Giolito. They have young, exciting arms such as Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López (begrudgingly including him), Dane Dunning, and Jimmy Lambert. However, none of them have established themselves as consistent over the course of an entire season at the big-league level. They can have all the talent in the world, but we still really don’t know what we are going to get. Sure enough, neither López nor Cease had any idea where the ball was going in their first outings of the season.
Furthermore, Gio González and Carlos Rodón are both coming off of injuries, and as Jason Benetti mentioned on the broadcast, Rodón’s devastating slider, at least right now, is not what it used to be. For a pitcher who was so reliant on having one of the best sliders in all of baseball, that is a big deal. Until that improves, Carlos is more of a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater than the No. 2 or 3 starter the White Sox need right now.
Lastly, Sox ace Giolito has had only one dominant year in the bigs. In his first start of 2020, he looked extremely out of sync, and the improved fastball command he demonstrated last year was simply not there. However, I have no doubt that this will improve, as Giolito has proven to be able to make adjustments. Even last year, he had starts where his command came and went, and he was able to bounce back in future outings.
An offense that will be electric, but may not always be productive
The Sox offense has an absolutely insane collection of talent. That firepower will lead to a lot of tape-measure home runs and crooked numbers on the scoreboard, especially against bad pitching. Individually, they will put up great stats.
However, collectively most of them have a feast-or-famine approach. They rarely do the little things that can help grind out runs on days when the bats fall silent. Working counts, taking walks, putting the ball in play, and situational hitting are definitely not strengths of this team.
BB/K ratio is not the end-all, be-all stat by any means. Still, it is absolutely mind-blowing that six of the bottom 10 in any meaningful statistic could all play for the same team, and against good pitching or in close games, the ability to grind out an extra run or two is a crucial skill for winning baseball.
A manager who isn't putting the team in the best position to succeed
I understand Rick Renteria wanting to keep players healthy and fresh. I understand him not wanting to panic over small sample sizes. But man, some of these lineups are absolute head-scratchers.
Leury García’s positional versatility and ability to switch-hit make him a solid utility man. However, he is a terrible left-handed hitter, with a left-handed OPS ranking 132nd out of 135 qualified MLB hitters in 2019. The Sox have faced five right-handed starting pitchers, and Leury Legend has started all five games.
Nicky Delmonico, he of the career .698 OPS, has also started all five games. Although the losses of Nomar Mazara and Eloy Jiménez have forced Ricky’s hand in this regard, what he isn't forced to do is bat Nicky second or cleanup while leaving a raking Luis Robert in the No. 7 hole. Getting your best hitters the most at-bats seems like a better strategy. Additionally, no matter who is sitting that day, the White Sox have multiple bench options (Zack Collins, Yasmani Grandal, James McCann, Edwin Encarnación) who need to be pinch-hitting for these guys in every late-game situation when facing a deficit.
Note: Nicky and Leury both seem like great guys, and I hate having to put them on blast like this. But I wouldn’t have had to do this if Ricky would have just set them up for success!
Lastly, if Ricky wants to keep Yoán Moncada and/or Grandal fresh, there is a DH spot for a reason. They are two of our best three hitters, and especially in a 60-game season, they need to be in the lineup every single day. With Grandal being one of the few guys on our team that will work a count and take a walk, him sitting two of the first five games is hard to swallow.
Why the White Sox are better than they now seem
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. In a 60-game season, there might not be enough time for everything to regress to how it should, but this Sox team is not the "same old White Sox" of the rebuild era.
The Sox starting pitching isn't this bad
It can’t be much worse. But expect Giolito to bounce back. He had a few absolute dud outings last year, and he always was able to right the ship. Even if he doesn’t quite put together as dominant a season as 2019, expect him to give the White Sox a great chance to win much more often than not.
Keuchel looks like a steady, consistent presence in the rotation for years to come. With Keuchel, you know what you are going to get, and the importance of that cannot be overstated with the volatility of some of the other White Sox arms.
Cease may have laid an egg in his first start of 2020, but his stuff is still electric. Just two weeks ago in the intrasquad, we saw glimpses of how dominant he can be when he has his command. Although he didn’t have that command against Cleveland, he did throw some very good changeups to a lineup that was stacked with left-handed bats. His development of that changeup will be key to neutralizing left-handed hitters in the future.
Other than Keuchel, Rodón may be the one I trust the most to keep challenging hitters, even if things start to go haywire. This is a useful trait, as some of our other arms seem to pitch scared of contact at times. This leads to deep counts, long innings, and short outings. González got lit up against the Twins, but they will do that to a lot of pitchers this season, and González has proven himself to be a reliable big league pitcher over the course of his entire career.
The Sox opened against the two best teams they'll play all year
Per ZiPS preseason projected win totals, the Twins and Cleveland are the two best teams in either Central Division. If they can win today and get out of this tough opening stretch at 2-4, they will have dodged a bullet. The White Sox can then look forward to a lot more games against mediocre teams from here on out. Remember, this lineup is going to absolutely mash bad pitching.
Reinforcements are on the way
Within the next few games, the lineup decisions that Renteria makes on a daily basis will likely get a whole lot easier. The Sox should get a huge boost from the likes of Jiménez, Nomar Mazara, and Nick Madrigal. Leury Legend will likely go back to his utility role, and Nicky Steaks will likely head to Schaumburg. Mazara will give them a left-handed bat that belongs in an MLB lineup and Eloy will slide back into the middle of the order. Although long-term, I think Madrigal will be more of an average big-league regular than a star, his ability to move the ball and avoid the strikeout may give the offense a small-ball component that it desperately needs.
Luis Robert already looks like a superstar
Yeah, it's five games, and everything I said about small sample sizes applies to this as well. But based on both results and the process behind those results, Luis Robert looks to be ahead of schedule on the learning curve of adjusting to MLB pitching. Entering this year, some scouts had voiced concerns about Robert's ultra-aggressive approach and ability to handle the inside fastball. While these concerns are still very valid, the early looks have been encouraging. Robert definitely swings at pitches he shouldn't at times, but he has also laid off more good sliders than I expected at this point. Most importantly, when the pitcher has given him something to hit, he hasn't missed it.
Robert hasn't been challenged with hard inside fastballs much, his biggest perceived weakness. However, the one time it happened, this was the result.
Granted, as Keith mentioned, that is only one instance, and 93 mph is average velocity by today's standards, but if the "book" on Robert is a 95+ mph fastball in a 4´´ x 4´´ area, I will take that every time. Executing that pitch is a lot easier said than done.
Five games is an extremely small sample size
If an alien came to Earth and only had knowledge of the 2020 baseball season to this point, what would that guy think?
Here are a few things: The Orioles, Marlins, and Rockies are all better than the Dodgers, Christian Yelich can't hit, Miguel Rojas is the best baseball player of our generation, and humans have no idea how to wear masks properly.
Aside from that last point, those were all cherry-picked to emphasize the fallacy of small sample sizes. If we are really being honest, even 60 games isn’t a big enough sample for players and teams to “regress to the mean” and perform as expected. Based on everything above, the 2020 White Sox are an average team with the potential for much more in the future.
Average teams go 1-4 sometimes. Average teams also go 4-1 sometimes. Sometimes average teams go 35-25. Sometimes they go 25-35. The White Sox are currently two games out of a playoff spot, with 55 games to play. If the Sox rattle off four of five at some point in the next couple weeks, something even the lowly 2019 team did nine different times, they are right back in the thick of things. Ricky put it best in his postgame press conference:
And if all else fails? Kumar Rocker.