Williams has built winners with unique approach on South Side
The Second City's second team plays, physically, at the fringe of respectable Chicago, that renowned center of molecular gastronomy, Mies van der Rohe structures and futures trading. Home plate at U.S. Cellular Field is a brief walk from the old Union Stock Yard Gate, two L stops from the second most crime-ridden corner in the United States and an hour's bicycle ride from depressed reaches of northwest Indiana which manage to be gray and brown even on perfect June days. The Cubs play in the town of departing mayor
"We may as well be in two different cities," says
To understand why Williams is so good at what he does, this is where you start, with an awareness that he operates not in a large market, but on the South Side, which is usually called "working class" but could more accurately be called "broke". Consider that by one measure, which multiplies local population by average income, the size of the Chicago market is closest to the major league average, and that the Cubs draw the moneyed class, and you'll see the difficulties of the situation.
Despite playing in the third largest city in the country, the Sox rank 17th in average attendance per game among the 30 major league teams this year. According to a recent Harris poll, they rank 15th in popularity. Running the club is an exercise in suffering such big city annoyances as a large, obnoxious press corps without such compensatory benefits as having quite enough cash to buy division titles outright. (The Sox run decent payrolls, but are closer in spending to the Houston Astros than the Detroit Tigers this year, and ranked 12th in baseball last year.)
Judged as the record of a team situated in an alpha world city, the Sox's run since Williams' ascension to his present job in November 2000 -- the 10th-best record in the major leagues, no truly bad seasons, two playoff appearances and a World Series championship -- isn't at all bad. Taken as the record of a team in a relatively modest market, it's very good.
There are two key reasons why the Sox do well. The first is that they understand probability. While Williams would protest that the team's goal every year is to win the World Series and that anything else is a failure, in truth they're annually built to win 85 to 90 games, with the understanding that with some good fortune they might win 95 and a pennant, and that with a few injuries or off years they might slip below .500. A dodgy plan in a given year, building a decent team every year is a sure way to eventually come up with a great one.
The second is that they want to win, which is not always a given. When things are breaking their way, they become ruthless -- turning over the closer role to untested waiver claim
All of which explains why taking on Ramirez was the perfect expression of a sound team philosophy, and why scoffing at the Sox for the way a close race with the Minnesota Twins has turned into a joke the past few days as Manny has flailed misses the point. Without the willingness to take a well-timed risk, the Sox would never have been in the race at all.
The White Sox have a slightly unusual culture. From Williams to manager
"We have to have players that are Chicago tough," he says. "This is a little different than other places, because you very rarely get a player that's going to come here and everyone is jubilant and all for it. That player generally -- particularly with most of my acquisitions -- comes with a certain amount of negativity attached, of skepticism attached. So if that particular player hasn't already dealt with a certain adversity in his career or in his life and bounced back from it and remained strong from it, he isn't going to survive."
Baseball types talk a lot about adversity. In theory, no one wants players who yield to it, and everyone wants players who triumph over it. In practice, nearly all of them want players who have never had to deal with failure at all. There is a reason why
Williams is different; his claim that he wants players who have dealt with a certain adversity is demonstrably true. This year's key Sox include formerly busted prospects
Even in his more minor dealings over the past year, Williams has tended toward failures. Short reliever
If, instead of talking about adversity and toughness, Williams were to start speaking in business jargon, the broad baseball-loving public might credit him more for his ability to identify undervalued assets. Of course he's had his failures; young pitchers
Anyone with a decade as a general manager will have made his mistakes, though, and Williams' aren't nearly as consequential as his successes. What's perhaps most impressive about his ability to extract value from failed prospects and young veterans who have seemingly lost their way is that the way he does so is unique to the Sox.
Take the pitchers. The Sox are famously durable: During coach
None of this is accidental. The Sox focus on motion and efficiency, throwing a lot more cut fastballs than the average, and many fewer arm-torquing curveballs. Pitchers such as Danks and Floyd consistently start walking fewer batters on their arrival in the majors, and surrender fewer fly balls. Even when they do, the motion on their pitches helps them -- by one calculation, the Sox have picked up several wins' worth of runs just by giving up fewer home runs than would be predicted by their fly ball rate.
This is a program, you'll note, almost perfectly suited to pitchers who have struggled with the above-mentioned adversity. Give Cooper a big man with a moving fastball and a decent motion and he can get good pitching out of him by tweaking his mechanics, teaching him a new pitch, coaxing him to throw strikes. Williams' ability to identify such pitchers and pick them up at (usually) cheap rates offers him an immense advantage over other teams. He has an alchemist working for him.
Should Williams get the credit for that, or for a medical crew that's helped keep the team unusually healthy even when fielding the injury-prone and/or aging likes of Quentin, Thome and
Williams has real weaknesses. His unwillingness to pay up for real power hitting, his habit of dispersing money among a lot of so-so role players rather than focusing it on one really good one, his (until recently puzzling) drafts, and his constant mad pursuit of such great catches as Ramirez and
Most of the core players here -- Danks, Floyd, Rios, Quentin, Ramirez, second baseman
This year, the dice didn't come up for Williams and the Sox. They built their 85-to-90 win team, picked up the best available player to fill their greatest need when it looked like they were close, and their numbers just didn't come up. Next year they'll likely be just as good, and if Williams is shrewd with his spending they could easily enter the year as a pennant favorite. You can see failure, if you care to, in Flushing, Queens, or on the North Side of Chicago. This isn't it.
Ramirez may not have an extra-base hit as a Sox, but adding one of the game's best hitters for nothing but money when they were still in the race was absolutely the right move.
Putz, coming off an injury, has been a key part of a very effective bullpen.
Jones has been quite useful as a role player, slugging nearly .500 and batting .467 in September for his best campaign in four years.
Centuries after his birth, Vizquel remains a capable reserve. His getting into a game as a designated hitter was a highlight of the year in baseball.
Roundly mocked, the decision to fill a hole in left field with Pierre, who can't hit, has turned out decently well. He's cheap and does things that aren't hitting well enough to deserve his playing time.
Moving two bad players for a slightly below average one at a position of need was no masterstroke, but wasn't much worth criticizing. Signing him to an inexplicable three-year extension was.
With Hudson (1.67 ERA) looking every bit the stud starter his minor league numbers suggested, this deal looks pretty bad right now despite Jackson's superb performance with the Sox.