Two on Two: White-Hot Sox
With a 3-2 win over the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, the Chicago White Sox pushed their record to 26-9, tops in the Majors. The Sox have already put together two eight-game winning streaks this year and are getting production from places no one expected. For example, rotation incumbent Jon Garland has made the switch from 100 ERA+ innings-eater to one of the early-season AL Cy Young Award candidates.
Still, with so many things going right, the Sox are still not receiving the respect that .743 teams normally garner. Will "Ozzie ball" wear off at some point, with the Sox opening nothing more than a flash in the pan? Or, was this really a universally underrated team heading into the season? To find this answer, we decided to go straight to the source, to question the White Sox fans that follow the team the closest.
Helping us bring out the "Two on Two" segment from hibernation are The Cheat from southsidesox.com and Mike Wilkins from whitesoxinteractive.com. Read on as the pair tries to make a case for the team that couldn't even land a second-place prediction in our AL Central preview...
Bryan: This season the Sox appear to be a whole different team than the second place club we have seen in the past. What is so different about the White Sox this season?
Cheat: Pitching. There's a whole new attitude to the pitching staff. The rotation has, for the most part, kept runs off the board. In the rare instances that they haven't, the pen has held serve to let the offense claw back into games.
Mike: It's all about attitude.
The Sox got rid of two guys (Lee and Ordonez) who seemed overly focused on padding their personal stats with the long ball, and replaced them with what Kenny Williams likes to call "grinders"--guys like Podsednik and Pierzynski who grit their teeth, hustle, get on and get over when they need to. Carl Everett's hitting renaissance hasn't hurt either.
Rich: Wait a minute now. The White Sox have been a pretty consistent ballclub the past several years, averaging 83 wins per season in the four years following the Central Division title in 2000. After 35 games this year, the Chisox have won 26. That means the team has won about eight more games than expected at this point.
Mike, are you saying these extra wins are attributable to an improvement in the team's attitude?
Mike: Sure am, Rich. Instead of guys who are focused on going up there and swatting a home run, the Sox lineup now has 9 guys who are focused on getting the guy who's already on base across the plate.
Bryan: Of course, the flaw behind that reasoning is that the White Sox are eighth in the Major Leagues in home runs, but just 21st in on-base percentage. From May 3 to May 8, in which the team did not lose, they averaged two home runs per game. The offense appears to be as inconsistent as last year -- this year's team actually has more games with less than three runs -- but the pitching constantly has bailed this team out. But considering the Maggs-Ozzie, Damaso-CLee, and Thomas-management debates, I do think the clubhouse could be a much more fun place.
Mike: A lot of us Sox fans are gnashing our teeth over how low our OBP is. But when we do get guys on base, we tend to be (one nightmare against Detroit excepted) pretty productive about getting them home. Uribe, Everett and Rowand all have BA/RISP numbers above .300...so when the table does get set for them, they do a pretty good job of feasting on it.
Cheat: Obviously, home runs are inconsistent. The Sox hit one about once every 23 at bats last season; They're hiting them at a rate of about once very 30 at bats in 2005. But you can't rely on the HR for all of your offense. Last year the Sox went 1-44(27.8% of games) when scoring less than three runs. They've scored less than three in 7 games(22.5%) so far this season, winning 4. They're avoiding those low scoring outputs more than last season, and the improved pitching is making those games more winnable.
Bryan: Alright, so I think it is fair to say that we have attributed this early season outbreak to two factors: BA/RISP and pitching. The former is interesting, as the merits of clutch hitting could be argued for days. What I do find interesting is that the Sox more consistent hitters for average -- Tadahito Iguchi, Joe Crede and A.J. Pierzynski -- are hitting .192, .263 and .097 respectively with runners in scoring position. On the other hand, struggling hitters Rowand, Podsednik and Uribe are all over .333. What gives?
Mike: Well, when Juan Uribe isn't spinning around in the dirt after a flailing swing and miss, he's usually popping a ball into shallow right. He's had ample opportunities to drive guys in being at the bottom of the order, and he's just able to slap the ball when he needs to.
Cheat: I think that's what you call balance. Pierzynski's not going to his .097 with RISP for the whole season, and the three you named as being excellent in that situation probably aren't going to continue being as good. It should all even out at the end of the year. The one thing we can all agree on is that they need more RISP ABs, where they rank among the bottom two in baseball for the second straight season.
Rich: Speaking of Pierzynski, how do you square the fact that he was considered a clubhouse "cancer" on his two previous teams?
Cheat: I think he has learned that his attitude hurt him where it counts. His wallet. He's determined not to let off the field issues interfere with his future pay days.
Mike: AJ was also known as a solid game caller, and a living breathing example of the old baseball cliche "hit 'em where they ain't." To me, that's a lot more important than some stories coming out of the SF clubhouse. I'm sure Ozzie will keep him in line.
Bryan: Well, I can't decide whether Ozzie has a positive or negative impact in that clubhouse. While he has had a midas touch with everything this year, is he really a good influence? It seems to me that he picks favorites, and like a bad teacher, is not one who you want to be on the bad side of.
Cheat: I'd agree that Ozzie has favorites. Cough, cough, Timo Perez, cough. Sorry, I'm still getting over a cold. I think his influence on the clubhouse, however, has been a positive one. Despite an ill-advised war of words with a former player, he keeps the mood light. Players know what to expect from him. They come to the park knowing their respective roles, that they'll be put in a situation where they can succeed, and that they have a shot to win every game they play.
He's not the unpredictable tirant that some in the media portray him to be. He's not the kind of guy that will rip into a player, or get ejected for no reason. I think that more is made out of what he's said because it's Ozzie. I've actually seen a few occasions during his tenure where I'd like to see a little bit more fire from my manager. It's Ozzie's truthfulness that gets him in trouble. The press doesn't know what to do with a guy who doesn't give cliched, sanatized sound bites, so he's assumed to be out of control.
Rich: If attitude and Ozzie get credit for the team's rocket launch, I'm sure Frank Thomas--if he is back in the lineup--will undoubtedly be blamed by certain members of the media should the White Sox inevitably return to Earth.
Bryan: Yes, Frank will definitely draw criticism, which is really too bad. Still, this is a team that desperately needs his bat. Consistent offense has been a serious problem, and adding his kind of middle-of-the-order presence will be big. My question though, is who do they bench? Is Jermaine Dye in a part-time or permanent slump? Is Aaron Rowand more pre-2004 (4th outfielder) than .900 OPS man?
Cheat: I'm worried about Jermaine. Nobody fears him as an opposing pitcher. As for Rowand, I'm disappointed with his slow start, but that's nothing new for him. What's new is that he hasn't been benched by now. Maybe that's what he needs.
When Frank comes back, Ideally, you'd see something of a super-platoon with Carl Everett getting giving Rowand, Dye, or Frank the day off against tough right-handers.
Mike: Dye worries me as well. His struggles at the plate have been compounded by the fact that he's been just rotten in the field... misplaying just about anything on the ground to his left.
Bryan: I wrote after watching Dye in Spring Training that he was so frustrating because the man is a physical specimen, just not a baseball player. At some point I think the Sox should realize that stud prospect Brian Anderson is a better option than Dye, and maybe Rowand as well. I think the Sox best lineup might have Thomas at DH with Everett, Poddy and Anderson playing everyday, with Rowand on the bench and either Dye or Timo gone. But alas, this will never happen.
Cheat: I'd have to agree with your assesment of Dye. He reminds me of another player who wore 23 in this town and couldn't hit a curveball. I don't know if bringing Anderson up is the answer though. At this time last year, he was in A-ball. I'd like to see him get a significant amount of at-bats at Charlotte before they make a rushed decision on him.
Mike: Is that Jordan or Brian Daubach you're alluding to? (laughs) I don't think Anderson's quite ready for prime time yet...every time I see a Sox farmhand tearing it up my first thought is "Joe Borchard."
Bryan: Not sure about Borchard, Anderson can take a walk, but I can see what you guys are saying. No reason to rush him when Rowand still has such high potential. Moving from the outfield to the infield, I'm sure you guys are happy to see Joe Crede finally having a good season. If Crede can stay consistent and Konerko can get some consistency, that offense will be alright, I think.
Cheat: I really like the way the middle infield is shaping up. Iguchi and Uribe are about as solid as they come back up the middle, and they're both swinging the bats pretty well. As far as Konerko goes, I just hope we see more Konerko and less of the Rob Deer we've been seeing lately.
Rich: Like 'em or hate 'em, the Sox's offense is different this year. No more Ordonez, Lee, or Valentin. And Thomas hasn't stepped afoot the playing field this year. Add it all up and the team has been without four of its top five power hitters from the past several years. On the one hand, you gotta give Williams some credit for having the courage to make such radical changes. On the other hand, I don't think the offense is the reason for the team's major league-best record thus far.
Mike: That's right Rich. We get timely hits to score runs, but we don't get anywhere near enough of them. Our pitching has just been sensational. Contreras and Hernandez don't look so hot on paper, but they've been able to get the outs they need when they need them. In our first home game against Minnesota, they had the bases loaded at least twice, and Jose got them to GIDP both times. If there's such a thing as "clutch pitching," I'd say we're leading the league in it.
Rich: Right, but the so-called clutch pitching is one of the reasons why I am so skeptical as to whether the White Sox can keep it up. The team has undoubtedly received good pitching performances from Contreras, Hernandez, Buehrle, and Garcia, and outstanding work from Garland. But, if Garland was a stock, I would be shorting him right about now.
Mike: This ex-trader is putting a "buy and hold" rating on Garland now. It's like he's a whole different player from what we've seen in the past. His smug cockiness has been replaced by confidence. He's working quickly, effectively, and not panicking on the rare occasions so far he's gotten into trouble.
Bryan: I think there might be something in the rumor that Garland has learned from Mark Buerhle, and that he has finally matured. I bet you will see many a Cub fan wince every time they see his record and Matt Karchner's statistics. Still, Garland is nowhere near this good, and will eventually run into trouble. What's good for him, though, is that even a mediocre ERA the rest of the year will give him good numbers.
Cheat: The key for Garland with be his ability to avoid the walk. He has always appeared to be afraid to challenge hitters, as evidenced by his career 3.75 BB/9IP before this season. This season, however, he has challenged hitters, getting ahead in the count and making the hitter put the ball in play. As long as he doesn't return to his old 3-walks-a-game self, he'll post some very good numbers. I envision him with an ERA under or around 4.00, which given the stadium the White Sox play in, is very good.
Mike: People always seem to forget that Garland has won 12 games a year for three years in a row and has never spent any time on the DL. But here in Chicago, a guy who's almost always hurt can win 12-14 games a year and be branded a superstar if he wears blue. Mark my words guys: this is the year Garland turns the corner.
Rich: I would take a healthy Kerry Wood over Jon Garland any day, week, month, or year. That said, I realize Wood is on the DL and Garland is putting up the best numbers of his career--well, at least, the best W-L and ERA. I think the latter have changed more than anything else, seducing Chisox fans into thinking they have a new ace on board. His K/9IP ratio of less than 4:1 is downright poor and disconcerting to a numbers man from the west coast.
Cheat: You and Kerry can have a lot of fun watching baseball games together. I keed, I keed.
You're not going to find me calling Garland an ace. In the past I have questioned why I hear players and announcer praise his "stuff." I just never saw it. He is, however, the best 5th starter in baseball.
Bryan: That's fair, but let's talk about numbers three and four, Contreras and El Duque. While I think we can agree that Buerhle, Garcia and Garland are all in good positions, can they maintain this type of production from the Cubans? I think it helps they are around each other, and Contreras might finally be meeting expectations. But what isn't to keep these guys from getting injured?
Cheat: I fully expect El Duque to go down at some point in the season. Contreras appears to have progressed a bit with the acquisition of El Duque. His last start didn't show it, but he's been dropping down sidearm like El Duque recently. Contreras is a head case, and probably needs Duque to babysit for him to succeed like he has for a full season.
The one name you need to bring up when talking about the Cubans is Brandon McCarthy. He's on-call to fill in whenever one of them goes down. He's a pretty nice insurance policy to have waiting in the wings.
Mike: Indeed he is. McCarthy put together what might be the best Spring Training ever seen by a Sox pitcher. And it's always nice to be able to brag and say that he's one that we grew all by ourselves. He's been the marquee attraction on a struggling Charlotte ballclub.
Bryan: Yes, if Garland is the league's best fifth starter, McCarthy might just be the best number six. I really do think the Black Jack comparisons are right, and that he will be a stud in the rotation next season. If I were Ken Williams, I would put McCarthy in middle relief in about August, like the Twins have with so many minor league starters, and be ready to put him on my postseason roster...record willing.
Rich: Not so fast, partner. Although I underestimated the White Sox going into the season, I still think the Twins are the team to beat in the AL Central. However, if the South Siders play .500 play the rest of the way, they will end up with 89 wins and be right in the thick of the Wild Card race.
Cheat: You were not alone in picking the Twins to win the central. I picked them over the Sox before the season too. It's really nice to see that the AL wild card will actually be a race this season, not just a consolation prize for finishing second in the AL East. I think the Sox have answered some of their question marks that they had entering the season, and should have their sights set on the AL Central crown. Though, I do like the recent trend of Wild Card winners taking home the World Series title, so the wild card would not be a disappointment.
Rich: Yes, three years in a row. The oldtimers must be cringing. The Angels, the Marlins, and the Red Sox. Sorry, Cheat and Mike, I guess it is the National League's turn this year.
Mike: In 2003, Brian Cashman said that the Sox were the team that he feared most if we made it to the playoffs--and we didn't. I think there's still reason for Cashman (and Theo Epstein) to fear us though--our lineup is just as deep, a little more balanced, and we picked up one of the bext postseason pitchers out there in El Duque.
Bryan: Personally I go really back and forth on the merits of the White Sox. The fact is that they are playing over their heads right now, and Minnesota is right on target. The White Sox can coast and still win quite a few games though, so this has all the makings of a September battle...further fuel for the rivalry.
Mike: We don't see the Twins again until August 15th. Part of me dreads the thought of heads-up action against them ten times in the last 2 months of the season, but part of me says "bring 'em on." We've proved so far this season that we can beat them--and I'm reasonably sure we can beat them again and hold them off down the stretch.
Rich: Well, how many games do you think the White Sox will win this year? What place will Chicago finish? Do you see them playing in October? If so, how far do you think they can go?
Mike: I see us winning between 89 and 93, and holding off the Twins to win the division by 2 or 3 games. Playoff baseball returns to the South Side for the first time in 5 years, and we advance to at least the ALCS.
Cheat: Before the hot start I picked the Sox to win 87 games, but I'm not going to let the quick start get me too excited. 92 wins sounds like a good revision to my original prediction, AL Central Champs. I can't predict them going deep in the playoffs though. That would be down right crazy. I don't even remember the last time they won a game that mattered in October ('83), so I'm not going to tempt fate and start picking World Championships or anything crazy like that.
Bryan: I am still going to say that the White Sox miss the playoffs, but narrowly. Look for the Twins to be throwing Johan Santana at the Sox on three days' rest if he has to, but Minnesota is simply the better team. What's really too bad is that Chicago isn't buying into the Sox enough, as their attendance still leaves much to be desired.
Rich: I'm going to bump up the White Sox from about 81 wins at the start of the season to a range of 88-92. The Sox and Twins have the opportunity to really dominate this division. If Chicago wins 88, I think they miss out on the playoffs. If they win 92, I think we will see them in the post-season. The fact that the Twins and White Sox play each other so often down the stretch should make for one of the most interesting races in baseball.
Not surprisingly, Cheat and Mike have a more positive spin on the White Sox's chances than Bryan and Rich. However, the White-Hot Sox have even surprised them. Is there anybody out there who can say they truly saw this coming? How do you see it? In or out of the playoffs? What are the chances of a White Sox-Dodgers repeat of 1959? Different teams, players, and stadiums, for sure. But what about the outcome?