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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Right, the Sox are playing over their head Why exactly? Because the guys in the middle of their order are hitting between 50 and 70 points below their career averages? Face it guys. The team made huge changes whose impact you couldn't predict (bringing a Podsednik type into a hitter's park, getting a complete unknown in iguchi, greatly improving the bullpen) so you bet against them, and, well, our projections HAVE to be right so let's try to find bad statistics like a low strikeout rate to justify why they simply MUST start losing.
And the twins are right on target because we all picked them based on PECOTA.
Did I get that right?
Posted by: Aaron at May 13, 2005 6:54 AM
Well the AL Central has been taken with 92, 90 and 94 wins the last three seasons. None of the final standings were that close but thats only because the Twins dominated the Sox head-to-head in Sept. '03 after the Sox came into the month in first place. I think the division could go to a team with 88 or 89 wins. Its far from inconceivable. And given baseball is a zero sum game if the Sox win more games they have to come from somewhere perhaps they come from the Twins.
Posted by: Andrew Ritchie at May 13, 2005 9:07 AM
I'd like to chime in on the AJ 'cancer' issue.
To be more specific, his 'cancerous' effect had more to do with his inability to hit in the clutch and his tremendous number of rally-killing double plays than anything else.
Don't be fooled by his stats, he left literally hundreds of runners on base.
Posted by: John Perricone at May 13, 2005 10:09 AM
I've followed baseball for 45 years, before getting deeply involved in stats became fashionable.
Here's the only stat that matters....'pitching wins pennants.'
If the Sox get the type of pitching or close to it, throughout the season, that they are getting now, they'll win the division and be a real threat in October. RISP, OBP, ABC or XYZ be damned.
Posted by: Mark Liptak at May 13, 2005 10:35 AM
Besides the whole "AJ is a cancer" crap, I think people are missing the impact he has had on the pitching staff. That attitude that pissed off the Giants pitchers, has been the spark that has made Jon Garland and Jose Contreras pitch near their potentials respectively. Both pitchers had bad habits they liked to fall into at various points in the game, and AJ won't let that happen.
Posted by: Southsider at May 13, 2005 11:51 AM
Am I the only one who thinks "Two on Two: White-Hot Sox" is one damn clever/funny title?
Posted by: Steve Lombardi at May 13, 2005 12:55 PM
As usual, when a team is winning or losing, it is easy to come up with all kinds of "reasons" why that is so. Whether any or all of those "reasons" is/was a cause for their winning/losing is another story altogether.
In cases like this, it is virtually impossible (it is like the tree falling in the forest or angles dancing on the heads of pins) to ascertain AT ALL what role change in ability, miscalculation of ability (projections), luck, coaching and manager influence, attitude, chemistry, et al., has/will play in a team's anomolous performance, as compared to a credible (such as BP or DM) pre-season projection.
"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."
That is a curious statement. That implies (actually more than implies) that the team's 26-9 record thus far was a fluke. In order for them to win 88-92 games, they would have to play around .500 ball for the rest of the season. Apparently Rich believes that the Sox are a true .500 team, after all that gushing about attitude, etc.
I have had the Sox projected much better than they have done over the last couple of years. I suspect that they have been unlucky w/l-wise over the past 2 years or so. I had them at 82-80 before the season started. I don't know, but perhaps their team projection, as garnered from all the individual projections (batters and pitchers), has gone up. If it has, let's call them a true 84 win team. That means I expect them to go 66 and 61 the rest of the way, for a final record of 92-70. Given that I had them better than the Twins when the season started (and now) and the fact they have a 5 game lead, I expect that translates to a 70 or 80% chance of winning the division...
Posted by: MGL at May 13, 2005 2:01 PM
"smug cockiness replaced by confidence."
I'd doubt his demeanor has really changed. The label just changes when someone goes from talented to productive. What used to be cocky with a 12-12 record is now 'good confidence' with a 7-0 record.
Posted by: Andy Wink at May 13, 2005 2:57 PM
I thought it was all about the pitching. That is what Reinsdorf is saying. They built a pitching staff that would stop losing streaks. Confirm/deny.
Posted by: boilCore at May 13, 2005 4:19 PM
Hey, this is GREAT! I have been a SOX FAN since 1974 and this is the MOST OPTIMISTIC I have EVER been! I listen to every game on XM or WATCH on MLB TV if I am not lucky enough to TAPE them off WGN. It is EASY to do this even at NATS games.
Anyway, GREAT ANALYSIS!
Posted by: Don Kosin at May 13, 2005 4:24 PM
Here's the only stat that matters....'pitching wins pennants.'
The team with the best pitching does not necessarily win the pennant. The team with the best win-loss record always wins the pennant. The way to win ballgames is by scoring more runs or allowing fewer runs than the opposition. Pitching is an important component but it is far from the only factor.
If the Sox get the type of pitching or close to it, throughout the season, that they are getting now, they'll win the division and be a real threat in October. RISP, OBP, ABC or XYZ be damned.
Wow, such a revelation! And I'm sure it won't have anything to do with ERA, right?
Posted by: Rich Lederer at May 13, 2005 5:22 PM
Two "experts" did pick the White Sox for the AL wildcard, Ryne Sandberg (Yahoosports.com) and one of Rich's favorite email partners, Tracy Ringolsby (Playboy). In my MLB pre-season power rankings, I had them just behind the Twins, ranked overall 8 out of 30 teams and caught a load of crap for that. My P.O.V. on them was that their pitching staff was the 3rd best in the AL, just behind the Yankees and Red Sox, which at this point I guess I was underrating them.
I still would lean to the Twins winning the AL Central, but I would take the White Sox to be the wildcard. Hard to see the Yankees making up enough ground to get ahead of them, while the Orioles and Rangers just don't have the pitching.
Posted by: scottlong at May 13, 2005 5:58 PM
No baseball fan saw this coming. How could you? However, this admittedly biased White Sox fan thought that we would either A) collapse or B) be better than last year. The key piece of information to remember is that Magglio and Frank didn't help us too much last year, our fifth starter spot had an ERA of about 8, and we had numerous automatic outs in the lineup: Jose Valentin, Willie Harris, Joe Crede, Ben Davis, Timo Perez, et al. all got regular playing time for the Sox over the course of the season.
I've always felt that designing a team with obvious holes and expecting other very good players to carry them is a bad plan...in fact, the worst way to build a baseball team. I call this the 2005 Yankees plan (I'm looking at you, Tony. And you, Jason. And you, Bernie.)
I've said it before, but the White Sox's offense was one dimensional (slugging based) and weak in many spots. The pitching stank, and we had a winning record despite having Scott Schoenweis and a pitcher with both a torn labrun and elbow ligament in the rotation. And we had Koch and Mike Jackson in the Bullpen. And we lost Thomas and Ordonez. And we still won.
So this offseason, Kenny went and filled every hole with someone worthy of being on a major league roster. We didn't have any stars, and the team would either improve or collapse...and improve it did.
By the way, I hated both the Garcia and Lee trades when they happened. I just thought I'd own up to the fact that I was wrong, wrong, one million times wrong. Hat Tip to Mr. Williams.
Posted by: MikeQ at May 13, 2005 11:59 PM
A couple of additional points:
Re MGL's comment above, I'm not sure why he finds my prediction of 88-92 wins "curious" when he goes on to explain his rationale for 92 victories. If you take the mid-point of my range, we are only two wins apart. Two games over the course of 127 doesn't seem like all that much to me.
For the record, I was not the one "gushing about attitude." In fact, I was the cynic in the group, questioning the effects of the new and improved attitude on the Chisox. If the White Sox are indeed a better team, I believe it is because the starting rotation has taken a major step forward this year and perhaps a change in the construction of the offense and defense.
For more on the key trade (Carlos Lee for Scott Podsednik) that changed the makeup of the team's offense, check out Studes' Five Questions: Chicago White Sox article. Pay particular attention to point number three and the accompanying graph. I would be surprised if there was a more prophetic preview than this one.
Posted by: Rich Lederer at May 14, 2005 6:24 PM
Whether or not pitching wins pennants (which I don't think it does any more than hitting), I still have my reservations about White Sox pitching. I think we can all agree that Mark Buehrle is a good pitcher and sometimes more than that; what bugs me is that the rest of these guys are perennial 4.50-ERA types whose results so far would seem to belie their abilities. Other than Garcia, I think that the bulk of this staff would be hard-pressed to sustain its current performance for anything resembling a full season. Have we all forgotten about the concept of regression to the mean?
(Well, clearly not, but it sounds good when you end a paragraph like that.)
I didn't think the White Sox were a .500 team coming into the season, and I still don't think that they're much more than that. That said, they can play .500 ball and still win the division -- what it really comes down to is how well the Twins play. I think this Twins team is better than past ones, and 92 wins might not be enough to take the division for once. That said, with the Yankees looking weaker than usual and the A's bats starting so cold, I would call the Wild Card a tossup between the ChiSox and the Orioles.
As far as Jon Garland being the best #5 in the AL? I suspect that Wade Miller (or Tim Wakefield, take your pick) would have something to say about that.
Posted by: voxter at May 15, 2005 11:21 PM