What Went Right
Say what you will about the Chicago White Sox -- but they are the World Champions. They are definitely the most unlikely Champs in recent memory, coming out of baseball's most mocked division to rise above one of the deepest fields in years.
Before, we chronicled this field (with the help of our friends) in the What Went Wrong series, which dealt with more than half of baseball's teams. All these teams were perceived as contenders as late as September. But it was the White Sox, who jumped out of the gate quickly and never looked back (well, maybe a little bit) that won their first World Series title in almost 90 years.
We thought a great way to follow the What Went Wrong series would be to look at what was different about the White Sox -- about what went right. So, we've asked the Cheat from South Side Sox to share some insight about baseball's newest champs.
1) Congrats, Cheat. Tell us, how do you think this team was able to rise to the top in October?
It's tough to pin it down to one thing. If I was forced to classify it, I would say it was pitching, defense, and the timely HR. -- The Sox obviously had the deepest pitching staff in baseball. I mean they were able to leave Brandon McCarthy (1.69 ERA in his final 42 IP) off of the playoff roster for crissakes.
2) How did their playoff performance parallel the regular season? Was this the Sox playing their best ball of the year, or showing the nation what you saw since April?
I would say that their October run was very similar to how they started the regular season. The Sox had a lead in their first 38 regular season games to set a major league record. During that streak, they seemed to score first in probably 80% of their games. I've never seen a team be able to do that.
When they reached the playoffs, I was listing some keys to each game on my site. Invariably, I would list "score first" as one of the keys. Not only were they very good at getting a lead, the Sox were the best team I have ever seen at taking a 1-0 lead in the first, and making it hold up all game long. They just carried over what they had been doing all year long into the playoffs.
3) What misconception about the White Sox has come out since the World Series that you would like to correct?
Smallball. Smartball. Ozzieball. Whatever you want to call it. It certainly wasn't the reason that the Sox had the best record in the AL.
I will concede that Ozzie's predisposition to playing for one run in the first inning probably helped the Sox score first in more games than they would have without the smallball approach. And as I mentioned before, I've never seen a team that played better with a slim lead, so smartball may have had a positive effect on the team, just not in the way you hear most talking heads and columnists fawn over it.
4) After a team wins, the competition suddenly wants to follow their model. Tell us, Cheat, if you had to explain the White Sox model to another GM, what would you tell them?
You need a starting rotation full of above average, historically healthy, arms. You need strong defense up the middle, SS and CF being most important. You need above average defense from everyone on your club. You need above average power throughout the lineup. You need 6 good arms in the bullpen, no dead weight. -- Then, you need a little luck.
If you build the team that I highlighted above, you're probably not going to win the World Series, but you're almost assured of making the playoffs. And that's really the goal, right Billy Beane?
5) What is your opinion on the influence a manager can have on a team, particularly in the playoffs?
In the playoffs, not very much. The manager's job, more than anything, is to manage the bullpen. There was a stark contrast between Ozzie Guillen and Phil Garner after the first two games of the series though. Garner seemed dejected, and focused too much of his time on complaining about the roof situation. Guillen was busy being the clown prince of baseball. I suppose that had something to do with the Sox being up 2-0, but I suspect that Guillen would have been the same down 0-2.
Over a whole season, however, a manager can have a great effect on the club. Ozzie was particularly good at handling the bullpen. For the most part, he had his best pitcher from the 'pen pitching in the highest leverage situation. It sounds like a simple plan, but most managers are too busy sticking with the "closer pitches the last 3 outs" philosophy.
6) When did it become apparent to you that this team was World Championship caliber?
During their games lead streak to start the season, it was clear to me that this team was special, but when we talked at the time I couldn't predict anything more than a trip to the ALCS. The Sox fan in me wouldn't let the rational side of my brain realize that they could win the World Series until Juan Uribe went diving into the stands in game 4.
It was really coming down to the wire there at the end with Cleveland breathing down their necks. I was more interested in the Wild Card standings for about a week before they clinched.
So I guess there were two points. The first was early in the year when they were steamrolling everyone, and the second was the day they clinched the Central. At that point, Jose Contreras had been the 2nd best pitcher in the AL (to Johan Santana) for the last two months, and I felt like the Sox had an ace in the hole that nobody really knew about.
7) When were you most worried? What was the season lowlight?
The whole month of August was a pain, but the Sox still had a sizable lead on Cleveland that I was sure they couldn't lose. The one stat that I kept harping on during that time goes back to the score first mantra. They went from July 30th until September 20th without winning a game when facing a multi-run deficit at any point in the game. -- I was sure they couldn't compete in the playoffs during that stretch of games.
The absolute low though was a few games in September. They lost 5 of 6 games, and held a multi-run lead in each of the losses. I think I may have reached my lowest, and started focusing exclusively on the Wild Card, after Brandon McCarthy lost a pitcher's duel to Johan Santana.
8) What was the club's major weakness during the season?
The #3 spot. It was Kryptonite to anyone who batted there except Frank Thomas. In general, you like to have a high average guy who can also hit for power in the #3 spot. The White Sox #3 hitters combined for a .234/.296/.419 line. Only the bay area teams had a worse combined OPS from their #3 hitters.
9) Briefly, how do you hope Ken Williams corrects this and other weaknesses this winter?
It looks like he's addressed part of it already. Carl Everett, who received a majority of the at-bats in the #3 spot, didn't have his option picked up and was bought out by the Sox. Who he gets to replace Everett remains to be seen.
I would say the needs are a left-handed hitter with a good batting eye, preferably on the cheap. Erubial Durazo (if healthy) and Matt Lawton (before the juice) were two guys who I had my eye on. Aside from those two, I don't really see a free agent on the market who really fits what the Sox need. -- I suspect Williams will have to get creative on the trade front to really be proactive.
10) Who would you label as the team MVP and LVP?
The MVP has got to be Konerko. He was the only consistent threat in the lineup. His free agency puts the Sox in a really tough spot. He's going to command a 6-year deal on the open market, and that's going to be an albatross of a contract in just a couple of years.
For LVP I'd have to go with Jurassic Carl again. He was one of the easiest outs in baseball for most of the second half.
11) Finally, what expectations should people have for this team to repeat in 2006?
They're certainly not the '98 Yankees, so there's no reason to start engraving their name on the '06 trophy just yet. They do, however, return everyone from the deepest pitching staff in baseball, so I wouldn't count them out either.
2006 will come down to whether the pitching was a fluke -- I think Garland and Contreras can repeat, but some of the members of the bullpen like Cotts, Hermanson, Politte should regress -- and what Kenny Williams does to the offense this winter.