Assessing the Problem
As with many other endeavors, a sober and honest self-diagnosis when things go awry in baseball is a true rarity. Excuse making is rampant because it is hard to admit failure. When failure is undeniable and right there staring us in the face, it's quite easy to flail and grasp at straws looking for the reasons why. After all, it is often the case that the root of failure is attributable to causes that would amount to an indictment of some of the very core beliefs and principles of the responsible parties.
A prime example of this sort of behavior is on display in today's Chicago Tribune. Rick Morrissey has written a piece examining the White Sox problems in 2007 and how they are addressing them for 2008 titled "Sox have rhetoric, but what's behind words?" In it, we get numerous quotes from General Manager Kenny Williams (among others) talking about what they need to do to get back to their tip-top, 2005-2006 form.
"We as a staff—(manager) Ozzie Guillen, myself and all the coaches—we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and reassess some of the things we had done," general manager Ken Williams said. "We won the World Series and we came back and followed that up with 90 wins. OK, we were a veteran team, so we said, 'Go out there and play. You know what it takes to get yourself prepared.' Well, it got away from us."
Morrissey concludes the piece with another Williams quote, and then finishes it off with a line of his own.
"There's a little different focus and intensity," Williams said. "One of the best things that maybe could have happened was some of the criticisms that were levied against all of us during the off-season. Guys showed up in shape ready to go.
"I like that in the second game of the [spring] that Orlando Cabrera turns around to the rest of the bench and says, 'Hey, let's go. Spring training or not, I'm here to win.' Nick Swisher said something similar."
Wait a second. That sounds suspiciously like passion. Or swagger. Or both.
According to Morrissey and Williams, passion and swagger, or a lack of it for that matter, accounted for the 72-win Chicago White Sox in 2007. But let's just have a quick look at 2005, 2006 and 2007 for the White Sox and see if we can't identify more tangibly what might have gone wrong for them last season. In its most basic form, here is a glimpse at Chicago's run prevention and run scoring ability in each season.
OPS+ AL Rank ERA+ AL Rank
2005 95 9 (tie) 124 1
2006 103 4 103 6
2007 87 13 99 8 (tie)
Just once, how great would it be to hear something like this?
"Said, Williams: It's really pretty simple. In 2005 we pitched the living daylights out of the ball and had a bang-up defense out there to boot. We had four starting pitchers combine for 890 innings of 3.51 ERA pitching. Of our top three relievers, the lowest ERA of the bunch belonged to Dustin Hermanson; it was 2.04. Going a full season allowing only 645 runs while playing home games at our ballpark, I don't care how run of the mill your offense is, you will figure out a way to win games.
In 2006, as you might expect, our run prevention fell off a bit. We were still a pretty decent pitching team but our bullpen was not nearly as strong. We picked up Javier Vazquez but he disappointed and Mark Buehrle took a major step backwards after a Cy Young type 2005. We were able to counteract all of that because we acquired Jim Thome, while Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye went nuts. The stellar performance of these three had the dual effect of off-setting some pitching regression while masking some serious problems elsewhere in our lineup (we had three regulars with an OPS+ of 75 or less).
Given how instrumental three guys north of 30 were to our offense in 2006, I probably should have foreseen some of the problems we experienced coming in 2007. Unfortunately, I probably compounded them a bit by tacking on another player on the wrong side of 30, Darin Erstad. We ran him and Jerry Owens out there for three quarters of our innings in center field, only to have Erstad put up an OPS+ of 68 while Owens managed a 67. Meanwhile we kept pretending that Scott Podsednik was a good player and that Jose Contreras wasn't 51 years old. Predictably (in retrospect), Thome struggled to stay healthy while Dye and Konerko fell off pretty drastically from their 2006 performances. In short, it was a foreseeable situation that I failed to see.
Fortunately, I think we made some moves that figure to help the 2008 edition of the club. The team is playing hard thus far this Spring, and I look forward to seeing what kind of season we can put together."
I'm not going to hold my breath.