Figuring Out The White Sox After One Month

I am writing this as the White Sox are playing the Indians is the second game of a day-night double header. All of the stats and facts referenced in this article are from prior to this game.

After dropping the first game of a doubleheader on Monday, the White Sox dropped to 13-16 and were 3 games under .500 for the first time this season. They have the 4th best ERA in baseball as well as the 4th best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). After a strong start, the bullpen has slipped a bit and now has the 2nd worst FIP in the AL. Their offense has been in the bottom 3rd of the AL and has had a few bright spots, and a few terrible ones.

Offense

Offensively there have been four strong spots. Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) has become one of the best “catch-all” stats for evaluating offense. It’s an improvement over OPS (and OPS+) because it weighs different types of hits less linearly than straight up slugging percentage. What the numbers mean varies from one year to the next, but the FanGraphs article on wOBA say that the league average in 2011 was .316, and typically will be between .320 and .335. Anything above .370 or so is considered to be near the top, which is similar to straight on-base percentage (OBP). The current American League leader is Josh Hamilton at .468. Both Paul Konerko (.440) and Adam Dunn (.409) are in the top 10. Alejandro De Aza (.347) and A.J. Pierzynski (.345) have respectable numbers. No one else is above .300. At the other end of the team, Brent Morel (.202) has been downright awful, and Alexei Ramirez (.213) isn’t far behind. Gordon Beckham has come on strong the last week or so and is hopefully turning it around, while Dayan Viciedo still hasn’t found his groove outside of his 3 home runs.

Adam Dunn leads the league in strikeouts, 9 ahead of Kelly Johnson. He and Brent Morel are 2nd and 3rd in strikeout rate, both striking out more than 1 out of 3 plate appearances. Fortunately for Dunn he is tied for the league lead in home runs and has one of the 10 best walk rates in the AL. Morel’s defense was supposed to fill the gap, and by some measures he is in the top half, but far from spectacular.

Summarizing the offense is really just about the first four guys mentioned. Paul Konerko is continuing to prove his late career surge is for real, when he can avoid the aches and pains. Adam Dunn got off to a slow start but has shown some of his old traits as of late. He is only two home runs shy of last season’s total. Free agent-to-be A.J. Pierzynski is on pace for a career season and already has five home runs, when his career high is 18. He is walking at his best clip in a decade and even though he is striking out more frequently than the last few seasons, he is hitting more line drives and less ground balls.

Late blooming Alejandro De Aza is trying to prove last years 171 plate appearances weren’t a fluke, and for the most part has. His walk rate is a little better, but his strikeout rate is the same. And his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is down, and closer to a sustainable number. His batting average isn’t much to look at, but 12 of his 28 hits are for extra bases and his four stolen bases have turned some of those walks and singles into doubles. FanGraphs has a way to measure baserunning WAR, which takes into account not just stolen bases, but taking extra bases and whatnot, and De Aza is 2nd in the AL in that stat.

Alex Rios has been OK. Alexei Ramirez is clearly the big disappointment. His walk rate is down drastically, and while he has struck out more, its not a huge jump. He is hitting more ground balls, but he is also seeing more fastballs. According to FanGraphs data, Ramirez has never hit those well, and that could be part of it, but it’s difficult to pin down his problem. I won’t spend a lot of time on Beckham, Morel and Viciedo. For the latter two, there isn’t a lot of data to look at, but needless to say, all three have been pretty bad.

Defense

FanGraphs also has WAR broken down into different categories, with fielding being one of them. One of the more interesting stats is that Gordon Beckham has not been very good. The theory always was that he mad up for bad hitting with superb fielding, but so far this season that has not been the case. Konerko, AJ, Ramirez and Rios have all been good. Unsurprisingly, Viciedo has been bad. Morel and De Aza haven’t been anything special, but it’s early.

Starters

The chic pitching stat these days is Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). It’s scaled like ERA but it is composed of things that fielders have no affect on, home runs, walks, HBP and strikeouts. These things themselves are scaled so that home runs make it higher than a walk would. Jake Peavy is ranked 2nd in the AL (2.27) and Chris Sale (2.80) is 7th. Both of those numbers are very good. Gavin Floyd has a respectable 3.55. Philip Humber has struggled since his perfect game, but his 4.55 number isn’t terrible. John Danks’ 5.34 has been pretty bad though. Jake Peavy isn’t worth discussing, because as I said at the beginning of the season, when healthy he has been his old self for the most part. He has shown more change ups this season, but the sample size is small. Luck has probably favored him some, but no matter what he has been spectacular.

Chris Sale had been more spectacular, especially when you consider that he was only going to get better. But arm “tenderness” has forced him to the bullpen, maybe permanently. Floyd is off to an underrated start, but some of his peripheral numbers seem a little too good, particularly his elevated strike out rate. He has always been underrated though.

Solving John Danks is more difficult. His strike out rate is down by 1 and his walk rate is has increased by over 30%. He also isn’t inducing as many ground balls and he has lost over a full MPH on his fastball.

Losing Sale from the rotation is a big blow. With the theory that Peavy and Floyd will get a little worse, and Danks will get a little better, someone has to make up for Sale. Eric Stults and Dylan Axelrod are the most likely candidates to replace Sale, but neither will be as good as he had been.

Relievers

The bullpen looked really good for the first few weeks, but has been lousy since. Addison Reed has been exquisite in 9 IP, but has only been given chances in short bursts. All signs pointed to him being the closer of the future, and he looks capable, but it’s unclear how Chris Sale will change this. Current closer Hector Santiago has been striking out guys left and right, but has also been allowing a lot of home runs and walks. In fact he has given up 5 home runs in just 10 IP. With Sale moving to the pen and being named closer, it will be interesting to see if they keep Santiago around or send him down.

Matt Thornton is worrisome. He has already given up 2 home runs, he only gave up 3 each of the last two seasons. His strikeout rate is down for the third straight year, but in limited samples his pitch selection hasn’t been that much different. It’s too early to know what this means long term but he still doesn’t look like the guy he was. Jesse Crain wasn’t doing well before he got hurt, and Will Ohman has been his usually crappy self. The bullpen hinges a lot on Sale’s impact.

Wrap-Up

Overall, the White Sox played great for a couple of weeks, but otherwise have probably been what people thought. The offense needs a boost from whoever can claim the #2 spot, but more importantly Ramirez and Morel have to stop hitting like junior high baseball players. If Sale makes a smooth transition to the bullpen, he could solve the closer spot, and team with Thornton and Addison Reed to give the Sox a solid 7th-8th-9th inning combo. If Jake Peavy continues to be a Cy Young candidate and John Danks can start earning his money, the rotation could survive the loss of Sale.

I am about as optimistic as I was when the season started. I still think this team needs a lot to happen to be in contention all year. If Peavy, Floyd and Pierzynski continue to play this well, the could be traded at the deadline. Matt Thornton could also fit in somewhere if he can improve a bit. In the meantime, focus on Danks, Ramirez and Sale over the next few weeks. These guys could set the tone for where things are in June.