Checking In On The White Sox After Two Months

Two months into the 2012 baseball season, the Chicago White Sox are in first place, and truth be told, it’s not that fluky. They have a run differential of +35, the only positive number in the AL Central and the 4th best value in the AL (behind the Rangers, Yankees and Rays). They are a half game ahead of the Indians and 5 games ahead of the Tigers. The craziest part of all is that they have a losing record at home and the best road record in baseball. What that means is directly related to whether you are a pessimist or optimist. If you think the real team is the one on the road, then their home record will improve. If you think the real team is the home one, it’s probably all down hill from here.

Offense

Some things have changed since I last discussed the White Sox. Brent Morel hurt his back and has been replaced by Orlando Hudson, and a couple of other players have emerged from their early season slumps. C AJ Pierzynski cooled a little bit since his fast start, but even still, he has probably been the best catcher in the AL so far. He already has 10 home runs, more than he had each of the last two seasons, and has a shot at besting his career high of 18 from 2005. He is walking at the best rate of his career, and while overall it’s easy to argue that he can’t maintain this, he is still having a great season. 1B Paul Konerko has not only been the best 1B in the AL, but he is 1-B to Josh Hamilton’s 1-A for best overall hitter in the AL this season. Konerko seems to just get better with age, and despite being dinged up a bit here and there, is having a monster season at the plate. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is high, he isn’t playing that high above his career numbers. 2B Gordon Beckham went from horrible in May, to right around average in June, which means he is no longer the worst 2B in baseball. Beckham is both walking and striking out less than he has historically, and because he is being less selective he isn’t making as good of contact. Beckham’s 8 home runs put him on pace for a career high, but the fact that he only has 9 doubles probably means the home runs are more guessing the right pitch than anything.

Like Beckham, Alexei Ramirez had a horrible April. Like Beckham, he improved in May, but not in nearly the same way. Ramirez has completely forgotten how to take a walk. He was never all that great at it, but his rate has fallen from 7.5% last season to 2.9% this season. His strikeout rate is up, but not horribly. One problem is that he is hitting more ground balls than fly balls. But when it’s all said and done, like Beckham, a big problem is likely that he isn’t selective enough, or he is swinging at the wrong pitches. One last thing, if my dad is reading this, he thinks Ramirez takes the 1st pitch too much. His batting average on the first pitch is .235. With an 0-1 count it’s .304. So it’s actually better for him to make contact 0-1 vs. 0-0.

3B Brent Morel hasn’t played since May 17th, but from an offensive standpoint that isn’t a bad thing. Morel had been pretty terrible so far this season and was striking out nearly one third of the time. He had yet to hit a home run and managed just 2 doubles in 35 games. He was actually fairly successful when he got his bat on the ball, but that wasn’t often enough. The White Sox picked up cast off Orlando Hudson and stuck him at 3B for the first time in his career. Hudson hasn’t made anyone forget Morel. In 17 games his OBP is a meager .264 and he is striking out a fair amount. LF Dayan Viciedo had amazing May, but has had a rough June to basically ruin where his stats were at. He still has 12 home runs but he strikes out too much without walking enough. Viciedo also has Beckham’s complex, since he only has 4 doubles. He needs to improve his plate discipline at some point.

CF Alejandro De Aza got off to a slow start, but had a marvelous May, with an even faster start to June. De Aza has basically no power whatsoever, but he is capable of taking walks and doesn’t strike out all that much. He is a alright at stealing bases, but is a great baserunner in general, 2nd in the ML if you believe FanGraphs. De Aza has been solid in CF and is one of the best parts of this lineup. RF Alex Rios is having a solid season despite a rough May. Rios’ career has actually been pretty consistent, but his slightly elevated line drive rate this year likely explains the improved season he is having. He is what he is at this point. DH Adam Dunn sure looks like his old self. He already has 20 home runs and is on pace for his characteristic 40. His walk rate is the highest it’s been since 2008, and even though he is striking out more now than he used to, his OBP overall is higher than it’s been recently. This is the Adam Dunn fans thought they were getting last year, and he and Konerko have proved to be one of, if not the best, 1-2 punch in the American League so far.

Defense

The White Sox defense was supposed to be a strong point, but overall it really hasn’t been. As a team, the White Sox have been very middle of the road as far as UZR goes. Beckham has been the worst fielding 2B by a lot. Alexei Ramirez is in the middle of the pack, and it seems like something has caused him to lose it a bit. Rios has been OK in RF, much better than he was in CF last season, that’s for sure. Speaking of CF, De Aza has been good, but not spectacular. Viciedo has been below average, but not as bad as people probably thought he would be. Across the board, the Sox defense has been just about average, which explains why they rank there as a team.

Pitching

The White Sox rotation has been split between, amazing and horrible. Chris Sale has kept is name in the Cy Young discussion early, and will at least be considered for starting the All-Star game (his 8-2 record compared to Justin Verlanders 5-4 are the reason he is ahead, even though pitching wins mean squat). Jake Peavy hasn’t been quite as good, but only relative to those two guys. Because of him, the White Sox have the best 1-2 punch in the AL. Unforunately it’s pretty downhill from there.

Outside of the perfect game, Phillip Humber has been one of the worst starters in the AL who continues to regularly start. He has a real issue walking guys and doesn’t induce a lot of ground balls. Gavin Floyd has been almost as bad. He gives up more home runs but less walks and seems to have gotten worse as the season has wore on. The cutter he started throwing last season has lost effectiveness and as Floyd approaches 30 it might be over for him as a short-lived no. 2/3 starter. John Danks really wasn’t pitching that bad before he got hurt, and hopefully he will be back soon. Despite the Sox struggles, they have the second highest fWAR amongst starters, and the 4th highest FIP (Fielding Independant Pitching). The White Sox starters as a whole are doing exactly what people thought they could, being a top 5 rotation with some big guns and some rough patches.

The bullpen on the other hand has not lived up to the hype. They have been one if the worst in the AL in FIP and give up home runs at the worst rate. That is likely the reason their FIP is so high. Individually there haven’t been a ton of bright spots. After giving Hector Santiago a chance, Addison Reed eventually settled in as the team’s closer and has kind of been a mixed bag. He doesn’t look like a top flight shutdown closer so far, and he will have to get better if they need to count on him in the playoffs. Nate Jones has turned into a solid contributor pretty much out of nowhere and very likely will be in the hunt for the 8th inning role when Matt Thornton leaves.

Speaking of Thornton, his numbers continue to dip. He remains a solid reliever but isn’t the shutdown player he was two years ago. I really won’t be surprised if the Sox let him walk at the end of the season. Jesse Crain has taken some heat but overall has been pretty good, although he tends to give up home runs at a good clip. That’s really where any sort of reliability ends in the Sox bullpen. Lefty specialist Will Ohman has been awful, which isn’t shocking because he was never very good. Hector Santiago was handed the keys to the closers role the first week of the season and hasn’t stopped giving up home runs since. He and his teammate Zach Stewart are tied for second amongst relievers in that category.

Outlook

The White Sox have been pretty good so far. They are in first place, which almost no one expected. Their offense isn’t really overachieving since Konerko and Dunn are doing what people thought they might. De Aza is playing well considering that he just got to the Majors last year. With the exception of AJ, everyone else is just doing what they should be. They need some consistency in the #2 spot in the order, and maybe Beckham fills that role. Orlando Hudson will have to improve at 3B, but regardless I don’t see the Sox picking up an offensive player.

Sale and Peavy give them a solid one-two punch but they will need another starter to step up in order to make a playoff run. Danks and/or Floyd are certainly capable, but both have failed so far. While it looks like Reed and Jones are solid in the pen, and Thornton and Crain have some stability, but this bullpen probably isn’t good enough right now to carry a team through the playoffs. Either someone else has to step up, or they will have to make a move.

Speaking of which, the clock is ticking on when to blow this thing up. Most pundits had the Sox in 3rd or 4th place and the theory was that they would blow up the team before the deadline. The logical candidates were Floyd, Thornton, maybe Peavy and AJ. If the team is still in first place, it seems impossible they would blow things up, especially with the team’s history.

If this team keeps up what they are doing, they are a legitimate AL Central champ. If they worsen at all, they probably don’t have the horses. If they can tweak things just a bit, they could make a deep playoff run. In the meantime, let’s see where they are a month from now.