Checking In On The White Sox: July Edition

When I checked in on the White Sox a month ago, they were 1.5 games up in the AL Central, with a +40 run differential and a losing record at home. A month later they have increased their division lead to 3 games, now have a winning record at home and have a run differential of +63. All those things are supposed to make us believe in them more, but when you look at the roster, it’s not as convincing.

Offense

Paul Konerko was one of the two or three best hitters in the AL this time last month, but after a rough June and July he has slipped a bit. After 11 home runs in the first two months, he hit only 3 in June and none so far in July. It’s possible that he’s hurt in some way, but he has to get back on track. He is supposed to be the rock in this lineup and his consistency is imperative. Alex Rios on the other hand, had a monster June and an even stronger start to July. Rios is quietly having his best season ever, especially from a sabermetric perspective. He has filled in for Konerko’s deficiencies quite nicely so far, and has hopefully silenced his critics for now.

Adam Dunn’s hot start tailed off significantly after May. His only extra base hits in June were his 8 home runs, and he has been atrocious in what FanGraphs defines as “high leverage” situations. If it wasn’t for his walks his numbers would be really bad. My dad has been calling for him to be dropped from the lineup for a while, but I don’t think there is an alternative. Dunn’s strikeout rate is an obscene 36.8%, and he was flirting with 40% at one point. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) has been a little lower than his career average and his line drive rate has been higher. But his contact rate is down and he is swinging and missing a lot more. It’s pretty easy to assume at this point that he is losing his mojo. If AJ and Rios keep hitting like they are, it probably at least makes sense to move him down to 6th.

Speaking of AJ Pierzynski, he was left off the All-Star team, then started July on fire just to stick it to everyone. Prior to July his monthly splits had been declining, but he has started strong so far this month. His 16 home runs are already just 2 shy of his career high, and he really is having a career year overall. He and Rios have exceeded expectations by far to this point.

The White Sox added Kevin Youkilis a few weeks ago in a trade with the Red Sox. Youkilis’ numbers had dropped in 2011 and he was struggling even more in 2012, although a lot of people attributed this to the current state of the Red Sox. He had 165 plate appearances with the Red Sox and has 55 with the White Sox so far. He has already hit one less home run and has exactly the same number of RBI. His numbers look a lot more like 2007-2010 Youk than before. Although his BABIP has been incredibly high as has his HR/FB ratio, his strikeout rate has plummeted, meaning either someone fixed something with this swing or he is just highly motivated. I don’t think he can keep up the pace he is on, but he was definitely an upgrade over Orlando Hudson and has added another reliable bat to the top of the order.

Gordon Beckham had a pretty solid May and June, by his standards, after a really rough April. He is still in the bottom rung of AL 2B hitting-wise, but he has rebounded a bit. Beckham had been moved up to the 2nd spot in the order, where he was excelling. He was moved down when the Sox got Youkilis. There was a lot of hope that Beckham would rebound with a strong season, and while he has had his moments he doesn’t seem appreciably better than last season.

Alexei Ramirez is another guy near the bottom of hitting by his position in the AL. Ramirez’s numbers ticked up a bit in June, but they were still not great. He has had a great start to July though. He still hasn’t figured out how to take walks again. He is also having a weird season where he has 44 RBI and only 2 HR. Most of that can be contributed to the fact that he has been an absolute beast with runners on base. If he could hit that well all the time he would be one of the best hitters in the league. I really don’t understand why he is so much better with guys on base though.

Alejandro De Aza has been pretty consistent this season and seems to have proven that his fast start wasn’t too fluky. He has had a bit of a rough start to July but has been a key part of the Sox success. Not much has changed for him over the last month. Dayan Viciedo had a monster May but has been pretty abysmal otherwise. His 14 home runs prove he has power, but he has to solve his strikeout problem. He is probably the only guy on offense the Sox would even consider replacing (temporarily) at the trading deadline. I still think he will be the 1B/DH of the future when he figures out his hitting problems.

Defense

According to FanGraphs, the White Sox have been very middle of the road defensively. Konerko’s defense hasn’t been great but he has always been a little overrated defensively. Dunn has always been bad, but his limited time limits the value he takes away. Either way, 1B is not a strong spot. Gordon Beckham was really solid at 2B last season, but his UZR has been negative so far this season and his defense is hurting him so far this season. Alexei Ramirez is a guy that never got enough credit as a fielder, but this season has been bad. He took a big step back fielding wise from last season and has really hurt his value with the glove this season. Alex Rios’ move to RF has revitalized his fielding prowess and he has been really solid. De Aza has also added some value. Overall Rios and De Aza are the only guys to really get excited about defensively.

Rotation

The White Sox 1-2 punch is arguable the best in the AL right now. Chris Sale ranks 2nd in fWAR and 1st in FIP (Fielding Independant Pitching). He is also 10-2, but there are stats to get a bit worried about. His HR/FB ration is really low, especially for someone who pitches in a hitter’s park, and it might not be sustainable. The Sox have to limit his innings regardless, but they definitely need to if they plan to count on him in the playoffs. Whether or not they can get to the playoffs skipping some of his starts is another conversation.

Peavy is 7th in FIP but 4th in fWAR. His BB/9 have been really good and he has posted a minuscule home run rate as well, but not dead on with his career numbers. His BABIP has been a little better than his career level but his numbers aren’t crazy. My preseason theory was that Peavy was a key to the White Sox success and so far he has been important. If his new style of pitching has served him well and he is going to be the experience veteran the Sox need in the playoffs.

23-year old Jose Quintana has come basically out of nowhere to be the third best starter on the team. He is 4-1 in 8 starts with a 2.29 ERA and an even more impresive 3.03 FIP. He has literally added more fWAR than Gavin Floyd and John Danks combined. None of his peripheral numbers seem crazy so far, but it might just be a matter of time before teams figure him out, since he doesn’t tend to strike a lot of guys out. Gavin Floyd quietly put together a decent April, but it’s been all down hill since. His xFIP in June was good, which means that he was probably a bit unlucky. Floyd will be important down the road, especially with Sale getting limited innings and Quintana’s long term success unknown.

John Danks was handed a big contract this spring and tagged as the ace of this staff. He struggled in his first 9 starts and hasn’t pitched since May 19th. He will return at some point and will be needed down the stretch as well, but his start to the season does not instill confidence. Philip Humber threw a perfect game but has struggled outside of that. He has been both walking players and giving up home runs at an incredible rate. He is on the DL here, so maybe that was the problem, but it’s also possible we have gotten all we are going to from Humber. Dylan Axelrod has filled in, but hasn’t been very good. It’s too early to give up on him, but he is undoubtedly the odd man out when Danks is ready.

Bullpen

Hector Santiago beat out Addison Reed for the closer’s role out of Spring Training, but after Santiago struggled Reed ultimately got the job. His ERA has been deceptively high, because he has actually been solid. FanGraph’s has him ranked 7th in fWAR among AL relievers, and his K/9 is right on pace with the guys above him. Despite his 4.06 ERA, his FIP is 2.71, which is good. Reed’s got a very low ground ball rate (28%) which is a bad sign generally because fly balls lead to home runs eventually. His high BABIP and low LOB% are what have led to his high ERA. He does have a bit of a problem with walks that is hopefully fixable, but he has thrown 31 solid innings so far. I always have fears about trusting a guy this young as your closer in the playoffs, but Bobby Jenks was pretty good in that role.

Matt Thornton has probably been the Sox 2nd best reliever, and one of the 20 or so best in the AL. Thornton’s strikeout numbers continue to tail off, mostly because it seems like his fastball just isn’t as good. He inducing more groundballs which is likely closing the gap and thus leading him to a similar season to what we have seen in the past. Nate Jones has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 White Sox. Like Reed he has a problem with walks, and his FIP is higher than his ERA, indicating that maybe he isn’t pitching as well as it seems. He also had a rough June after a really solid April and May. The key here is whether or not he can find that form again and maintain it. But there is no history to look at here, so it is what it is.

My dad hasn’t been a fan of Jesse Crain, but I have a hard time understanding why. I thought Crain’s weakness was home runs, but he has only allowed 2 in 24 games this season. He has the highest strikeout rate of any Sox reliever and has 2nd best batting average against. He is an absolute necessity for a playoff run, since he is probably the most known right handed quantity in the bullpen. Those four guys make up the “good” half of the bullpen. The other guys make up the “bad”.

Dylan Axelrod has been filling in as a starter, but is a good bet to move back to the bullpen when Danks come back. He really does have a problem with home runs, he has given up 7 in just 28 IP. He would likely be the long man in the pen for when the starter gets shelled early and they need someone to go 2-3 innings. Left hander Hector Santiago was anointed the closer when the season started but couldn’t hold the position after a really rough start that included 4 HRs in his first 6.1 IP. After a spectacular May, Santiago was lousy again in June, but has started strong in July retiring the 10 of the 13 batters he has faced, but strangely all were part of a 3 inning outing on July 8th, his only appearance since June 28th. His bad June coupled with more than a week off indicates that perhaps he was having arm problems. With Will Ohman being released it will be interesting to see whether Santiago because the goto guy against lefties or not.

With Crain hurt, Axelrod starting and Ohman released, the Sox called up Leyson Septimo and Brian Omogrosso. Septimo made his major league debut and has been OK. He 2.70 ERA is deceptive, not just because he has only pitched 3.1 innings but because he has 2 walks, 2 wild pitches and a ridiculous BABIP during that time. He might the LOOGY (lefty one out guy) that Ohman was, and at this point probably has the best chance to stick around when Crain comes back. Omogrosso also made his debut and has had 4 rough innings so far. He has given up a home run, walked 3 and only struck out two. I assume he will only be used in dire situations and figures to be gone when either Danks, Humber or Crain return.

Wrap-Up

With just 20 days until the trading deadline the White Sox would have to come out of the gate very slow to become sellers beforehand. If that were to happen I would expect them to clean house and try to trade AJ, Peavy, Thornton, Youkilis and maybe Floyd (not that he is worth much.) More likely I expect them to be in the hunt and make a move for a relief pitcher. They could try to get Jonahthan Broxton from their divisionmates Kansas City. Broxton has just a one year deal and unless the Royals expect a turnaround they might as well get something for him. The Rockies will likely move their closer Rafael Betancourt as well. I don’t know if the Sox would aim that high, although Broxton is cheap. If the White Sox hitters all hit their peaks at the same time this team would have a much better record. It’s still unclear whether the guys playing well can keep it up, but if they do this team still has a chance to make a run.

The next month is going to tell us a lot about how good the White Sox are. By early August we should definitely be able to find out what we have and what we don’t. If Sale, Peavy and Quintana are still motoring along things should be looking very good. If Danks and Crain comes back strong the Sox could have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They need to get more from Dunn and Konerko, especially since it’s unclear whether AJ and Rios can keep up their torrid paces. The longer the Sox stay in first and keep that solid run differential, the better I feel. They clearly look more like a playoff than they did before the season started, but there are still a lot of games to be played.