Five Questions: Chicago White Sox

1. What’s the most important thing to know about the White Sox?

The ballpark. According to the Bill James Handbook, Cell Phone Field has yielded 31% more home runs than other AL parks over the last three years. That’s more than other well-known batter’s parks such as Arlington Stadium in Texas (24%) or the new Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia (23%). In fact, only Coors has a higher home run rate over the last three years (35%). And the Cell particularly favors home runs by righthanded batters (37%).

Now, some folks tend to overlook this little fact, because the Cell also cuts down doubles and triples, so the overall run impact is about 4%. But teams that are built on the home run will do better in the Cell, because it lifts fly balls, cradles them, and dumps them into waves of blue seats. Over the last three years the White Sox, featuring an offense of righthanded flyball hitters such as Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko and even kind of Joe Crede, have scored 13% more runs at home than on the road. They were built for their ballpark. Or maybe the ballpark was built for them (the fences were moved in in 2000). I’m not sure.

2. What’s the net impact of their offseason moves?

The White Sox were one of the most active teams during the offseason, and Ben Jacobs rated their offseason fourteenth among all major league teams. However, many fans might have missed some of the Sox’s deals, so let’s go over the list:

Replaced Joe Borchard and friends with Jermaine Dye. Not a bad move for the Sox, considering Magglio Ordonez’s situation. Actually, Borchard and Timo Perez patrolled rightfield more than Mags last year, so the bar is a bit lower than you might think. Both Ordonez and Dye carry significant injury risk and neither one is the hitter he was two or three years ago. But Dye is a righthanded flyball hitter who fits the Cellular mold, and he’s reportedly a good fielder to boot. Plus, he’s a gazillion dollars cheaper than Ordonez.

There are warning signs in Dye’s performance — he had a terrible second half — but overall this was a reasonable signing by the Sox, and probably a net improvement over last season’s cast of characters in right.

Replaced shortstop Jose Valentin with Juan Uribe. Uribe had a sensational first couple of months in 2004, then tailed off dramatically. Yes, Jose Valentin hit thirty home runs last year, but he also posted a .287 OBP. It was time for a change. Uribe had a high flyball percentage last year, which partially explains the power output (16 home runs at the Cell, 7 on the road). But he’s only 25 and he’s a good fielder. I expect this transition to go well.

Signed A.J. Pierzynski to catch. Early last season, the White Sox shipped their fine young catcher, Miguel Olivo, to the Mariners as part of the deal for Freddy Garcia. Ben Davis caught most of the following games, and his .231/.276/.400 didn’t inspire anyone. With the Giants, Pierzynski batted .272/.319/.410 despite a slow start. Pierzynski is a free swinger who may not fit the Cellular mold, but he is a definite, albeit controversial, upgrade at catcher.

Replaced second baseman Willie Harris with Tadahito Iguchi. The Sox gave Harris every chance to succeed in a full-time role but he couldn’t pull it off, batting .262/.343/.323. It seems that Harris will make a great utilityman but that’s about it. So the Sox made one of the best offseason acquisitions anywhere by picking up Iguchi, a free agent from Japan. Aaron looked at what we might expect from Iguchi this year, and he projects a batting line of .300/.345/.425. Those are fine numbers for a second baseman, and a significant upgrade over Harris.

Traded Carlos Lee to the Brewers for Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. And then this. In 2003, at the age of 27, Podsednik broke out with a great season for the Brewers, posting a .379 OBP and 43 steals. In 2004, he upped his stolen base total to 70 (and was only caught stealing 13 times) but dropped his OBP to .313. Here are his minor league OBP’s for the few preceding years:

- 2000: .365 for Tulsa (Double-A)
- 2001: .328 for Tacoma (Triple-A)
- 2002: .347 for Tacoma (Triple-A)

Given that you should probably take twenty to thirty points off his Double-A stats, and ten to twenty points off his Triple-A stats, you can see that Podsednik’s 2003 was an outlier, career year, flash in the pan, and one year wonder all in one. Although he played centerfield last year, the White Sox are wisely moving him to left field to leave the excellent Aaron Rowand in center. Unfortunately, they will bat him in the leadoff slot. The average A.L. leadoff hitter last year had an OBP of .352. My guess is that Podsednik’s OBP will be in the low .330′s.

By trading Lee for Podsednik, the Sox traded a good-fielding leftfielder, a flyball hitter built for their ballpark, who’s also 28 years old and hit 25 home runs in the second half last year. These are signs that Lee could have a breakout year in 2005, making him a decent fantasy league gamble. The Sox made a different kind of gamble.

3. So why did the Sox make this trade?

The Sox announced that this was a budget move. Lee’s contract calls for him to earn $7.5 million next year after which he’ll be a free agent. Podsednik and Vizcaino will earn substantially less and stay with the team longer. However, this trade might also have been designed to address something fundamentally wrong with the Sox offense. Take a look at this graph, which was originally presented toward the end of last season:

image

This is a graph of how often each team reached scoring position (the “X” axis), how well they batted with runners in scoring position (the “Y” axis) and how many home runs they hit (the circle). As you can see, the Sox hit lots of home runs and had a phenomenal batting average with runners in scoring position. But they had the least at bats in the league with runners into scoring position.

The issue is that the Sox almost certainly will not bat .292 with runners in scoring position again. So they need to find other ways to score runs, and they particularly need to get more runners in scoring position.

When you have a lineup of Konerkos and Thomases, you hit home runs and you run station-to-station. And when you also have batters like Valentin and Crede (.299 OBP), you have a hard time getting on base in the first place. In fact, if you look at the number of times Sox batters actually reached base (OBP without the home runs), the Sox were virtually last in the league with a .305 figure. Tamp Bay was last at .303.

When you think about it, a number of the Sox’s moves should help get more runners in scoring position this year. Iguchi should help, as should Uribe. Pierzynski. And yes, even Podsednik, with a .330 OBP and lots of stolen bases, will get in scoring position more than last year’s average Sock.

Although Podsednik is not likely to be much better than Harris, and although Ozzie likes to talk about pitching and fielding ad nauseum, there was some good logic behind the Lee deal.

4. Yeah, didn’t they get a reliever in the deal, too?

Right, let’s get back to the offseason transactions:

Signed Dustin Hermanson to a two-year deal. The Sox’s bullpen ERA was 4.31 last year, right around the middle of the bullpen pack. But that’s a misleading stat, as THT’s bullpen stats show. The Sox were fourth-worst in bullpen Win Probability Added, and next-to-last in FIP. Damaso Marte, counted on to be the ace for the year, had a 0.11 WPA. And only Takatsu had a WPA significantly above zero (2.56). Hermanson should help. He adds depth to the pen, and his versatility will come in handy when the starters falter.

The big issue with the Sox bullpen was that they did not pitch well when the game was on the line. Here are a couple of esoteric stats: the P of each bullpen appearance, which measures the importance of a reliever’s appearance, and the pitcher’s FIP during his stint. I’ll show FIP for all major league teams, and then for the Sox.

P            All     Sox
0-0.1       4.22    4.43
0.1-0.2     3.98    5.05
0.2-0.3     3.75    4.70
0.3-0.4     3.57    7.70

Most teams bring in their best pitchers when the game is on the line, which is why their FIP decreases as their P increases (does that sound funny, or is it just me?). The Sox, on the other hand, had a 7.70 FIP when the game was in its more critical junctures. That’s just not good, and needs to improve in 2005.

It almost certainly will. Marte, the primary culprit in the Sox’s poor bullpen record last year, should pitch better. And if he doesn’t the Sox have more options than they had last year. Luis Vizcaino, the other player acquired in the Lee deal, had a WPA of 3.02 in 2004, better than any Sox pitcher. And Hermanson will provide critical depth, too.

It will be interesting to see how Ozzie manages the bullpen. Last year, he stuck with his starters longer than the average manager, and he tended to bring in Marte in the most critical situations. Kenny Williams has given him a deeper, more versatile bullpen this year, and Ozzie will have a lot more options at his disposal.

One thing to note, however, is that Vizcaino is an extreme flyball pitcher. Let’s hope Ozzie avoids using him in situations at the Cell in which a single home run could hurt dramatically.

5. Will the starting pitching be better?

One more offseason transaction:

Signed Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez to a two-year contract. The White Sox’s starting pitchers had the third-worst ERA among all A.L. teams last year, with a 5.17 ERA. This was partly due to the ballpark, but only partly. Although Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia did well at the top of the rotation, the Sox lacked depth. This year, they’ve opted to hope a couple of enigmas (Contreras and Garland) find themselves at the back of the rotation, and they rightly decided to try and find a stabilizer for the third rotation spot.

Hernandez had a fine half-year last year and could provide some stability. In fact, Hernandez’s performance is probably one of the keys to the White Sox’s chances this year. But he’s an injury risk, he’s 39 and he only started three times last year against teams with a winning percentage above .500. Given the outrageous contracts signed by some pitchers in the market last season, Williams was wise to refrain from doing more. But the starting rotation is still a significant question mark for the Pale Hose. Remember, Brandon McCarthy has only pitched 26 innings in AA.

Last year was a disappointing one for the Sox, but they made a number of excellent moves to improve the team:

  • They upgraded the offense by acquiring players who can get on base and into scoring position. If they hadn’t done that, they would have seen a huge fall in their offensive production this year because their BA with runners in scoring position will plummet.
  • They probably upgraded the fielding somewhat, now featuring an outfield of Podsednik, Rowand and Dye, plus Uribe replacing Valentin at short. Iguchi and Pierzynski are question marks, however.
  • They definitely upgraded the bullpen.
  • They tried to address their starting pitching, though it remains the biggest question mark going into the season.

Admirably, Kenny Williams made all these improvements without giving up too much, except for Lee. I expect the Sox to stay in the race most of the year, barring injuries, and they have a chance to win it all if their rotation matches its potential.

Still, I can’t help thinking that the Sox fell one transaction short this offseason. They forgot to move the fences back.

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