Five questions: Chicago White Sox

In recent years, the White Sox have generally defied predictions self-appointed experts have about them. Last year they won a division title, despite many assuming they were also-rans.

Though they make forecasters look foolish, I have a ready-made defense protecting me: I already am a fool, so it’s a little late for me to worry about what the future holds.

1. Should the White Sox be worried about Bobby Jenks‘s declining strikeout rate?

Typically, a declining strikeout rate is a sign of danger. It normally means the pitcher is losing his speed and is in decline. It also inarguably means he relies more on his defense. These are ominous facts for Jenks who, after fanning over a batter an inning in 2005 and 2006, dropped to 56 strikeouts in 65 innings in 2007 and 38 in 61.3 innings last year. On the face of it, Jenks looks like he’s in trouble.

Well, on the face of it, sure, but it helps to look beyond the numbers. While a declining strikeout rate normally means he’s losing a few miles on his fastball, that is not the case for Jenks. He can still bring the heat when needed and hit the high 90s late in 2008.

His strikeout rate isn’t caused by necessity, but by choice. He made a decision to rely more on his two-seamer and put balls into play. He’s not losing his stuff, but evolving from a thrower into a pitcher. At the same time his strikeout rate has dropped noticeably, his control also greatly improved. In fact, he walked more people in 2006 than in 2007 and 2008 combined. He also gives up fewer homers. Strikeout rate be damned, Jenks is one of the most effective and dependable closers in the league.

2. What will the young duo of Gavin Floyd and John Danks do for an encore?

Among the many reasons for the White Sox’s surprising run in 2008, few were as crucial as the pitching by young starters Gavin Floyd and John Danks. They entered the year with barely 300 MLB innings between them and a combined ERA of 5.95.

Instead of floundering, each moved forward, helping to anchor Chicago’s staff. They each started 33 times, with Danks posting the superior ERA (3.32 to 3.84) but Floyd possessing the better win-loss record (17-8 to 12-9).

Perhaps more impressively, both improved their strikeout, walk, and home run rates, indicating that last year might not have been a fluke. Both have some warning signs that should be examined, however.

Floyd has the most serious problems. First, he had a BABIP last year of .259, while the White Sox as a whole had one of .302, a substantial difference. According to Baseball Prospectus, he allowed 26 hits fewer than one would expect, based on his teammates’ BABIP and his own strikeout, walk, and home run rates.

Now, that doesn’t mean the entire 26-hit difference was entirely luck. At this point, approximately a decade after the rise of Voros, very few would argue that pitchers have no control over the ball in play. One clear reason shows Floyd had an impact which lowers his BABIP: he’s a flyball pitcher. His GB:FB ratio was 0.73, whereas a normal one is around 1.20. Anyone who has ever checked zone ratings can attest that fly balls are more likely to turn into outs than ground balls.

Still, while Floyd’s predilection for ground balls means he’s more likely to allow fewer hits than one might expect, an undershooting of 26 hits (and 43 points of BABIP) is extreme. While we can all sit around and have a nice debate about a pitcher’s impact on the ball in play, BABIP has been shown to vary more than home run, strikeout, and walk rates, and 26 fewer hits than expected is unusually extreme.

A second factor should be noted about Floyd: his ERA overestimates him because he allowed a huge number of unearned runs. Last year, 18 percent of his runs allowed were unearned. For the rest of the White Sox, barely 7 percent of runs were unearned.

With a difference that stark, it looks like Floyd threw an unusually large number of bad pitchers after errors were made.

Floyd isn’t to blame for the errors behind him, but when such a stark difference exists in a pitcher’s UER% and that of his team, most likely a flukishly high number of bad pitches came after errors. He’ll still have some bad pitches next year, but if they’re more evenly doled out, his ERA will feel a greater impact.

Between UER and BABIP, Floyd has two factors weighing down on his ERA. He is still young and at an age when improvement should be expected, but the factors weighing against him outweigh the factors on his behalf. He’ll still be effective next year, but closer to average.

Danks looks like the better bet. All the things that hurt Floyd make Danks look good? Want to talk UER? OK—Danks only allowed two last season. Thus his ERA, if anything, underestimates him. Wanna look at BABIP? Fine, Danks had a .295 one, a little lower than Chicago’s team average, but then again Danks is also a flyballer (0.78 GB:FB ratio in 2008). He should have a slightly lower BABIP, as he did.

However, the GB:FB ratio points at the one problem for Danks looking forward. Last year, of the 328 fly balls he allowed, only 15 left the park. That’s a bit lower than anyone would expect, especially anyone who pitched half his games at The Cell.

OK, so all arrows aren’t pointing up on Danks—almost all of them still are. He passes the Voros test, his UER underrate him, and last but not least, he is still very young. He’ll turn 24 next month, making him approximately two years younger than Floyd. Danks should certainly continue to improve. With Danks and Mark Buehrle, the Sox will have one of the best one-two punches in major league baseball.

That is especially important because all millennium long this team has utilized solid starting, and lots of it. Last year they had 153 starts come from a quintet of hurlers with an ERA+ of 98 or better. This year, the back of their rotation has some questions. They are bringing back Jose Contreras, who has recovered from a ruptured Achilles heel (OW!) much faster than anyone could have reasonably imagined. Since he pitched brilliantly for a stretch last year, there is hope he can regain the form that he displayed in 17 consecutive regular season victories in 2005-06. Then again, the Cuban is “37″ years old in 2009 and has been generally ineffective since the second half of 2006.

3. Does A. J. Pierzynski go bowling with Dorian Gray or something?

In the four years A. J. has spent with the White Sox, he’s been probably the most consistent player in baseball. For example, since 2005, he’s struck out 68, 72, 66, and 71 times in a season. He’s driven in 56, 64, 50, and 60 runs each year while scoring 61, 65, 54, and 66. He’s averaged 15.5 homers a year, with a high of 18 and a low of 13. Last year he splurged on doubles with 31, after pounding out 21, 24, and 24 in his first trio of South Side campaigns.

My favorite stat is his walks. He’s drawn 23, 22, 25, and 19 each year in Chicago—plus 19 in his San Francisco season and 24 in his Minnesota finale. He’s been hit by pitches exactly eight times a year for three straight seasons. Not surprisingly, his overall production is pretty consistent. OPS+ gives him marks of 90, 94, 83, 88.

This isn’t natural. Players usually vary some from year to year. Also, he turned 30 two years ago. He’s at the point where he should be declining, not treading water. More so, A. J. was a good-but-never-great hitter at his peak—that’s exactly the sort of player most likely to drop off dramatically in his early 30s. Finally, he plays catcher, the position most likely to speed up the aging process.

Not natural? Hell, it’s not human. It’s like he’s a cyborg sent from the future to draw 22 walks a season or something.

For all the reasons listed above, I think A. J.’s a really good bet to decline this year. A little bit of drop off from him will hurt his overall game considerably. Pete Palmer‘s batting runs already lists him as a net negative offensive force.

Of course, I thought he was in trouble last year, and look what happened. But I intend to keep predicting imminent doom for him—eventually I have to be right about him. I think.

4. What will Carlos Quentin do this year?

Last year Quentin came out of seemingly nowhere to come in fifth place in the AL MVP Award. He would have done better, but he fractured his wrist at the beginning of September. Not bad, given that he came to Chicago in exchange for a minor leaguer as part of a three-way trade. Two concerns about Quentin are thus: is he healed, and is he for real?

First, by all signs he’s apparently healthy. By and large the White Sox do an exceptionally good job looking after the health of their players.

Second, the man is talented. Essentially, Chicago general manager Kenny Williams did a great job buying low on Quentin last offseason. Quentin was well-regarded enough to be a first-round pick in the 2003 amateur draft. (OK, so it was the end of the first round, that’s still first round). He hit well in the minors, and as a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, he posted a 115 OPS+ in 57 games.

He hit a wall last year in Arizona, but that might say more about the D-backs than Quentin. Though fans sometimes think of player development as entirely a process that occurs in the minors, trying to establish oneself in the majors is arguably the most important and treacherous part of the journey. It’s worth noting that in recent years many young hitters have stagnated (Mark Reynolds) or tread water (Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Chris Snyder) instead of improving in their mid-to-late 20s.

Quentin has talent and should be a valuable bat in the White Sox lineup for years to come. However, the aging curve isn’t always a straight line and someone who rose up so dramatically as Quentin did last year might fall back a bit (at least in terms of rate stats).

For example, using the database mentioned in my last column the following ten players experienced the biggest rise in their OPS+ from age 24 to 25 since 1920: Adrian Beltre, Bobby Murcer, Bill Freehan, Bobby Higginson, Wally Post, Joe Rudi, Al Cowens, Ray Lankford, Roy Smalley, and Justin Morneau. (This isn’t a perfect comparison for Quentin as the database only includes players who qualified for the batting title, which Quentin didn’t at age 24. It works well enough, though.)

All 10 of those players declined in terms of Pete Palmer’s Batting Runs at age 26, and nine out of 10 had their OPS+ drop (Bill Freehan rose from 144 to 145). They almost all remained quality players, about half were All-Star caliber. All were good enough players to hold a starting job for a prolonged period of time. Among the retired men listed above, they all remained regulars well into their 30s. Personally, I think Quentin has more talent than most of them, and given that he lost a month to injury he has a shot to make up for in quantity what he might lose in quality in 2009. Still, players that do wildly better one year from the next are good bets to regress a bit the next year.

It is vital for the White Sox that Quentin buck that trend and continue to produce at a high level for them. Last year, when park factor is accounted for, the White Sox had a generally mediocre offense.

Aside from Quentin, their main bats are all on the wrong side of age 30: Paul Konerko (age 33), Jermaine Dye (35), and Jim Thome (38). Aging is rarely a straight line and they one shouldn’t assume they’ll all decline, but as a group they are a bad bet to improve. (And that’s before you wonder if Thome’s back will let him play 149 games this year). I already noted why I think A. J. is due for a downturn this year.

An old baseball truism has it that the hardest sort of team to improve is one without a considerable hole in it. Well, though not spectacular, the 2008 Sox had an unusually solid lineup.

Baseball-reference has a stat which demonstrates this: sOPS+. It compares the park-adjusted OPS a team posts in a particular split with overall league offensive production in that split. For example, a team with an sOPS+ of 100 at catcher had aggregate league average hitting from their collective backstops. In 2008, the Sox had an sOPS+ of 94 or higher from every position except first base (where Konerko returns). They were usually a little under 100, but they were consistently right around there. For a club with an offense-wide of OPS+ of 101, they have surprisingly little room for significant upgrade, which makes an potential age-related declines that much more damaging. Thus it’s important for them that Quentin produce as their other big boppers drop off.

Furthermore, the flip side of that old truism is that creating a hole on a previously solid team is a quick way to worsen the squad. The Sox lost three of their starting position players from last year: third baseman Joe Crede, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and centerfielder Nick Swisher.

The franchise can likely handle the loss of their infielders. Third baseman Josh Fields has already shown he can hit at a major league level. They team has a gaggle of talented prospects looking to move into second base (as Alexei Ramirez shifts from second to short to take Cabrera’s slot).

Center field might be the hole that hurts their lineup. Three men have been mentioned as possible starters in that hole this year: Jerry Owens (66 career OPS+ in 415 PA), Brian Anderson (67 OPS+ in 652 PA, and Dewayne Wise (62 OPS+ in 504 PA). Though the team’s defense should improve (helping flyballers like Floyd and Danks), the offense should suffer horribly.

5. Do you get the feeling that Kenny Williams knows something we don’t?

When I look at the White Sox, I see a third-place team. They went 89-74 last year on the strength of a very solid team, and this year I think their lineup has at least one hole in it, is likely to worsen overall, and I also think the back of their rotation will be a touch worse than 2008.

However, as noted at the outset, the White Sox have done a really good job making their critics look like idiots. Sure, Nate Silver’s PECOTA projection system made a deadly accurate prediction of their 72-90 record in 2007, but it also badly underestimated them in 2006. Conventional wisdom did a better job in 2006, but much worse in 2007. Neither the sabermetric community nor the public at large saw Chicago’s 2005 or 2008 triumphs coming.

I’d like to be able to sit back and explain why the Sox will be better, and how Kenny has brilliantly maneuvered the Sox into another surprise title in 2009, but . . . . I don’t see it.

Williams has always done a good job balancing the desire to win now with the ability to win down the road. Thus the Sox have two postseason appearances (and one ring) with only one losing record on his watch. This juggling act is especially impressive given that Williams doesn’t have a huge margin of error to work with in either direction.

This year, it looks like Williams has leaned more towards winning down the road than winning next year. The Sox usually acquire at least one proven veteran who can make an impact with the team right away. It can be a big name like Jim Thome or someone smaller like Nick Swisher.

This off-season the Sox lost the three previously mentioned starting position players and Vazquez. They are largely being replaced with kids. Even though they are good kids, talented young’uns often take a while to earn their sea legs in the majors. The biggest veteran Chicago signed is Bartolo Colon, who is essentially just a flyer having won just 11 games in the last three seasons.

Chicago’s best hope for a postseason appearance lies with the rest of the division. They need Cleveland and Detroit to remain hibernating, Kansas City to continue to stink, and Minnesota to falter. Frankly, all those things are possible, but I wouldn’t put my money on all of it occurring.

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