The New Sox

During the offseason, the White Sox shed sluggers Carlos Lee and Magglio Ordonez and brought in speedsters Scott Podsednik and Tadahito Iguchi with the misguided notion that the team needed to focus on playing “small ball” in 2005. The basic idea being that the White Sox had finished in second place for three straight seasons while ranking among the league leaders in home runs, so that must have been the root of the problem. It wasn’t, of course, because the fact is that Chicago’s offense was never really a problem at all. The White Sox, with their AL-leading 242 homers, ranked third in the league in runs scored last season with 865, producing 11% more offense (85 more runs) than the first place Twins.

The reason Chicago won just 83 games despite such a prolific offense was simply that their pitching staff was nearly as bad as their lineup was good. The White Sox allowed 831 runs, which ranked 11th in the 14-team league, nearly 14% (116 runs) behind the Twins. It shouldn’t have been surprising that a team ranking third in runs scored and 11th in runs allowed — scoring 865 runs while allowing 831 — would finish just a couple games over .500. Yet the White Sox saw what happened last season and decided that the third-ranked offense was what needed overhauling.

In the minds of many (myself included), Chicago’s offseason was like remaking Gigli with a different director of photography because the producers decided the first version of the “film” didn’t look good enough. A simple viewing of the movie (which, as the eight people who managed to sit through the entire thing would probably attest to once they come out of therapy, wasn’t all that simple) would tell you that the cinematography wasn’t even close to the biggest problem. Similarly, you would think that a simple glance at the 2004 White Sox would tell you that the offense wasn’t why they finished in second place.

Instead, the mainstream media in Chicago and around the entire country took the White Sox’s word that the cure for their problems was a revamped, “small ball” offense (or “smart ball,” as the clever scribes in the Windy City have begun calling it). And so naturally, when the White Sox came out of the gates extremely strong this season, finishing April in first place at 17-7, the company line about “small ball” being behind the great start was bought … well, hook, line, and sinker.

There is only one slight problem with that oft-spouted theory, which is that “small ball” has had almost nothing to do with Chicago being in first place. For some proof, let’s first take a look at how Chicago’s lineup performed this April, compared to how they did last April. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve broken the team’s hitting into two categories — one that shows how their overall offense faired, and one that shows what they did in areas that could reasonably be associated with playing “small ball”:

CHICAGO'S APRIL OFFENSE (OVERALL)
 
YEAR      G     RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoD     IsoP     BB      SO
2004     21     5.43     .281     .349     .479     .068     .198     71     115
2005     24     4.42     .255     .316     .375     .061     .120     67     130
 
CHICAGO'S APRIL OFFENSE (SMALL BALL)
 
YEAR      G     SB     CS      SB%     SH     SF     GDP     XBH%     AB/HR
2004     21     14      4     77.8      8      6      14     37.1      22.1
2005     24     24      8     75.0      9     13      18     26.1      38.6

It is clear the Chicago’s April offense was different this year than last year, but that doesn’t make it better or more effective. In fact, the White Sox scored 19% fewer runs per game this April than they did last April. Their batting average was 9% lower, their on-base percentage was 10% lower, and their slugging percentage was 21% lower. Chicago walked 18% less per game, hit for 39% less power, and did a worse job controlling the strike zone. The White Sox ran more and had more sacrifice flies, but they didn’t drop down any more sacrifice bunts or do a better job avoiding double plays than they did last April. That’s not called “small ball,” it’s called having a bad offense that includes Podsednik (who ranked second in baseball with 10 April steals).

As if that weren’t enough, despite all the “small ball” and “smart ball” and “little ball” and “Ozzie ball” and “go-go White Sox” being thrown around, the team still scored a disproportionately high number of their runs on homers, ranking sixth in the league in long balls despite being 11th in overall scoring. Really, the only thing the White Sox’s offense has managed to do in a positive way thus far is get tons of undeserved credit for the team’s great record. In what sort of bizarro world could an offense decline by 19% from one April to another and have people writing about how it is the reason behind a team’s fast start? In other words, this is one of the most amazing examples of the emperor’s new clothes that I have ever seen.

So if it’s not the revamped offense, what exactly is behind Chicago’s 17-7 April record? That’s easy, better pitching:

CHICAGO'S APRIL PITCHING
 
YEAR      G     RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG     SO/9     BB/9     HR/9     SO/BB
2004     21     4.76     .255     .333     .419     5.50     3.68     1.34      1.49
2005     24     3.38     .229     .304     .348     6.35     3.30     0.66      1.93

While Chicago’s offense was down 19% from last April, their pitching staff allowed an astounding 29% fewer runs per game. That is a recipe for major success if there ever was one. And before you start thinking that “small ball” is behind the pitching improvements by way of a better defense, take a look at some of the numbers. The White Sox struck out nearly an extra batter per nine innings compared to last April, an increase of over 15%. They also cut down on their walks by 11%, and allowed 51% fewer home runs (yes, fifty-one percent). When a pitching staff puts those kind of massive improvements together, it doesn’t much matter what sort of defense is playing behind them.

Just to cover all the bases though, Chicago’s defense converted 72% of the balls put in play against the pitching staff into outs last April, which is an excellent rate. This April, the White Sox have once again turned 72% of the balls put in play against the pitching staff into outs. So the defense’s out-making ability was identical. Actually, you could make the case that Chicago’s defense was worse this April. White Sox pitchers gave up line drives 18% of the time last April, compared to 16% of the time this April (another area where the pitching staff improved), so that means the balls put in play this season weren’t hit as well. In other words, the identical 72% out-conversion rate was reached on “easier” plays.

Of course, the funny thing about all the hype Chicago’s hot start has received is that they have gotten off to good starts in each of the previous three seasons too. They went 13-8 for a .619 winning percentage last April, and were a combined 43-30 in April for a .589 winning percentage from 2002-2004. The big question this time around is whether or not they can keep playing winning baseball for the remaining six months of the season. They couldn’t last year, going 70-71 after April to finish 83-79, nine games behind Minnesota. Another .500 finish will put them at just 86 wins, which is the same total they had in 2003 when they finished four games behind Minnesota.

So can the White Sox do this season what they haven’t been able to do after April in years past? Well, their defense is solid once again and their struggling offense almost can’t help but improve significantly from here on out, particularly if they can get a couple hundred at-bats from a relatively healthy Frank Thomas at some point. On the other hand, their pitching staff, and particularly the starting rotation, looks due for a major dropoff.

Take a look at their starters’ current ERAs, along with their respective ERAs from 2002-2004:

STARTER             2005     02-04
Jon Garland         1.38      4.67
Orlando Hernandez   2.70      3.51
Freddy Garcia       2.83      4.24
Jose Contreras      3.04      4.85
Mark Buehrle        3.89      3.87

Not only are Jon Garland, Orlando Hernandez, Freddy Garcia, and Jose Contreras sporting ERAs that are better than what they’ve had over the past three years, their ERAs are lower than they’ve had in any one season over that span. For instance, Garland’s combined ERA from 2002-2004 was 4.67, which is nearly three and a half times higher than his current 1.38 ERA, and the lowest single-season ERA he’s had since 2002 is 4.51 in 2003. Buehrle is the only one in the bunch who isn’t performing significantly better than he has in the past. The only other starter who is even close to his 2002-2004 numbers is Hernandez, but he also has some durability concerns to contend with.

In short, if the White Sox’s “small ball” offense continues to struggle to score runs and the starting pitching comes back down to earth like their established levels of performance suggest they will, Chicago could be in some trouble. They traded away an awful lot of offense this offseason and at some point that’s going to become an issue when the pitchers aren’t giving up three runs per game. Assuming Chicago’s entire starting rotation didn’t make the same deal with the devil that Esteban Loaiza negotiated when he was with the White Sox in 2003, that is.

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