August 10, 2001
Touring the Minors
Organizational Overview: Chicago White Sox
In 1999, the White Sox had a winning percentage of .466, then vaulted to a .580 winning percentage last season. Any team that improves so substantially in one season is almost certain to fall back the next (see an earlier column on the Detroit Tigers for a discussion of this principle). When Ron Schueler said last year that the White Sox had arrived a year early, he was accused of poormouthing. But just as he was when he made the White Flag Trade, Schueler was right. Chicago's miracle season was made in the first half of 2000. Before the All-Star break, the ChiSox had a winning percentage of .632, but managed only .533 afterward. The team's Pythagorean winning percentage in the second half was .528. The high overall win total was attributable to two hot months, April (17-8) and June (20-7). Otherwise, the White Sox were 58-52 (.527), a more typical progression from the previous season. The second half of 2000 might be the better standard to use when considering this season's performance.
Looked at that way, this season is something shy of a disaster. As of July 29, the White Sox were winning at a .495 pace, just one game under .500. Their Pythagorean figure of .480 was a bit lower. It's an improvement over 1999, but a drop-off from 2000, even if we confine our analysis to last year 's second half. Something has gone wrong, but what?
Jerry Manuel, the AL Manager of the Year in 2000, deserves demerits for sticking with Julio Ramirez and Royce Clayton too long, weakening the lineup with too many hitters who hit like American League pitchers. He also can be justly criticized for his role in the silly attempt to move Jose Valentin off of shortstop and into center field, a tactical mistake which is a more substantial contributing factor in the team 's drop-off in production than Frank Thomas's injury has been. By signing Clayton the White Sox had intended to improve on Valentin's defense. Moving him to center field was a downgrade from Chris Singleton's glovework, effectively negating the intended improvement up the middle, so it was a questionable move from its inception.
It gets worse. Valentin didn't need to be replaced afield. Yes, he committed errors, but he had terrific range, and by our measurements his overall defense was approximate in value to Clayton's. Factor in Valentin's offensive contribution, and there is no justification for taking at-bats away from him just to get Clayton into the lineup. Valentin's EqA from last season was fifth highest among American League shortstops. Clayton? He placed 25th. Not that the entirety of the team's troubles can be explained by the Clayton debacle, but it's indicative of how the team's management has lost its way.
To hear the organization tell it, the reason for their fall is a disproportionate number of injuries to key players. Frank Thomas has been a non-factor, while Valentin and Herbert Perry, two major contributors to last year's run, have been hampered by injuries. More important, so the theory goes, have been the troubles on the pitching staff. It's true that nine members of last year's staff have had surgery since the end of last season. And David Wells, brought in to be the ace, was bothered by injuries since the beginning of spring training, eventually succumbing to the knife and being lost for the season. When asked by the Chicago Tribune to account for the rash of pitcher injuries, GM Kenny Williams said, "For whatever reason, this is just our time." Mike Sirotka, disagreeably departed to Toronto's disabled list, concurred with Williams, noting that, "the fact a lot of guys are having are trouble is purely coincidental."
I don't want to discount dumb luck as a factor, but really...nine pitchers? Circumstantial evidence suggests that there might be a direct cause or two at play. Herm Schneider offered a little more insight. "Last year really took a toll on us," he said. "Guys really had to dig down deep into themselves. Guys had to bear down and throw a lot of intense pitches." Intense pitches? I suppose this means fastballs at maximum velocity or breaking balls with maximum torque. So it wasn't just bad luck that caused the injuries; the pitchers threw in pain, aggravating existing problems. Schneider was philosophical about it. "There's a price that goes with winning," he said. "I really believe that what you are seeing is part of the price."
The price might not be as steep as it appears. The principals in last year's rotation were James Baldwin, Cal Eldred, Jim Parque, Kip Wells, and Mike Sirotka. Four of the five are not with the club this season, and none of those four are anything special. By mid-winter, it was clear that Sirotka's arm was shredded. Along with the rest of the team, Baldwin managed a good first half but broke down, barely making it to the Division Series against Seattle. Upon his recent trade to Los Angeles, it was broadly reported that he has posted one of the worst starter's ERAs in the modern era. Eldred is a perennial casualty. Parque is out for the season, but he has yet to be anything special, a replaceable soft-throwing left-hander with control problems. The staff had the third-best ERA is the American League last year, but it was a fluke. Wells is the only member of that rotation with any star potential, and he's still here, accompanied now by Mark Buehrle, Sean Lowe, Jon Garland, and Danny Wright. Given the choice, I'd take this year's staff over the one that carried the White Sox to 95 wins in 2000.
The spate of injuries has a silver lining. It has forced the Sox to test some of its heralded pitching talent. In the course of plugging holes in the major-league staff, the Sox have demonstrated the value of maintaining a rich store of pitching talent in the minors. Rather than toss their minor leaguers into quick-fix deals for replacement-level players, the Sox have held on to their prospects, ensuring that a reserve of cheap, accessible arms would be available. And rather than fill-out the rotation with replacement-level pitchers, the Sox have phased in some of their Triple-A talent, exposing them to major-league hitters in what is, in terms of playoff contention, a lost season.
A collateral benefit is that by using players from Triple-A, the Sox make room at Charlotte for players who are ready to be promoted from Double-A Birmingham. What makes the plan work is that the Sox have the talent to pull it off. Baseball America rated the White Sox minor-league organization as the best in baseball, with, "the deepest stable of pitching prospects in the game." It might take a couple more years for the benefits to manifest themselves, but the Sox are closer to winning a World Series than everyone thought they were before the injuries.
Necessity is dictating that the Sox move their pitchers through the system, but how do they decide who gets promoted? At the Triple-A All Star Game, I spoke with Charlotte pitching coach Kirk Champion, in his 13th year with the White Sox, who gave some insight as to how the Sox evaluate who's ready to move. It's not merely a matter of looking at a player's stats, nor is it as if ranked prospects are moved on a timetable. In short, the two considerations are command and makeup.
A fundamental starting point is that in game play the focus is on the pitcher, not the opposing hitter. To Champion, his pitchers' strengths are more important than any opposing hitter's weaknesses. He's more concerned with his pitcher's curve than the batter's ability to hit a curve.
In all pitchers, he's looking for three things:
The makeup analysis for starters is different from that used for relievers. For starters, Champion looks at
For relievers, Champion monitors:
There are cases--Sean Lowe, Matt Ginter--in which a pitcher is being developed as both a starter and a reliever. In the role of starter, Champion stresses the necessity of developing a change-up, since the pitcher is likely to see a lineup turn over at least once. Without a quality change-up, the fastball will be worthless after the second or third inning. When a guy like Ginter is being used in relief, he is encouraged to attack, to blow hitters away, and his arsenal is typically limited to two pitches.
In an age of high scoring and Ruthian home-run totals, pitchers throw timidly, nibbling at the plate, increasing their walk totals. As Earl Weaver did, Champion teaches his pitchers to attack hitters and not to pitch in fear of the solo home run. In short, he stresses the importance of avoiding the three-run bomb.
Charlotte is a hitters' haven, so does Champion teach his pitchers to throw any differently at home? The home park has a short distance to the right-field wall, so right-handed hitters are always trying to go the other way. Champion instructs his pitchers to work the inside part of the plate to righties, keeping them from extending their arms and poking shots to right.
As for pitch counts, Champion isn't dogmatic. He generally likes to keep his starters within the range of 100 pitches, but as he notes, "My relievers have to pitch, too."
Champion treats prospects and non-prospects similarly, doing his best to develop each according to his abilities. For non-prospects, Champion stresses the importance of doing everything a pitcher can to develop so that he can help the major-league club directly, by becoming the next late bloomer, or indirectly, by performing well enough to be sought in trade. For example, Derek Hasselhoff had a great first half and was used to acquire Alan Embree. The Sox had no use for Hasselhoff in Chicago, but now he's with an organization (the Giants) where he stands a better chance of making the big-league club. For Champion, this helps the organization as much as developing a prospect, so the minor-league vets get his full attention.
We noted in Baseball Prospectus 2000 that the White Sox "pick pitchers of every stripe, giving them a diverse group of prospects, from highly-touted college stars like Kip Wells to high-school phenoms like Jon Garland, from juco surprises like Aaron Myette to college veterans like Josh Fogg or Matt Ginter or even Pat Daneker." A pitcher is fairly well indoctrinated into the White Sox scheme by the time he gets to Charlotte and Champion, but there are still differences in what they need to be taught. College pitchers take longer to learn to pitch inside, a byproduct of extended exposure to aluminum bats. College pitchers rely more on the breaking pitches than high-schoolers do, so they need to be taught to locate their fastball and change speeds. High-schoolers have to spend more time developing breaking pitches. They rely less on their breaking stuff because they typically have fastballs good enough to get them drafted so young.
A lot of Champion's work is already on display in Chicago. Kip Wells is arguably the ace of the staff. Rocky Biddle was slated for Triple-A this year but has been with the White Sox all season. After having a predictably rough 2000 for Chicago and a shaky spring, Jon Garland was sent back to Charlotte to start the season but is now with the ChiSox. Sean Lowe spent a little time in Triple-A before taking a spot in the Sox bullpen, on his way to a regular rotation turn. Long reliever Gary Glover had a hot start for the White Sox. When he went cold they sent him back to Triple-A, where Champion worked with him on his arm slot. Glover had six outstanding starts and was promptly recalled to the majors. Recently, Matt Ginter was called up for an extended look.
It's unclear whether the Sox plan to use Ginter as a starter or reliever, but the resolution of Keith Foulke's contract status ought to make the choice clear. Ginter was outstanding for Charlotte in both roles. He's a slider pitcher with a mid-90s fastball. He hasn't yet racked up dominating strikeout numbers (7.5 per nine innings), but he gets enough. He allowed 58 hits in 72 1/3 Triple-A innings this year, after holding Double-A batters to a .233 average last year. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 3 to 1. However he's used, Ginter has the indicators of success.
Danny Wright was recently promoted from Double-A straight to the Sox. He has the organization's best heat, throwing as high as 98 mph. Going into 2001 his control had been a bit iffy, but this year his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3 to 1. He allowed only six homers and 112 hits in 134 innings, while racking up 128 strikeouts. In his first appearance with the White Sox, he gave up a home run on his second pitch. He got the next three hitters on just a handful of pitches, perhaps demonstrating that he has the makeup to make the most of his improving command. The Sox are using him in relief but he projects as a starter.
The White Sox had not only Baseball America's highest organizational rating, but its Player of the Year as well, Jon Rauch. He started the season in the Charlotte rotation, but is out for the season with a "shoulder hook." The injury is similar to those suffered by Lowe and Bobby Howry, and Rauch is expected to recover fully. Other starters have emerged for Charlotte amid the constant shuttling. Matt Guerrier was excellent in 15 starts in Double-A and he joined the Charlotte rotation. His combined minor league numbers are 125 2/3 innings pitched, 108 hits, 90 strikeouts, and 37 walks, with nine homers allowed. With all the other talent taking up slots in Chicago, Guerrier won't be rushed but should get a call-up next season. Geronimo Mendoza has emerged to lead the Charlotte rotation. After an unimpressive 12 starts at Double-A, where he was upside-down hits-to-innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just over even, he was promoted to Triple-A and under Champion's tutelage has put up improved numbers: 55 1/3 innings, 51 hits, 18 walks, and 22 strikeouts. Josh Fogg has been splitting time between the rotation and bullpen, but is now working as a full-time starter. His performance this year has been poor and he needs the exposure.
A rotation of Kip Wells, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Sean Lowe, and either Rocky Biddle, Danny Wright, Matt Ginter, or Jon Rauch would be outstanding, certainly an improvement over last season's overachievers and a decent bet to be the American League's next great rotation (David Wells will not be back to screw up the works). A bullpen of Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Matt Ginter, and Gary Glover, with either Kelly Wunsch or Ken Vining as a situational left-hander, within one year will be as good as any you'll see this October. There's more talent worth mentioning, such as re-acquired Gary Majewski, but with the Sox so loaded as it is, their other prospects, most of whom at clearly still at the "project" stage, should be left to season in the minors for the next year at least. With all that talent, including a healthy Jim Parque, the Sox will still have plenty left over to use in trades.
The A's, Astros, and Sox are going the way of the Twins, developing from within on the cheap, without skimping on scouting, rather than using their minor leaguers as fodder in trades for replacement-level pitchers having career years. This is a team with a plan, focusing as much on command and makeup as they do on stuff. Luck is the residue of design. The Sox suffer bad luck with injuries, but good luck in that in the beach they have good young players entering an advanced stage of development.
Scheuler was a bit off. The Sox arrived not a year early, but three. But the important point is that it's the team you're seeing now, and not last year's 95-win club, that could become Chicago's first World Series winner in generations. And like the A's, Twins, Padres, and Astros, they're in the process of demonstrating how it's design and not money that matters most.
Keith J. Scherer is an attorney practicing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at KJSbaseball@aol.com.