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June 7, 2005

Prospectus Today

Surprise Team #3

by Joe Sheehan

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More than a third of the way through the season, the Chicago White Sox have the best record in baseball, a four-game lead in the AL Central, and the title of Team That Makes Joe Look Dumb.

It's an occupational hazard, of course, but it makes analyzing their success an interesting exercise. No matter how much I try to be an impartial observer in this role (Yankees aside), or how much I try and downplay my preseason predictions, ego is involved here, and it's hard to balance the analytical side with the part that knows he whiffed badly. I predicted the White Sox to go 71-91, largely because I underestimated their run prevention ability.

Right now, the Sox are projected to score 742 runs. I had them coming in at 749. That's pretty close on paper, although I anticipated a much more generous run environment, so it appears I had the offense underestimated slightly.

The major error is on the other side of the ledger. The Sox have allowed just 3.8 runs per game, a figure that projects to 614 over a full season. I expected them to allow 856. While some of that is context--U.S. Cellular hasn't played as homer-friendly as it did last year, and again, scoring is off around the league--no amount of missing on the run environment makes up for a 242-run gap; I just whiffed on this one. Give credit to the readers: the consensus of the people who wrote in after that article ran was that I had vastly underestimated the Sox' pitching, especially Mark Buehrle.

Well, give some credit to the readers. The Sox have pitched fairly well, to be sure--fourth in strikeout rate, sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, 11th (the good way) in home runs allowed--but what they've done better than any team is turn balls in play into outs. Their Defensive Efficiency Rating, which measures just that, is the highest in the AL. That's why Jon Garland's ERA is 3.40 despite a very low strikeout rate of 4.3 batters per nine innings, and it's why Dustin Hermanson has an ERA of 1.08, also with a below-average strikeout rate.

Could we have seen this coming? Perhaps. The Carlos Lee trade that brought in Scott Podsednik gave the Sox two legitimate center fielders in the outfield, and Jermaine Dye has pulled himself back to average. Tadahito Iguchi's defense was reportedly good, and added to an above-average group of Joe Crede, Juan Uribe and Paul Konerko, completed a strong defensive infield.

Their defense is by far the biggest reason the Sox are in first place. Their pitchers have done a good job to limit walks and home runs, and when they've put a ball in play, it's been gobbled up and turned into an out. The 2003 Marlins and 2002 Angels, just to name two recent examples, had very successful seasons with just this model. Their superior defense is the biggest reason to consider the Sox as more than a two-month fluke.

Much was made at the start of the year of the Sox' great record in one-run games. They're still well above the norm in that category, going 18-7 for the best mark in the AL. However, that leaves a 20-12 record in games decided by more than one tally, which isn't likely a fluke. A peek at the Adjusted Standings shows that their overall record exceeds their underlying indicators by a considerable amount, based mostly on the Sox outplaying their Pythagenport projection, but aso because they've allowed fewer runs than would be predicted by the run elements they've allowed. That's been helped along by a terrific performance with runners in scoring position: Sox pitchers have allowed just a .230 BA and a .345 SLG in those situations, with the bullpen being especially stingy. While not considered a repeatable skill, that kind of performance in the short term puts wins on the board.

The "story" of the Sox is that they traded identities, crafting themselves as a pitching-and-defense team that scores runs opportunistically by playing small ball. While the pitching and defense have been there, the Sox aren't much more a small-ball team than they were in 2004, and the idea that they are is the biggest myth of the '05 season, one driven by two people: Ozzie Guillen and Scott Podsednik. Guillen keeps saying the Sox are a small-ball team, and he certainly manages as if they are, while Podsednik leads the world in stolen bases. In reality, though, the Sox are nearly as reliant on the long ball as they were a year ago.

In '04, the Sox scored 384 of their 865 runs on home runs (44.4%). That figure led the league. This year, they've scored 38.1% of their runs on homers, which ranks them fourth in the AL. (The league as a whole is scoring many fewer runs on homers this year.) That's still a heavy reliance on the home run, and a particularly heavy one for a team that is supposedly a small-ball team.

There's nothing wrong with this kind of offense. Quite frankly, it's the more logical approach given the Sox' personnel. A small-ball team requires a good team OBP; the idea is that you don't have power, so you'll get lots of runners on base and move them around with one-run strategies, singles and walks. The Sox have a low-OBP team with fairly good power, which makes it hard to run a long-sequence offense; you run out of outs before the run comes home. The Sox have succeeded despite a team philosophy that runs counter to their personnel, Podsednik aside.

What they need to do is stop wasting outs on sacrifices--they lead the league--and maximize the number of times Konerko and Rowand and Dye come to bat with a runner on base, and therefore, the chance of a multiple-run home run. The Sox aren't a small-ball team; they're a short-sequence offense team with a low OBP, and a team like that can't give away outs.

This is perhaps the best example yet of a manager who is so determined to implement a particular philosophy that he's completed ignored his personnel in doing so. There's this ingrained idea in baseball that the "right" way to play is this small-ball, out-wasting approach, and teams that embrace the notion get handled with kid gloves. The fact is, there are lots of ways to succeed, but the single best way is to make sure you fit your strategies and tactics to your personnel. The White Sox aren't doing that right now, and there's an emperor's new clothes aspect to the entire situation. Maybe it's something in the water in Chicago.

The Sox face other challenges. The return of Frank Thomas, who is a lightning rod for negativity in Chicago, brings with it any number of problems. This shouldn't be the case of course, because getting back a guy who even in his decline phase is a team's best hitter should be cause for rejoicing. Guillen has shown an eagerness to throw people under the bus, however, and he and Thomas aren't exactly close.

Thomas is likely in a no-win situation, because the Sox are going to regress from their .667 level of play as the season wears on, and regardless of what he does at the plate, as the element of change, he's likely to bear some disproportionate level of blame for that. Keep in mind that the Twins are a mere four games behind the Sox right now, with better underlying performance; any slippage by the Sox could have them in second place in the blink of an eye.

I very rarely address off-field issues in my analysis, but I have serious concerns about how this is going to play out. The Sox desperately need Thomas in the lineup, and if they allow the positive of his return to become a negative, they run the risk of not only blowing a big boost to their offense, but creating the rare kind of distraction that can torpedo a season. Ozzie Guillen has done some good things as a manager, but I am not optimistic about his ability to handle this situation.

With all that said, you have to keep coming back to this data point: 38-19. Obviously, the Sox are going to win more than 71 games. They're going to win more than 81, in fact. Their small edge in the division is cushioned by what is a down season in the American League, making for a softer pool of wild-card contenders and a lower standard for making the playoffs. There's virtually no way for the Sox to not be in a race come September, and even if you consider them a .500 team, and expect them to play that way from here on out, that makes them a 90-win squad, and 90 wins looks like a wild-card team in the AL.

I don't think the Sox are a .500 team, though. I think they're a bit worse than that, although perhaps not the .440 team I expected back in March. They're hamstrung a bit by Guillen, who has been a deft manager of the pitching staff and a bumbler with the offense. They're terribly reliant on Podsednik, who's slugging .328 and is just a season removed from a .313 OBP. They have very little offensive depth, and no one is talking up Kenny Williams as a guy to be reckoned with at the trade deadline.

The Twins are still going to win the AL Central. The question for the Sox is whether they can build enough on those 38 wins in the bank to hold off the Rangers, Orioles, and Yankees--the competition, in all likelihood--for the wild card. How they integrate Thomas into the team may be the difference between baseball in October and just more excuses.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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