July 19, 2005
I'd like to thank everyone who passed along messages of sympathy and empathy to Sophia and I in the wake of the death of her father. It may seem silly, but something as simple as reading an e-mail can make the difficult week like the last one a little bit easier. To all of you who helped, let me say "thank you" from both of us. We're slowly moving back towards "normal," even as the word gets redefined on the fly.
For my part, getting back to "normal" means getting back to baseball, and after two weeks in which I saw, wrote and read very little, a stroll through the stats seemed like the way to go.
Then I read this e-mail, which quoted my June 7 article:
"'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 [Frank] Thomas into the team may be the difference between baseball in October and just more excuses.'
"I'm not even a White Sox fan, but we're now at Game 90, they've done better than they did before June 7, the Twins are now 12 GB, and if the Sox play .500 ball the rest of the year, they'll be at 97 wins, and only the Angels are on pace to reach that.
"You don't have to do it yet, but eventually there should be a recap as to what the Sox did to prove the analysts wrong, even 1/3 of the way through the season."
I'd say that somewhere between 10% and 15% of my e-mail from readers this year has included the words "White Sox," and of those, maybe a quarter are from a core of Sox fans who were pretty unhappy with my preseason evaluation
, which pegged their favorites as a 71-win team. The Sox might get to 71 wins by the end of the month. After last night's action, they're a remarkable 62-29, with a 13-game lead over the Twins. The Sox are playing more to maintain their spot as the AL's #1 seed and to keep everyone healthy and ready for the first week in October than for any regular-season goals.
So where did I go wrong? When you're this far off, it's never one factor, but a combination of things, some that might have been evident in March and others than remain a mystery today. I'm going to miss the Sox's overall record by 25-35 games at this rate, and that's not easy to do.
I think the margin of error comes down to three things:
- The team's record doesn't reflect their performance. Thanks in part to a terrific 23-9 record in one-run games, the White Sox are outperforming their projected record by nearly 12 games, by far the biggest edge in baseball.
It's not just the one-run games, but how they've won them. In today's Prospectus Matchups, Jim Baker analyzes the Sox' 31-5 record within the division. A number of those wins look like this one, where Tony Pena and the Royals' bullpen gave the Sox a game; or this one, where the Tigers stranded a leadoff triple in the bottom of the ninth inning; or the very next day, when those same Tigers put 861 baserunners on in the last six innings and couldn't win the game.
Some of those wins are due to the skills the White Sox have shown this year, a good bullpen among them. But some of it is, well, inept competition and the randomness that swings one way or another in one-run games. The Sox aren't a .700 team; they're a .550 or .560 team that's having one of those years.
The White Sox have also managed to outscore their projected runs and allow fewer runs than would be projected by their offensive events, both contributing factors to their .681 winning percentage. There's no obvious reason for the gap on the offensive end, while their pitchers' better performance with runners in scoring position has been a factor in their run prevention.
Of course, I had them as a .440 team, so that still leaves a lot of ground to be explained. I couldn't have seen "one of those years" coming, but what did I miss that might have changed my evaluation?
- Some players have performed above my expectations. The common theme that ran through the March e-mails defending the Sox was that I was being far too dismissive of their starting rotation, and in particular, of Mark Buehrle. I saw a mid-rotation innings guy who didn't seem capable of more than that; Sox fans blamed his homer problems in 2004 on a fluky year at US Cellular Field and pointed to his steadily improving command.
Sox fans were right. Buehrle has dropped his home runs allowed from 33 in 245 1/3 innings last year to eight in 143 IP in '05. The Sox' entire starting rotation has pitched better in 2005, improvement that can be seen by looking at the translated rates of the pitchers who they carried forward from '04.
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Buehrle '04 5.8 1.4 0.9
Buehrle '05 5.4 1.4 0.7
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Garcia '04 (Sox only) 7.7 2.6 1.0
Garcia '05 5.1 2.9 1.0
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Garland '04 4.5 2.7 1.1
Garland '05 4.1 1.7 0.9
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Contreras '04 (Sox only) 7.4 4.8 0.8
Contreras '05 5.7 4.6 1.2
I use translated rates because that more clearly shows the improvement once the change in the league is filtered out. Buehrle and Jon Garland have reduced their home-run rates by 20%, and Garland has dramatically improved his walk rate. Those two changes alone account for a very big part of the Sox' improved run prevention in '04.
Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras haven't had the same improvement in their peripherals, but have benefited on the scoreboard thanks to the Sox' better defense, a big bump in Defensive Efficiency, from fourth-best in the league at .695 to best at .720.
The Sox allowed an average of 5.1 per game last year, a figure that is down to 3.8 per game in '05. They have an outside shot to allow fewer than 600 runs this year, something no AL team has done in a full season since the 1990 A's allowed 570. Run prevention is why they're winning.
The change in the bullpen isn't as dramatic, but still evident:
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Politte '04 7.6 3.6 0.9
Politte '05 7.2 2.6 0.4
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Cotts '04 7.6 3.7 1.3
Cotts '05 8.2 4.1 0.4
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Marte '04 7.9 3.8 0.9
Marte '05 9.3 5.8 1.0
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Takatsu '04 6.9 2.7 0.7
Takatsu '05 8.9 5.2 2.2
Cliff Politte gets a bunch of the high-leverage innings pitched by Shingo Takatsu last year, allowing his improvement to impact the Sox' record more than Takatsu's collapse hurt it. Neal Cotts is one of my favorite young pitchers, and while he can't save the Keith Foulke deal for the White Sox, he can salvage some value from it.
There are fewer Sox hitters besting expectations, but one important one is Scott Podsednik. His 48 stolen bases have served to obscure his real contribution, a .368 OBP atop the Sox' lineup. Coming off of a .313 mark at age 28 last year, I had no reason to see him as more than an age-27 fluke, and a player who, batting leadoff, would hamper the Sox' offense. Instead, he's been a classic leadoff hitter, with an OBP higher than his SLG and 30 net steals. With Tadahito Iguchi batting second and posting a .334 OBP, the White Sox are putting a lot more runners on for the middle of their lineup than they did in 2004 and earlier. They've picked up 25 points of OBP in each of the top two lineup spots over last year, and that, rather than smallball or smartball or what have you, is why they're scoring enough runs to win despite drop-offs in production or playing time from the core of last year's offense. Paul Konerko, Aaron Rowand and Juan Uribe are all well off their '04 lines, while Joe Crede is slightly down and Frank Thomas has missed most of the year.
Dustin Hermanson is way, way over his head, with a 1.50 ERA despite 19 strikeouts and 11 walks allowed in 36 innings. Basically, any relief pitcher can put up a very low ERA in half a season if enough breaks go their way, and that's the season Hermanson is having. A third of his runs allowed have been unearned, and he's allowed a .243 batting average on balls in play, which is among the top 40 in all of MLB. He could still end up with an ERA in the 4.00s before the year is over.
Some of these "above expectations" guys are players I just missed, such as Buehrle and Politte. Others, like Garland and Podsednik, are having years that don't really fit their career paths, a mix of improvement and peak. All of them, though, are critical to 62-29.
- I underestimated their upgrades. I liked the Iguchi and Orlando Hernandez signings, and had little use for anything else they did over the winter. But the gap between what the Sox are getting from their new players and what they got from those roster spots last year is significant. Hernandez (and Brandon McCarthy) has helped simply by not being a disaster. The Sox were killed by the back end of the rotation last year, something that was mentioned by a number of readers back in March. Jason Grilli, Felix Diaz, Dan Wright, Josh Stewart…all of the stopgaps in the #5 spot were awful. The Sox aren't down 8-1 in the fourth once a week this year, and that's a big difference.
Iguchi has been an improvement on Jose Valentin and Roberto Alomar, in part because he's out-hit them and in part because he's helped improve the defense. I didn't think Jermaine Dye had a .282 EqA left in him; that's been a big upgrade on the post-Magglio Ordonez detritus the White Sox used last summer.
It's no one thing. The Sox have had a handful of key players improve, gotten better at some spots, like #5 starter and right field, that killed them in 2004, and been more than a bit lucky. There's plenty of credit to go around; Ozzie Guillen says some silly things, but in his two seasons he's shown himself to be a very good handler of pitchers. I've rarely praised Kenny Williams, but the Dye, Iguchi and Hernandez signings have shown themselves to be low-risk, low-cost upgrades, all reflecting well on his judgment.
I do think it's important to look past the coverage and see what the Sox are actually doing, as opposed to what people think they're doing. This is not a good offensive team, last in the majors in EqA despite all the hype about "smartball." The Sox are about as reliant on home runs to score as they were a year ago, and while they rank highly in steals, attempts and sacrifices, they're also fourth in the AL in homers and sixth in isolated power. Their team OBP of .323 is a killer, but because the OBP is distributed differently this year--more of it at the top of the lineup, in front of the power--they've been able to do a good job of leveraging their offensive elements.
Their offense isn't just different, though, it's worse. What's changed is that the games the Sox were losing 7-4 last year they're winning 4-3 this year. That's about pitching and defense, not offense.
Looking back, I think I may have let my history of picking the White Sox to win the division influence my opinion of them in '05. (A similar effect occurred with the Padres.) That's not a bias so much as it is a human reaction to making the same mistake over and over again. Essentially, I picked the wrong year to get off the train. I wouldn't have picked them to win, but not having them as a .500 or so team was likely a bit of frustration showing through.
Credit the White Sox pitchers with upgrading their performance, and Kenny Williams for fixing the dead spots on the roster and improving the team defense. Add in some good fortune--Podsednik, Hermanson, one-run games--and you have the formula for why the White Sox are so much better in 2005, and why we'll be talking about them in October.
We'll do those league roundups the next couple of days, the AL tomorrow, NL Thursday, and hopefully be back to something that looks like "normal" through the trade deadline and beyond.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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