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October 27, 2005

Prospectus Today

Champs

by Joe Sheehan

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When looking back at Game Four of the 2005 World Series, I think what people will remember is the run. After all, it was a run that fit the storyline of the White Sox this season, assembled late in a tie game through a single, a sacrifice bunt, a grounder to the right side and a two-out hit, a run that gave the Sox a one-run lead. No amount of data about their reliance on home runs or their relative lack of speed or their generally mediocre offense could shake the notion that this was a "smallball" team, and that last run will likely seal the issue forever.

What I'll remember, though, is the last two outs of the game. Juan Uribe picked up a putout and an assist about as far away on the field from each other as any shortstop can make plays. He caught Chris Burke's pop-up in the left-field stands, then fielded Orlando Palmeiro's grounder on the second-base side of the infield and converted the out to end the season and lock up the title for the Sox.

It was defense that was the critical difference between the 2005 White Sox and their predecessors. This team was terrific at stopping the other team from scoring, and credit for that goes in significant part to an improved defense. This team's signature skill was run prevention, and it did it by making plays like the ones Uribe made and hundreds more less spectacular, but just as valuable. Add in a pitching staff that ratcheted down its walks and home runs allowed, and you have a team that was very difficult to score off of, as the playoffs showed.

Uribe also represents Kenny Williams' stamp on this team. He was acquired in a seemingly minor deal for Aaron Miles nearly two years ago, and has given the Sox two good, inexpensive seasons at shortstop, providing an average bat and an above-average glove. It was a minor acquisition that hasn't paid off spectacularly, but it has been a win. Williams' biggest moves--acquiring Todd Ritchie, trading Carlos Lee--net out as losses, but he's been very good at the next tier of acquisitions. He's also (and it's killing me that I can't find where I noted this earlier this year) improved considerably while in the position. It's likely that we've allowed the early disaster that was the Ritchie deal, and some of the larger decisions that haven't gone over well, to cloud the fact that he's made a lot of good, smaller moves. He's caught some breaks along the way--I don't think Dustin Hermanson's year was predictable, just to name one--but overall, he hasn't gotten enough credit for his work. Of last year's pickups, I only liked Iguchi, and grudgingly, A.J. Pierzynski.

The Sox are simply loaded with guys like Uribe, Joe Crede and Scott Podsednik and Aaron Rowand, guys with .260-odd EqAs who add a win or two with the glove. The only truly bad hitter in the lineup, relative to position, was DH Carl Everett, and at least by Clay Davenport's numbers, only Iguchi was a below-average defender. This was a superior defensive team.

The Sox went 11-1 in the postseason, allowing 34 runs total, just 25 in the last two rounds. That's pitching and defense, and although no one will want to hear it, it's also the Angels and the Astros, two poor offensive teams who tanked badly against the Sox' staff.

Pointing out that it's both is a necessary part of the story. You can't write about the Sox without writing about home runs and OBP. You can't write about Ozzie Guillen without writing about how terrific he is at handling pitchers and how he wastes outs. You can't write about the playoff run, about the big moments by Iguchi and Orlando Hernandez and Crede and Konerko without also noting Tony Graffanino and Jason Varitek and Doug Eddings and Jeff Nelson. It's all part of the mix, good and bad, more good than bad, but ignoring half the story does everyone a disservice.

The morning after a championship, everyone basks in the glow. There have been some things said and written in the last 12 hours that are counterfactual at best, insane at worst. I keep waiting to hear Paul Konerko…"I wouldn't have believed it if I wasn't there, but Pods walked up the kid, put his hands on the kid's legs and kind of closed his eyes for a bit. Suddenly, the kid jumped up and starting running around the room! His parents were hysterical…12 years since the accident, and suddenly he's normal again, just like that. I'm telling you, it was all Pods."

So this morning may not be the time for calm, rational analysis of the White Sox, may not be the time to point out that, like the 2002 Angels, they hit way over their heads in October (.272/.345/.476, against .262/.322/.425 during the season), or that they were even more reliant on the long ball in October (32 of 69 runs, 46%) for offense than they were in the regular season, when they were fourth in MLB in that category.

It is, instead, a time for congratulations, for acknowledgment of the things they did well, and especially, appreciation of a 16-1 run that closed the door on a division crown and three contenders for a championship. The White Sox caught a lot of breaks. They also capitalized on just about every one for three weeks, and for that, they get to hang a banner. Flags fly forever, and this one is no different.

Congratulations to the Chicago White Sox, 2005 champions.

(110 days 'til pitchers and catchers.)

  • The Astros, for their part, were a one-trick pony whose trick failed them at the wrong time. They were certainly competitive in the series--they lost four games by five runs, and the Series could well have been four one-run games--but the way they got here was by allowing 0-2 runs a game most of the time. When their starters stopped shutting opponents down, they didn't have enough else to work with.

    You can't write about the Astros without noting that after Jason Lane's game-tying double in the eighth on Tuesday night, they went 0-for-30 with runners on base. That's 0-for-30 when 1-for-30 probably would have meant another game tonight. I have no intention of making statements about the character of the Astros' players based on that performance; you have to say, though, that that failure was a key element in their season ending last night.

  • Brandon Backe tried to be a hero again--as he was in last year's NLCS--and fell just short. He has an awfully strange performance split. His career ERA in four seasons is 4.86, and even if you toss the nine games he pitched for the Devil Rays in just his first season as a professional pitcher, he's over 4.50 for his career. In the postseason, however, he's at 2.95 in seven appearances, six starts and 36 2/3 innings. His postseason K/BB is 32/12, compared to his regular-season mark of 193/126.

    The most likely explanation here is small-sample-size fluke. There's maybe 3% of me, though, that is curious as to whether this may mean something, and whether the signature significance of the postseason work may herald good things in the future. He's had some tremendous starts in October, and the gap in that command ratio is wide. Maybe it's a concentration thing?

    I readily admit that I may be reaching here. I just think it's curious that a guy who has had trouble holding on to a spot in the rotation suddenly turns into Tim Hudson in the postseason, and I'd be willing to hear explanations as to why.

    One other thing I like about Backe is that as a converted outfielder, he's a good athlete, the kind of guy who could pinch-hit 15 times or play left field in a really long game if you needed him to.

  • The Sox title means we've had five different MLB champions in five years, and in that time, nine different teams have played in the World Series. As we get more years under our belt, we're going to see that the Yankees' 1996-2001 run, when they went 14-2 in postseason series, was a huge aberration. The three-tier playoffs are a massive leveling factor, and while they don't make extended runs of championships impossible, they will make them exceedingly rare. It's just too hard to win that many best-of series in a row.

After I post this, I'll be doing a chat session, then taking off for New York for a few days. I will be traveling a lot over the next three weeks, including a trip to Phoenix to take in some Arizona Fall League action in conjunction with Baseball HQ's First Pitch Arizona.

So for the next three weeks, columns will be sporadic. I'll be back regularly in mid-November, though, and all throughout what is going to be a very interesting winter. Thanks, as always, for reading "Prospectus Today" throughout the 2005 season, and for all the great e-mails, especially during October.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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