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January 31, 2006
Windy City Precedent
Let's face it, White Sox fans--you don't like statheads at the moment. First of all, your general manager didn't come off very well in a best-selling book about the analytical revolution in baseball. Then, prior to the 2005 season, nobody in the media--analytical branch or otherwise--picked your team to go all the way. (No, Ken Harrelson does not really count as media.) So, because we were wrong, the laugh is on us.
Of course, I would like to point out that it's much more fun to surprise people than it is to be expected to win. Expecting to win every year makes one jaded. When you go to the store, you expect to find bread there and when you find it in the bread aisle, what joy is there in that? That's what life is like for a Yankee fan: they expect to find their bread awaiting them every time out. Now, if you go the store hoping to find a Faberge Egg tucked away in the hardware aisle and you actually do, well, isn't that much more gratifying?
In any event, if Sox fans hated statheads before, wait until the predictions for 2006 start coming out and they find their team pegged for second, third, and--for those keen on a Tiger awakening--even fourth. There'll be hell to pay sure in Chi-town then, by gum. General manager Kenny Williams even predicted such a reaction from the experts immediately after the World Series ended, saying he fully expected nobody would predict the White Sox would repeat once the preseason picks came out.
The inescapable truth is that the White Sox did play over their heads during the 2005 season. Even the most diehard Cell habitué must concede that. They scored and allowed about enough runs to win in the low nineties and ended up instead with 99 victories. This will be the main cause for doubts about their 2006 chances among the stat-reliant crowd and their fellow travelers in the media. It would also appear that the Indians, a better team on paper last year, are in a position to hold their value come the new season, as they underperformed based on their differential. It's certainly no guarantee that they are due to live up to or exceed it this year, but it holds more promise than the polar outcome.
Wanting to bridge the gap between embittered Sox supporter and know-it-all media types, I set out to find some recent precedents for teams that had similar run differentials to the 2005 Chicago squad. I wanted to see what happened to them the following year in hopes of finding some examples of teams that did what Chicago did last year and either improved or, at least, held their ground. I went back 25 useable seasons, beginning with 1975 (1980-81 and 1993-95 are not useable because of dissimilar game totals). I first identified the teams that came within eight runs either way of Chicago's 96-run differential (741 RS - 645 RA).
Of course, not all 96-run differentials are created equally. They don't predict won-loss records the same way the further to the extreme in total runs scored they are. (See Rockies; Colorado) So, in the search for good comps, a team like the 1996 Mariners didn't make the cut in spite of dialing in very close with a 98-run differential. This is because they totaled 1,888 runs scored and allowed--500 more than last year's White Sox. In those run-heavy environs, they were expected to win three fewer games even though their differentials were about equal.
I settled on 12 teams that were within eight runs in differential either way (88 to 104) and were about 100 runs total on either side of the White Sox' 1,386. One of these 12 was the 1976 Athletics, a team I decided to heave out of the study because their owner, Charles O. Finley, purposefully denuded the roster of talent and they dropped 24 games in the standings. That is not a proper precedent for the 2006 White Sox, a club that is returning most of its starters.
What we have then are these eleven teams:
It is probably not realistic to hope the White Sox can outstrip their differential by seven or eight games again this year. If they could somehow hold onto their 96-run gap or at least approximate it, they could still win the division by outperforming it by two or three games--provided the other teams don't show up with a vengeance or outperform a modest positive differential by too much.
What White Sox fans must acknowledge is that it's asking a lot to catch lightning in a bottle twice in a row. Either the White Sox have to genuinely improve their play or it's going to take the cooperation of both the Indians and Twins and, perhaps, the Tigers, to keep them from slipping.
Based on precedent, it's not looking good, but then, we were wrong before.