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January 31, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Windy City Precedent

by Jim Baker

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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:

  • 1976 Kansas City Royals
    Record: 90-72, 713-611
    Following season: 102-60, 822-651

    White Sox fans--look no further. Here is the story you can look to for inspiration. The Royals went from a rather pedestrian division-winning season to having their best year in franchise history.

  • 1984 Chicago Cubs
    Record: 96-65, 762-658
    Following season: 77-84, 686-729

    The White Sox got more out of their 96-run differential than any team on this list, bagging 99 wins. These Cubs tied for second.

  • 1986 California Angels
    Record: 92-70, 786-684
    Following season: 75-87, 770-803

    Oh that wacky AL West in the mid-'80s: one minute you're in the ALCS, the next you're in last place watching a team from your division with a negative run differential win the World Series.

  • 1989 San Francisco Giants
    Record: 92-70, 690-600
    Following season: 85-77, 719-710

    Will Clark slipped from a .346 EqA to .299 and Kevin Mitchell went from .351 to .314. The loss of Rick Reuschel to injury didn't help. Neither did Scott Garrelts showing the signs that would end his career a year later.

  • 1990 Cincinnati Reds
    Record: 91-71, 693-597
    Following season: 74-88, 689-691

    The Nasty Boys weren't quite as nasty and a tenuous starting corps got a little more tenuous. Result: 94 extra runs to overcome.

  • 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates
    Record: 96-66, 693-595
    Following season: 75-87, 707-806

    Yes, they lost Barry Bonds, but their scoring actually went up the next year, albeit not enough to keep up with the league average of more than half a run per game. It was the pitching that really got into the spirit of the new scoring environment, surrendering over a run more per game than the previous year, nearly doubling the league-wide inflation.

  • 1992 Minnesota Twins
    Record: 90-72, 747-653
    Following season: 71-91, 693-830

    Like the '93 Pirates, the '93 Twins pitchers took to the new offensive surge with a little too much exuberance while the offense didn't get the memo.

  • 1992 Toronto Blue Jays
    Record: 96-66, 780-682
    Following season: 95-67, 847-742

    Another success story. The Jays parlayed another fairly modest run margin into a second-straight World Championship. More so than the '76/'77 Royals, this is probably the team the White Sox community should keep in mind when wanting to vent optimism for the upcoming year.

  • 1996 San Diego Padres
    Record: 91-71, 771-682
    Following season: 76-86, 795-891

    There's no way around it: when you give your opponents 200 extra runs, bad things are going to happen. Even the biggest hater on the planet wouldn't predict that kind of largesse for the '06 White Sox.

  • 1997 Los Angeles Dodgers
    Record: 88-74, 742-645
    Following season: 77-85, 793-787

    In terms of differential and total runs scored and runs allowed, this is the single-most similar team to the 2005 White Sox. They underperformed in '97 and overperformed in '98. Had they reversed the two performances, they would have won the division in 1997.

  • 2003 Philadelphia Phillies
    Record: 86-76, 791-697
    Following season: 86-76, 840-781

    This is one way to do it: play almost the same, losing about a run in differential a week for the year and move five games closer to first place in the process.

Overall, it doesn't look good. Of the 11 teams, only two improved the following year and one of those wasn't by very much (seven runs, '92 Jays). Their average record in the first season was 92-70. That dropped to 82-80 the following year.

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.

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