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February 3, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Windy City Revisited

by Jim Baker

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I wanted to revisit my last outing today to clarify and expand on a few things. I think there is a perception in some quarters that I was dismissing the White Sox's chances for 2006 when that is not the case at all. I did point out that recent teams with similar run differentials didn't fare as well by and large the following year but I did so in a vacuum, not commenting on the moves they have made this offseason.

A number of the responses I got understood where I was coming from. The following note did so while also summing up the Chicago situation and throwing in a sane emotional approach to the upcoming season as well:

I'm sitting here wearing my White Sox World Series sweatshirt. I took my son to Game 1. As a Sox fan, nothing else will ever matter again. I did the one thing I often wondered if I would ever do.

Your assessment is probably pretty reasonable. To their credit, they haven't stood pat this winter. There is a good chance this is a stronger team than the one that won the World Series. Health, luck, and defense will tell a lot this year. Thome answers a critical need. Mackowiak helps the bench. Vazquez and/or McCarthy will be an upgrade over Hernandez. If they can keep the health question marks (Thome, Crede, Hermanson) on the field and productive (no small task) and if they can cover the loss of Rowand's glove adequately, this team is actually poised to be better. Of course, they could be better and still not make the playoffs or not sweep through them. All in all, I'll take my chances with the team Kenny Williams has assembled, though. And if they fall short, I'll always have 2005.

--S.B.

That's it in a nutshell, isn't it? Once a World Championship is on the books, you've bought yourself a lot of extended joy--although that would have been a hard argument to make around Miami in 1998.

While two consecutive columns about the same team might seem a bit generous, these are the World Champions we're talking about, so they're well worth the attention.

The White Sox have seven basic hypothetical outcomes this year:

  1. They have truly improved and, on top of that, retain their 2005 mastery over their runs scored / runs against. Result: 103 wins and a divisional runaway.

  2. They have stayed about the same but things remain favorable on the overachievement front. Result: another 99 wins and another division title.

  3. Their projected record more closely apes their actual run differential, but they have genuinely improved. Result: 95 wins, possible dogfight with contender but a division title likely.

  4. Their projected record more closely apes their actual run differential, but they play about the same. Result: 91 wins and a probable second-place finish but not necessarily if other teams don't bring their A-games to the table.

  5. They don't play as well and they perform right to their run differential. Result: 85-87 wins and a second- or third-place showing.

  6. They don't play as well and they under-perform their run differential. Result: 82 wins, third place.

  7. Everything that could go wrong does on both fronts. Result: complete collapse: 77 wins, fourth place

There are actually a number of other possibilities. They could outperform by only about half as much as they did last year, which would still give them an extra four wins and a division title in a number of circumstances. I also didn't include underperforming variations to the first five scenarios.

What most overachieving teams have in common is a good record in one-run games. The 2005 White Sox (35-19) were no exception. (The reason for some of the larger differentials in history like those of the 1905 Tigers (15) and 1943 Braves (13) was that they were brutalized in games with larger margins. The Sox were decent in those types of games). So far, the Guillen-led White Sox have an impressive 63-37 record in one-run games in his two-year stint.

Is there any reason to believe this won't continue? The Yankees have done it four of the last five years, so there is recent precedent. If Chicago's outstanding defense doesn't hold up, there could be some slippage in this area. Subtracting Aaron Rowand--as the letter above points out--is not going to help in this department, but it is certainly possible the other steps the team has taken will compensate for his loss by picking up slack elsewhere.

One of the points I was trying to make last time out is that it's probably too much to expect the White Sox to repeat their overage against their run differential and that a legitimate shot at another entry into the postseason sweepstakes has to come from legitimate growth. Obviously, general manager Williams understood the folly of sitting still and hoping that another extra eight wins would fall into their laps again as he has been pretty active this offseason--which isn't to say another windfall is out of the question.

While it could happen, such occurrences have been extremely rare in baseball history. Since the turn of the 20th Century, a total of 69 teams have outperformed their projection by eight or more games. Of that group, only five managed to repeat the feat again the next year:

1946-47 Washington Senators: +10 / +11
2003-04 Cincinnati Reds: +9 / + 11
1943-44 Chicago White Sox: +8 / +10
1973-74 Detroit Tigers: +8 / +9
1930-31 Philadelphia A's: +8 / +8

Three more teams managed a plus-seven the following season and a total of 20 managed at least a plus-five. Of those 20, a large number were either bad teams playing into mediocrity or mediocre teams playing into or to the borderline of contention. In fact, the average number of projected wins among these teams--unadjusted for length of schedule--is just 72.5. Good teams like the '05 White Sox, who played all the way to the borderline of greatness, are much rarer. Of the 20, our choices of these sorts of clubs are just these:

1930-31 Philadelphia A's: 94 projected wins-102 actual / 99 projected-107 actual
You can't go wrong emulating the last great Mack-led A's team. If the White Sox can improve by five games as these A's did, then there's a good chance it won't matter what happens to them in the close games.

1977-78 Baltimore Orioles: 88-97 / 83-90
Although they got worse, it's interesting to have an Earl Weaver-led team on a list like this. Mr. 3-Run Homer's teams outdid their projection by at least four games every year from 1976 to 1979. (They were 10 under in 1972 and five under in '73, however.)

2004-05 New York Yankees: 88-101 / 89-95
In spite of one of the most strained and confused starting pitching situations ever faced by a contender, the Yankees managed, yet again, to overplay their hand last year.

2002-03 Minnesota Twins: 86-94 / 85-90
Oh, the irony. The White Sox had a better projected record than the Twins did in 2003 (88 to 85). It's a mistake to believe the current Sox are similar to those Twins. For one thing, they're better. For another, they pack a lot more punch.

1961-62 Cincinnati Reds: 83-93 / 93-98
Throwing these Reds in there is a bit of a stretch, but they did win the pennant and, more importantly, they were legitimately better the following year. Or were they? It's hard to say because of the new presence of the Mets and, to a lesser extent, the Colt .45s. Everyone except the Cubs either had a better or similar winning percentage in '62 thanks to the expansion clubs.

A question: what should a team's goal be at the outset of each season? Consider that, the American League East excluded, 15 of the last 25 division titles could have been won with 90 or fewer victories. The wildcard is a bit more demanding. Seven of the last 10 required at least 91 wins while the fewest wins required was 87. (The American League East has required a minimum of 94 wins the last four years after a couple of years of reduced requirements.)

Any team not calling itself the Red Sox or Yankees or battling same on an intradivisional basis has a fighting chance if they win 90 games in most years. The White Sox appear to be such a team at the moment. Defending champions or not, that's all that can be asked of any team that doesn't list its address as 161st Street and River Avenue or 4 Yawkey Way.

William Burke contributed research to this column.

Related Content:  Run Differential

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