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May 22, 2008

Prospectus Today

Central Surprise

by Joe Sheehan

Behind two big homers by Jermaine Dye and another good start by Javier Vazquez, the Chicago White Sox extended their winning streak to seven games and their lead in the AL Central to 2 games with a 7-2 win over the Cleveland Indians last night. The White Sox, largely considered a level behind the two favorites in the division, are the only AL Central team above .500, and have leads of 3 games on the Indians, and 6 games on the Tigers.

This isn't the 2005 team, which burst onto the scene with the coverage of "Smartball" and the mythology about speed and fundamentals driving success. This team isn't quite as good as that one, which had an excellent defense; it isn't getting nearly that kind of attention, and most of the coverage of Ozzie Guillen these days has more to do with media relations and personality than baseball. Well, that's just like 2005 too, I guess, but the point is that this doesn't look like '05. This is something different.

Start with the defining characteristic of these White Sox: stability. The White Sox have used 13 position players all year, and 13 pitchers. Those totals of 13 position players and 26 players are the fewest in the majors (although the Phillies have used just 12 pitchers). The White Sox have made two transactions since opening day, swapping out the last spot on the staff between Mike MacDougal and Ehren Wasserman, and moving Alexei Ramirez on and off the restricted list due to some visa issues. They haven't had an injury, they haven't made a significant lineup change, and they haven't played around with roles. The nine White Sox regulars have accounted for 355 of the team's 414 starts this season. The five starters have made 45 of the team's 46 starts. The bullpen has featured six pretty effective pitchers more or less locked into roles.

Will Carroll can quantify the effect of injuries by looking at the missing playing time, expected performance, and salary paid to DL'd players. What happens when those costs are zero? Not having to move down and use the replacement players, the #26-#35 guys in an organization who are constantly moving on and off rosters around the league, has significant value to a team. It's not just that the White Sox have been healthy-they have-it's that almost no one has performed poorly enough to lose their roster spot. Certainly Juan Uribe's sub-600 OPS has his playing time in jeopardy, but until Ramirez or Pablo Ozuna out-hits him, no change is warranted. The White Sox have been very fortunate, given the age and histories of their players, to have this kind of roster stability so far. It is a competitive advantage.

How have those 26 players performed? Well, the Sox have a lot of balance-they are fifth in the AL in runs scored, fifth in EqA, second in fewest runs allowed, and fourth in Support-Neutral Value (but just ninth in Reliever Wins Expected). Their +38 run differential is second only to the Red Sox in the AL, and their third-order record is almost an exact match for their actual one. Unlike, say, the Marlins, the White Sox are not outperforming their fundamentals. There's no red flag here that signals an imminent demise.

The offense has become extremely un-"Smartball." We wrote a lot in 2005 about how, despite perceptions, the Sox were as reliant on the home run as any team in baseball. That has continued throughout the Guillen Era. In 2006, the Sox scored more than half of their runs on the long ball, leading the league. They slipped to seventh in the category last season in a year in which their offense tanked. This season, the Sox are once again leading the AL in the percentage of runs they score on homers, a whopping 51.1 percent in a season in which homers are way, way down in the AL. The second-place team, the Devil Rays, are under 40 percent. That's dominating the category.

The White Sox were killed last year by their inability to do anything productive on balls in play. They were second in homers, seventh in walks drawn, and still had the fewest runs scored, lowest OBP and second-lowest SLG in the league, largely because they batted a league-low .246, and a low-by-13-points .281 on balls in play. The White Sox had fewer doubles and triples combined (269) than any AL team had doubles alone. This year, the shape of the production is much the same: second in homers, fifth in walks, 12th in doubles-plus-triples, 13th in batting average, last in BABIP. That they've moved to sixth in OBP and fourth in slugging, as well as fifth in runs, is explained by two things. One, led by Carlos Quentin, they have 23 hit-by-pitches, as compared to 52 all of last year. That's a little extra OBP. Second, the Sox have been very good with runners in scoring position: a team that hits .248 and slugs .413 has pumped that to .283 and .466 with ducks on the right ponds.

It's just a strange offense, but an effective one. As the performance with RISP tracks back to the team's averages, they will lose some run scoring, but this is still a team in the top half of the league in the two major indicators, and fifth in overall EqA.

The Sox run prevention is less of a mystery. The team just doesn't give up walks or homers: fourth in free passes allowed, first in homers, despite a staff with fly-ball tendencies in what is usually a good home-run park. That last number is a bit fluky, even noting that the Sox have slightly reduced their fly-ball rate this year. Sox relievers have allowed just five home runs in 119 innings, on 87 fly balls allowed. The HR/FB percentage of 5.7 percent is about half of the expected rate. It's not unheard of for that number to stay down all year-the 2007 Mariners pulled 88 wins from a similar fluke-but it is the one most likely to change the White Sox's fortunes.

Still, you have a staff with the third-best K/BB in the league and the best home-run rate. That's more than enough to drive terrific run prevention. The starters have been providing innings; in fact, one of the key similarities between this team and the 2005 one is the starters' workloads. They've been averaging just shy of 6 1/3 innings per start, allowing Guillen to keep the relievers in defined roles and preventing him from needing lots of extra innings from the back of the bullpen. That's what pitch efficiency does-reduces walks and lets you get more innings from the rotation. If the offensive traits of "Smartball" aren't in evidence, and the defensive ones are harder to find (the Sox have an average DER this year), the pitching characteristics are still in play.

Can this be sustained? Despite playing above expectations as a team, the White Sox don't have a lot of negative markers. The home-run rate, especially among the relievers, is going to rise. However, the offense isn't likely to change much-four guys are above expectations, while four others are substantially below. If the usual happens, that still gives the Sox a good lineup, although it would be hard to improve it substantially. The only place where the Sox are likely to add a player is second base, and finding a good-hitting second baseman in the trade market is like looking for a portly vegan. The bench is awful: seven walks and ten extra-base hits so far. That's something Kenny Williams will look to improve.

Mostly, with these Sox, what you see is what you get. They won't hit for average, won't knock balls into the gaps, and they won't impress you with their defense. They hit home runs and draw walks, and keep the bad guys from doing the same. Probably the biggest reason to like them is simply the inability of the Indians and Tigers to play .500 baseball so far. The buy-in for winning the AL Central eight weeks ago was 93 wins. It's lower than that now, and if the Sox weren't likely to reach that first number, it's much more likely that they can get to 88 or 89, and that may be all they need.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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