Contrary to appearances, the Chicago White Sox may be closer to a World
Series appearance than they were in 2000. They won’t make the playoffs this
season, and they’ll win far fewer games than they did last year, but the
team they are developing has a better shot of someday making it through
October than the squad that got embarrassed by the Mariners last fall.
In 1999, the White Sox had a winning percentage of .466, then vaulted to a
.580 winning percentage last season. Any team that improves so substantially
in one season is almost certain to fall back the next (see an earlier column
on the Detroit Tigers for a discussion of this principle). When Ron Schueler
said last year that the White Sox had arrived a year early, he was accused
of poormouthing. But just as he was when he made the White Flag Trade,
Schueler was right. Chicago’s miracle season was made in the first half of
2000. Before the All-Star break, the ChiSox had a winning percentage of
.632, but managed only .533 afterward. The team’s Pythagorean winning
percentage in the second half was .528. The high overall win total was
attributable to two hot months, April (17-8) and June (20-7). Otherwise, the
White Sox were 58-52 (.527), a more typical progression from the previous
season. The second half of 2000 might be the better standard to use when
considering this season’s performance.
Looked at that way, this season is something shy of a disaster. As of July
29, the White Sox were winning at a .495 pace, just one game under .500.
Their Pythagorean figure of .480 was a bit lower. It’s an improvement over
1999, but a drop-off from 2000, even if we confine our analysis to last year
‘s second half. Something has gone wrong, but what?
Jerry Manuel, the AL Manager of the Year in 2000, deserves demerits for
sticking with Julio Ramirez and Royce Clayton too long,
weakening the lineup with too many hitters who hit like American League
pitchers. He also can be justly criticized for his role in the silly attempt
to move Jose Valentin off of shortstop and into center field, a
tactical mistake which is a more substantial contributing factor in the team
‘s drop-off in production than Frank Thomas‘s injury has been. By
signing Clayton the White Sox had intended to improve on Valentin’s defense.
Moving him to center field was a downgrade from Chris Singleton‘s
glovework, effectively negating the intended improvement up the middle, so
it was a questionable move from its inception.
It gets worse. Valentin didn’t need to be replaced afield. Yes, he committed
errors, but he had terrific range, and by our measurements his overall
defense was approximate in value to Clayton’s. Factor in Valentin’s
offensive contribution, and there is no justification for taking at-bats
away from him just to get Clayton into the lineup. Valentin’s EqA from last
season was fifth highest among American League shortstops. Clayton? He
placed 25th. Not that the entirety of the team’s troubles can be explained
by the Clayton debacle, but it’s indicative of how the team’s management has
lost its way.
To hear the organization tell it, the reason for their fall is a
disproportionate number of injuries to key players. Frank Thomas has been a
non-factor, while Valentin and Herbert Perry, two major contributors
to last year’s run, have been hampered by injuries. More important, so the
theory goes, have been the troubles on the pitching staff. It’s true that
nine members of last year’s staff have had surgery since the end of last
season. And David Wells, brought in to be the ace, was bothered by
injuries since the beginning of spring training, eventually succumbing to
the knife and being lost for the season. When asked by the Chicago
Tribune to account for the rash of pitcher injuries, GM Kenny Williams
said, "For whatever reason, this is just our time." Mike
Sirotka, disagreeably departed to Toronto’s disabled list, concurred
with Williams, noting that, "the fact a lot of guys are having are
trouble is purely coincidental."
I don’t want to discount dumb luck as a factor, but really…nine pitchers?
Circumstantial evidence suggests that there might be a direct cause or two
at play. Herm Schneider offered a little more insight. "Last year
really took a toll on us," he said. "Guys really had to dig down
deep into themselves. Guys had to bear down and throw a lot of intense
pitches." Intense pitches? I suppose this means fastballs at maximum
velocity or breaking balls with maximum torque. So it wasn’t just bad luck
that caused the injuries; the pitchers threw in pain, aggravating existing
problems. Schneider was philosophical about it. "There’s a price that
goes with winning," he said. "I really believe that what you are
seeing is part of the price."
The price might not be as steep as it appears. The principals in last year’s
rotation were James Baldwin, Cal Eldred, Jim Parque,
Kip Wells, and Mike Sirotka. Four of the five are not with the
club this season, and none of those four are anything special. By
mid-winter, it was clear that Sirotka’s arm was shredded. Along with the
rest of the team, Baldwin managed a good first half but broke down, barely
making it to the Division Series against Seattle. Upon his recent trade to
Los Angeles, it was broadly reported that he has posted one of the worst
starter’s ERAs in the modern era. Eldred is a perennial casualty. Parque is
out for the season, but he has yet to be anything special, a replaceable
soft-throwing left-hander with control problems. The staff had the
third-best ERA is the American League last year, but it was a fluke. Wells
is the only member of that rotation with any star potential, and he’s still
here, accompanied now by Mark Buehrle, Sean Lowe, Jon
Garland, and Danny Wright. Given the choice, I’d take this year’s
staff over the one that carried the White Sox to 95 wins in 2000.
The spate of injuries has a silver lining. It has forced the Sox to test
some of its heralded pitching talent. In the course of plugging holes in the
major-league staff, the Sox have demonstrated the value of maintaining a
rich store of pitching talent in the minors. Rather than toss their minor
leaguers into quick-fix deals for replacement-level players, the Sox have
held on to their prospects, ensuring that a reserve of cheap, accessible
arms would be available. And rather than fill-out the rotation with
replacement-level pitchers, the Sox have phased in some of their Triple-A
talent, exposing them to major-league hitters in what is, in terms of
playoff contention, a lost season.
A collateral benefit is that by using players from Triple-A, the Sox make
room at Charlotte for players who are ready to be promoted from Double-A
Birmingham. What makes the plan work is that the Sox have the talent to pull
it off. Baseball America rated the White Sox minor-league
organization as the best in baseball, with, "the deepest stable of
pitching prospects in the game." It might take a couple more years for
the benefits to manifest themselves, but the Sox are closer to winning a
World Series than everyone thought they were before the injuries.
Necessity is dictating that the Sox move their pitchers through the system,
but how do they decide who gets promoted? At the Triple-A All Star Game, I
spoke with Charlotte pitching coach Kirk Champion, in his 13th year with the
White Sox, who gave some insight as to how the Sox evaluate who’s ready to
move. It’s not merely a matter of looking at a player’s stats, nor is it as
if ranked prospects are moved on a timetable. In short, the two
considerations are command and makeup.
A fundamental starting point is that in game play the focus is on the
pitcher, not the opposing hitter. To Champion, his pitchers’ strengths are
more important than any opposing hitter’s weaknesses. He’s more concerned
with his pitcher’s curve than the batter’s ability to hit a curve.
In all pitchers, he’s looking for three things:
- the ability to locate the fastball on both sides of the plate;
- in all match-ups, the ability to throw two of the first three pitches
for strikes; and
- the ability to consistently throw at least two pitches for strikes 65%
of the time.
If a pitcher can’t throw one of his pitches for strikes 65% of the time,
then it’s not a pitch in his arsenal, as far as Champion is concerned.
The makeup analysis for starters is different from that used for relievers.
For starters, Champion looks at
- how the pitcher does in the first inning, which indicates whether he
came ready to play;
- how he fares in the inning after being scored upon, which indicates how
focused the pitchers is and whether he dwells on mistakes, thereby
compounding his problems; and
- how a pitcher does in the first 15 pitches thrown above his previous
high pitch count, which indicates how ready he is to be pushed to a higher
level of endurance.
For relievers, Champion monitors:
- performance against the first batter faced, indicative of the pitcher’s
- how he pitches when brought into a game when the team is tied or within
a run either way, which is another way of gauging focus; and
- how a pitcher does on the second day of back-to-back appearances, a test
of endurance and recuperative speed.
There are cases–Sean Lowe, Matt Ginter–in which a pitcher is being
developed as both a starter and a reliever. In the role of starter, Champion
stresses the necessity of developing a change-up, since the pitcher is
likely to see a lineup turn over at least once. Without a quality change-up,
the fastball will be worthless after the second or third inning. When a guy
like Ginter is being used in relief, he is encouraged to attack, to blow
hitters away, and his arsenal is typically limited to two pitches.
In an age of high scoring and Ruthian home-run totals, pitchers throw
timidly, nibbling at the plate, increasing their walk totals. As Earl Weaver
did, Champion teaches his pitchers to attack hitters and not to pitch in
fear of the solo home run. In short, he stresses the importance of avoiding
the three-run bomb.
Charlotte is a hitters’ haven, so does Champion teach his pitchers to throw
any differently at home? The home park has a short distance to the
right-field wall, so right-handed hitters are always trying to go the other
way. Champion instructs his pitchers to work the inside part of the plate to
righties, keeping them from extending their arms and poking shots to right.
As for pitch counts, Champion isn’t dogmatic. He generally likes to keep his
starters within the range of 100 pitches, but as he notes, "My
relievers have to pitch, too."
Champion treats prospects and non-prospects similarly, doing his best to
develop each according to his abilities. For non-prospects, Champion
stresses the importance of doing everything a pitcher can to develop so that
he can help the major-league club directly, by becoming the next late
bloomer, or indirectly, by performing well enough to be sought in trade. For
example, Derek Hasselhoff had a great first half and was used to
acquire Alan Embree. The Sox had no use for Hasselhoff in Chicago,
but now he’s with an organization (the Giants) where he stands a better
chance of making the big-league club. For Champion, this helps the
organization as much as developing a prospect, so the minor-league vets get
his full attention.
We noted in Baseball Prospectus 2000 that the White Sox "pick
pitchers of every stripe, giving them a diverse group of prospects, from
highly-touted college stars like Kip Wells to high-school phenoms like Jon
Garland, from juco surprises like Aaron Myette to college veterans
like Josh Fogg or Matt Ginter or even Pat Daneker." A
pitcher is fairly well indoctrinated into the White Sox scheme by the time
he gets to Charlotte and Champion, but there are still differences in what
they need to be taught. College pitchers take longer to learn to pitch
inside, a byproduct of extended exposure to aluminum bats. College pitchers
rely more on the breaking pitches than high-schoolers do, so they need to be
taught to locate their fastball and change speeds. High-schoolers have to
spend more time developing breaking pitches. They rely less on their
breaking stuff because they typically have fastballs good enough to get them
drafted so young.
A lot of Champion’s work is already on display in Chicago. Kip Wells is
arguably the ace of the staff. Rocky Biddle was slated for Triple-A
this year but has been with the White Sox all season. After having a
predictably rough 2000 for Chicago and a shaky spring, Jon Garland was sent
back to Charlotte to start the season but is now with the ChiSox. Sean Lowe
spent a little time in Triple-A before taking a spot in the Sox bullpen, on
his way to a regular rotation turn. Long reliever Gary Glover had a
hot start for the White Sox. When he went cold they sent him back to
Triple-A, where Champion worked with him on his arm slot. Glover had six
outstanding starts and was promptly recalled to the majors. Recently, Matt
Ginter was called up for an extended look.
It’s unclear whether the Sox plan to use Ginter as a starter or reliever,
but the resolution of Keith Foulke’s contract status ought to make the
choice clear. Ginter was outstanding for Charlotte in both roles. He’s a
slider pitcher with a mid-90s fastball. He hasn’t yet racked up dominating
strikeout numbers (7.5 per nine innings), but he gets enough. He allowed 58
hits in 72 1/3 Triple-A innings this year, after holding Double-A batters to
a .233 average last year. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 3 to 1.
However he’s used, Ginter has the indicators of success.
Danny Wright was recently promoted from Double-A straight to the Sox. He has
the organization’s best heat, throwing as high as 98 mph. Going into 2001
his control had been a bit iffy, but this year his strikeout-to-walk ratio
is 3 to 1. He allowed only six homers and 112 hits in 134 innings, while
racking up 128 strikeouts. In his first appearance with the White Sox, he
gave up a home run on his second pitch. He got the next three hitters on
just a handful of pitches, perhaps demonstrating that he has the makeup to
make the most of his improving command. The Sox are using him in relief but
he projects as a starter.
The White Sox had not only Baseball America‘s highest organizational
rating, but its Player of the Year as well, Jon Rauch. He started the
season in the Charlotte rotation, but is out for the season with a
"shoulder hook." The injury is similar to those suffered by Lowe
and Bobby Howry, and Rauch is expected to recover fully. Other
starters have emerged for Charlotte amid the constant shuttling. Matt
Guerrier was excellent in 15 starts in Double-A and he joined the
Charlotte rotation. His combined minor league numbers are 125 2/3 innings
pitched, 108 hits, 90 strikeouts, and 37 walks, with nine homers allowed.
With all the other talent taking up slots in Chicago, Guerrier won’t be
rushed but should get a call-up next season. Geronimo Mendoza has
emerged to lead the Charlotte rotation. After an unimpressive 12 starts at
Double-A, where he was upside-down hits-to-innings with a strikeout-to-walk
ratio of just over even, he was promoted to Triple-A and under Champion’s
tutelage has put up improved numbers: 55 1/3 innings, 51 hits, 18 walks, and
22 strikeouts. Josh Fogg has been splitting time between the rotation and
bullpen, but is now working as a full-time starter. His performance this
year has been poor and he needs the exposure.
A rotation of Kip Wells, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Sean Lowe, and either
Rocky Biddle, Danny Wright, Matt Ginter, or Jon Rauch would be outstanding,
certainly an improvement over last season’s overachievers and a decent bet
to be the American League’s next great rotation (David Wells will not be
back to screw up the works). A bullpen of Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry,
Lorenzo Barcelo, Matt Ginter, and Gary Glover, with either Kelly
Wunsch or Ken Vining as a situational left-hander, within one
year will be as good as any you’ll see this October. There’s more talent
worth mentioning, such as re-acquired Gary Majewski, but with the Sox
so loaded as it is, their other prospects, most of whom at clearly still at
the "project" stage, should be left to season in the minors for
the next year at least. With all that talent, including a healthy Jim
Parque, the Sox will still have plenty left over to use in trades.
The A’s, Astros, and Sox are going the way of the Twins, developing from
within on the cheap, without skimping on scouting, rather than using their
minor leaguers as fodder in trades for replacement-level pitchers having
career years. This is a team with a plan, focusing as much on command and
makeup as they do on stuff. Luck is the residue of design. The Sox suffer
bad luck with injuries, but good luck in that in the beach they have good
young players entering an advanced stage of development.
Scheuler was a bit off. The Sox arrived not a year early, but three. But the
important point is that it’s the team you’re seeing now, and not last year’s
95-win club, that could become Chicago’s first World Series winner in
generations. And like the A’s, Twins, Padres, and Astros, they’re in the
process of demonstrating how it’s design and not money that matters most.
Keith J. Scherer is an attorney practicing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at KJSbaseball@aol.com.