The Chicago White Sox were slightly below the American League average in runs per game in 2014, but they were the median team. Accounting for their (typically hitter-friendly) home park, that made them something close to a competitive offense, but slightly substandard. Their bigger problem was run prevention, but there was no question—especially with Adam Dunn’s .773 OPS and 20 home runs gone—that they would need an offensive boost to compete in 2015. They got one, signing Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera as free agents, and filling in around the edges with minor signings like Emilio Bonifacio, Gordon Beckham and (on minor-league deals) catchers Geovany Soto and George Kottaras.
Here’s the problem those new faces will try to solve:
|Platooners and Part-Timers||531||1993||0.232||0.302||0.378||0.68||26.64|
|True Bench Players||286||1058||0.229||0.276||0.326||0.602||27.6|
Seventeen players got at least 100 plate appearances for the White Sox in 2014. Incidentally, if you’re looking for reasons that the White Sox finished fourth in the AL Central, that number is a good one. The Royals called on only 11 batters to take the plate that many times, and the Indians and Tigers got through the season with only 13 such players apiece. Injuries and failure forced the Sox to try so many different things that their lineup lacked stability and depth.
Whatever the reasons and implications, though, there were 17 guys taking regular at-bats for some stretch of 2014 on the South Side. Five had at least 500 plate appearances, and are listed as regulars. Five more had between 250 and 450 PA, and are listed as part-time players—even if, in fact, they played full-time, but not for the full season. The cause and effect are the same in either case. Finally, seven guys got between 110 and 240 PA, and are listed above as the true bench players.
One would expect the players who play most for any team to be their best hitters, and that’s born out for the fistful of other teams I broke down the same way. None of the others, though, had such a steep slope down from the performances of their front-line players to those of their role players and fill-ins. In particular, the steep climb in strikeout rate as one moves from one group to the next is unique to the Sox.
Melky Cabrera has struck out a hair less than 12 percent of the time over the last three seasons. Adam LaRoche is at 20.7 percent over that span, and had an 18.4-percent rate in 2014 that was his best since 2005. Emilio Bonifacio: 20.7 percent since 2012. Gordon Beckham, traded to the Angels, but then re-signed: 15.3 percent since 2012. The biggest changes the Sox made were aimed at adding depth—players who can take significant playing time without whiffing all the time and falling apart because of poor strike-zone control.
Speaking of poor strike-zone control, though, it’s worth noting that not all of the White Sox’s strikeout problems are captured by the sheer rate at which they struck out. Only four AL teams walked less often than Chicago, and no one had a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than their 3.27. They had the highest swing rate, second-lowest contact rate on swings and third-highest first-pitch swing rate of any team on the junior circuit. The White Sox needed to find some players who would make more contact, but they also needed guys who would exercise greater patience. We know, by now, that not all strikeouts are created equal, and that some teams can make striking out a lot part of a successful offensive strategy. That happens, though, when a team gets to those strikeouts because they work very deep counts, or have a lot of power hitters whom they counsel to swing for the fences even as they fall behind in the count. The 2014 White Sox had a whole bunch of players with middling power and an utter lack of plate discipline, guys who chased pitches indiscriminately and struck out a lot mostly because they swung and missed so much.
The worse a batter is at hitting the ball hard or taking walks, the more important strikeout rate becomes. That’s why the Sox wanted Gordon Beckham back; he stinks, but he feels like he could recover his value almost anytime, because he keeps putting the ball in play. Alexei Ramirez never walks, but remains a useful player—even an above-average hitter, for a shortstop—because he also never strikes out. Last year’s team had some bad hitters with very bad strikeout rates. This year’s team will have some better hitters, and the bad hitters who are left at least give themselves a chance.
Chris Sale and Jose Quintana weren’t enough to Chicago’s pitching to overcome an almost impossible lack of depth last year. Their middle relief corps was, arguably, the worst in recent memory. Just so, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton weren’t enough to overcome a position-player group with so many guys getting significant chances and failing so spectacularly. In the current environment, where strikeouts are a nearly perpetual threat to the viability of any offense, depth is more important than ever. The shallow end of the hitting pool is more sodden with toddler urine and dislodged Band-Aids than it has ever been, so teams need to improve their depth in order to stave off the threat of creeping contact trouble and eventual offensive collapse. That’s what the White Sox did this winter. They did as much as they could, given the market. We’ll see if they did enough.
Articles in this series:A Historical Study of the Strike Zone
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