The Chicago White Sox are currently among the five worst American League offenses since integration. Let that sink in.
Baseball Prospectus has the most useful and readily readable holistic offensive metric available for historical analysis. It’s called True Average (TAv), and it adjusts for league and park effects, as well as accounting for the run values of all batting outcomes, including ones (like reaching base on errors) that some others miss. According to TAv, the only teams worse than the Sox (as far back as the metric goes, about 1950) are two teams—the Twins and Blue Jays—from the strike-split 1981 campaign; the quasi-expansion 1972 Texas Rangers; and the last Philadelphia Athletics team managed by Connie Mack. Connie Mack!
That’s what we’re talking about here. This is where the White Sox are wallowing. Thanks to the intentionally futile Marlins (who are on a similarly historically awful track in the NL) and Astros, they’re flying under the radar, but Chicago is as bad an offense as the AL has seen since the advent of the DH.
Importantly, too, unlike the two teams who have so generously provided cover, the White Sox didn’t end up here as part of an overarching plan to rebuild, or as the unhappy result of a failed experiment and subsequent salary dump. Thanks to the Ricky Nolasco trade and Miami’s savings therefrom, the Sox are on track to pay exactly double ($118 million) what Houston and Miami will pay combined ($26 million for the Astros, $33 million for the Fish) to players this year.
So how did we get here? It’s a long story, and it’s obviously multifactorial. But let’s hit a few bullet points.
Refusal to Rebuild
The Astros reached their current doldrums because they stubbornly refused to switch their focus to long-term investments and to engage in a sustainable form of roster construction. Instead, they threw up a model home, took up residence and tried to sell it as a million-dollar mansion. This was 2011, when their slogan was “All In” and their strategy was to add Adam Dunn to their fold while rabidly re-signing Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski.
That was a spectacular failure. That 2011 team went 79-83, and that belied an even worse team. Manager Ozzie Guillen finally broke up with GM Ken Williams, and was exiled to Miami. Dunn was a mess after an April appendectomy. Konerko showed signs of a glorious flourish to a great career, but it fell far short of good enough. The fan base, neither voluminous nor terribly engaged in the best of times, reacted with dismay, then indignation, then apathy.
In the following winter, Williams promised a thorough effort to rebuild—something Chicago had not done since the 1980s. Halfway into that, though, he seemingly switched gears, and extended John Danks for five years instead of dealing him for core pieces of a good team down the road. Danks made just a fistful of starts for the 2012 White Sox, a team that hung around much longer but ultimately fell short of the playoffs.
Williams moved on from his executive role after that misfire campaign, another in which the team’s attendance suffered. His middle-road, half-a-loaf philosophies trailed behind him, though. New GM Rick Hahn gave two years and $29 million to Jake Peavy over this past winter, instead of letting him walk and seeking draft-pick compensation. He also signed Jeff Keppinger to a three-year deal. Pierzynski, however, he let walk as a free agent.
Lack of Reinforcements
The White Sox’s farm system is frighteningly thin, largely due to their insistence on trying to win every year, at all costs. That has resulted in their fielding just 37 different batters, including pitchers, this season, the fifth-lowest total in the American League. Not for nothing, but a team struggling this badly should have turned to more than the average number of different potential guys to help out, not fewer. The Sox, though, just don;t have anyone worth even a look in the upper levels of their farm system.
Pierzynski was a big loss, because he batted left-handed. With financial and developmental commitments in place to right-handed batters at each corner outfield spot, the Sox needed a guy like Pierzynski, someone who could hit right-handers and played a position usually populated by a righty batsman.
Without him, the Sox have had the platoon advantage in a smaller percentage of their plate appearances than any other AL team, and it isn’t close. They’re at 45 percent. The next-lowest numbers are 50 percent, by a few teams. The Indians and A’s, blessed with depth and a few switch-hitters, enjoy that advantage 68 percent of the time.
Inability to Control Strike Zone
If you believe, and I do, that the intrinsic and ineffable portion of the platoon advantage shows up in walks and strikeouts, the point above informs this one. In the AL, only the Orioles have walked less often than the Sox this season, and only the Astros have a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio. Houston is also the only team that swings at a higher percentage of their pitches seen.
The Sox have a higher fly-ball proclivity than all but two other AL teams, but a league-worst rate of homers per fly ball. Only the Royals have a worse isolated power figure among AL teams.
Since the team as a whole is quite slow and double-play prone, this isn’t the end of the world on its own, but pair it with the issues above and you see a disturbing pattern. The Sox have the fourth-worst BABIP in the AL because of that tendency. They don’t hit for power. They don’t make good contact. They don’t draw walks. There is nothing this offense does well.
Still, the Sox should not be this bad. They have some players whose track records leave you wondering how their current cratering is possible. Keppinger was never great, but was quite good in Tampa Bay last year. This year, he began hurt, and has come back very, very bad. Konerko, building a fringe Hall of Fame case prior to this season, has moved farther from that by being quite bad, and then getting hurt. Those two have been a combined 15 runs worse than a replacement player this season, considering only offense and positional value.
Alex Rios, Alejandro De Aza, Adam Dunn and Alexei Ramirez have been better than those two, but still quite bad. A quartet whose composite OBP expectation could reasonably have been pegged around .340 is (work with me here) OBPing .322, .311, .301 and .305, respectively. There are a lot of players here who should be much better than they are. Trouble is, nothing suggests that any of them has been overwhelmingly unlucky, and given the ages of Rios, Dunn, Konerko, Keppinger, even Ramirez given his position and skill set, it’s hard to say they’re likely to suddenly rediscover the magic.
Young Guns Backfire
Then there are what passes for the fresh-faced future core of the White Sox. Gordon Beckham has provided some reason for optimism after some tough seasons, but the other two regulars whom the Sox control for several seasons, and who the team might have hoped would become solid role players for their next good team, have been utterly nightmarish. Dayan Viciedo, a portly and poor left fielder, is having Starlin Castro’s season at the plate (.234/.269/.361). Tyler Flowers has been, if possible, worse, hitting .205/.257/.367, with a 70:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. (I’m not sure, though, that that’s actually worse, given that Flowers plays catcher, and so at least delivers some positional value.) There’s simply no way the club can count on either of those two to be contributors to a winning team anytime soon.
That’s an ugly picture, and it’s unlikely to brighten up soon. Courtney Hawkins, the best prospect in the Sox system entering this season, is hitting .191/.273/.485 in High-A ball, and has fanned in 43 percent of his plate appearances there. This is where things stand for this team right now. They could, in theory, roll the money coming off the books this winter for the likes of Konerko, Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain into the roster for 2014, but it’s not really enough to rehab the roster. Spending even further past their margins wouldn’t make much sense, since attendance has not rewarded their good-faith efforts of late.
The White Sox remained the little brother in the big city even after winning the World Series in 2005. The Cubs are on the rise, however slowly. The South Siders are currently the worst team in the AL Central, and they will be again in 2014, and probably in 2015. If they want to jump-start their retooling and avoid a dive into an Astrosian abyss from which they lack the Q rating to reemerge, they have to start now.
Trade Chris Sale. This is a no-brainer to me. You have to do it. Trade him now, while he’s one of the junior circuit’s four or five best starters. Trade him while the acquiring team can still get the maximum value out of his team-friendly extension. Trade him for Jurickson Profar-plus, or for Francisco Lindor-plus, or for Oscar Taveras-plus, or for Archie Bradley-plus. Just trade him, and get started in the right direction right now, because if you don’t, you’re sunk. You’re in the tall grass. The White Sox have to get radical, or they’re not going to be the next Astros; they’re going to be the next Pirates.Next post: Chicago Cubs Notes: Numbering Matt Garza, Travis Wood’s Consistency, and Pitching Development
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