Who had the White Sox winning the Central in his or her preseason prognostications? Okay, I’m sure someone somewhere did, and maybe that person is not even a White Sox fan. And, yes, there is still about two-thirds of a season to go. As has been said many times before, the American League Central is full of flawed teams, but the White Sox seemed to be headed for another “transitional” year. In my personal experience, this is when they have been the most dangerous during the Kenny Williams Era — just when you least expect it, there are the White Sox on top. The Santos trade, the manager brouhaha, the talk of letting the kids play despite a dearth of good young talent and more all seemed to point to a year of mediocrity on the South Side.
Yet, here we are: the White Sox currently lead the division by 1.5 games. Gavin Floyd and John Danks have been somewhat disappointing, but Chris Sale has been a revelation as a starter and Jake Peavy is pitching better than he has in years. Paul Konerko‘s bat is continuing its surprising mid-30s surge. Adam Dunn is seemingly back from the dead. Alejandro De Aza quietly having a good year, Alex Rios has been useful, and Dayan Viciedo‘s power has made up for his near-total lack of walks. But today I want to briefly mention a key under-the-radar performance by a guy who usually gets attention for other reasons, a guy who I think everyone would say is just about their “favorite” player, and a guy who currently has a higher wOBA than his replacement (ol’ what’s his name) in Minnesota: A.J. Pierzynski. That’s right, he not only keeps coming back, but now he is hitting for power.
Pierzynski is 35, but it seems like he has been around even longer than that. He has always irritated opposing players and fans, and occasionally teammates as well. Otherwise relatively stoic opposing fans have been known to utter foul epithets at even the mention of his name. But it is also true that he has always hit well enough to play pretty much every day. He was a key part of the early-2000s Twins teams, but after a career-best year in 2003, was traded (for a massive haul) to the Giants to make room for Joe Mauer. His tenure in San Francisco ended after one year and reports of friction with the pitching staff (this trade and subsequent fallout is a useful reminder to people who wonder why universal admiration still eludes Brian Sabean).
Pierzynski landed a one-year deal with the White Sox and was the starting catcher on the 2005 World Championship team, and has become a fixture in Chicago. He has never been especially good overall. His hitting is acceptable for a catcher, but nothing special. Whatever happened in San Francisco, he actually seems to have been a slightly above-average pitcher framer the last few seasons, even if his other defensive skills have been below average. While it always seemed like the White Sox would eventually need to make a change, Pierzynski has managed a series of two- and three-year deals in because the minor league system never produced a suitable replacement and they could not afford a better free agent.
Before the season, Pierzynski’s “meh-ness” seemed as good as any as a symbol for the 2012 White Sox: decent enough, but not a player a contender would want to rely on nor one young enough to hold promise for the future. Moreover, he did not really have a skill set that seemed like it would age well. Pierzynski had always had extremely low walk rates, and the bulk of his offensive contributions came from batting average supported by his low strikeout rates. Much earlier in his career, he had had average or slightly above-average power, but even that had been trending down the last few seasons in Chicago. He looked like a guy who was simply under contract for 2012 on a team without better options.
But just as the 2012 White Sox have surprised almost everyone so far, so has Pierzynski. He does have a career-high walk rate (6.2 percent — look out Bobby Abreu!), but the main reason he has been having the best year of his career at the plate (.299/.345/.512, 128 wRC+) is his massive surge of power. He already has eight home runs in 177 2012 plate appearances after hitting only eight in all of 2011 and nine in 2010.
It is not all that clear whether the increased power is responsible for the slightly higher walk rate or the other way around. His plate discipline numbers show Pierzynski to be as aggressive as ever this season, so there does not seem to be a strong connection in this case. Indeed, outside of his power numbers, very little seems to have changed overall in terms of his rates: his strikeout rate is higher than the two previous years, but is in-line with his overall career. He is actually hitting fewer extra-base hits in play (doubles and triples) overall, but a greater proportion of those are triples this season (two triples already is his highest number in a season since 2004 in San Francisco).
So not much has changed for Pierzysnki other than the home runs. Given the decrease in doubles as opposed to previous seasons, it may be that some of those doubles are going over the fence. Without hitf/x data, it is difficult to tell if Pierzynski is really hitting the ball harder this year. It certainly is not reflected on his balls in play. How about his home runs? According to ESPN Hit Tracker, the speed of Pierzysnki’s home runs so far in 2012 is actually a bit down from 2011, and in line with his previous seasons.
This is not to rule out some other change that in Pierzyski’s approach or abilities that has not been discussed here. Perhaps the power surge will continue. For now, it it difficult to pinpoint any reason for the increased home run power, and given the small sample thus far, Pierzynski is still probably pretty much the same “decent for a catcher” hitter he has been for a long time. However, Pierzynski’s current .364 wOBA and eight home runs are already in the bank, as are the White Sox wins. That can’t be taken away. I’m sure dozens of people are happy for him.