Surprising performances have fueled the Chicago White Sox’s rise to the top of the division. Adam Dunn — who looked finished last season — is off to one of the best starts of his career, Jake Peavy is healthy for the first time in years and AJ Pierzynski has already clubbed eleven home runs. And while those performances were unexpected, there’s another player on the White Sox whose play has been even more shocking. At age-28, Alejandro De Aza has blossomed into one of the better center fielders in the game.
De Aza’s breakout was supposed to happen five years ago. After a strong Spring Training with the Florida Marlins, De Aza was named the starter in center field. His rise to prominence was short-lived. De Aza injured his ankle about a week into his debut season. While the injury was initially believed to be just a sprain, it turned out De Aza had been playing with a stress fracture. De Aza didn’t return until August, but looked overmatched in his debut season, hitting just .229/.261/.313. The following season, De Aza injured his ankle in an exhibition game and missed the entire season. After receiving just 27 plate appearances with the Marlins in 2009, the White Sox claimed him off waivers.
After decent performances in Triple-A in both 2010 and 2011, De Aza finally had an opportunity to make an impact. With Alex Rios struggling mightily, the White Sox turned to De Aza in center. The results were encouraging, in just 171 plate appearances, De Aza hit .329/.400/.520. That performance was enough for the White Sox to enter the 2012 season with De Aza firmly supplanted as their center fielder.
De Aza has responded in a big way. His 2.3 WAR rates him as the tenth best outfielder in baseball this season, and the fifth best center fielder. His overall line of .305/.382/.428 is strong — and he’s showing solid power and patience — but it’s also propped up by a .374 BABIP. While that’s extremely high for most players, we’re not entirely sure what De Aza’s natural BABIP should be. In his limited career, De Aza’s BABIP is .360, far higher than what we would predict. But even if De Aza’s BABIP drops to a more manageable number, he’s still shown some skills that should make him a useful piece for the White Sox.
De Aza has been more selective at the plate this season, but he’s still making solid contact. All of De Aza’s Swing rates are down this season, but his Contact% has jumped to 81.4. Much of that improvement has come on balls in the zone, where De Aza is making contact with 92.2% of pitches. And it hasn’t been weak contact, either. De Aza’s line drive rate has jumped to 30.6% this season, good for fourth in all of baseball. That definitely explains his elevated BABIP. De Aza has also managed to keep the ball on the ground, which plays to his strengths as a hitter. His fly ball rate is just 26.7% this year. While that approach probably won’t lead to many more home runs, it allows De Aza to capitalize on his speed.
That’s the nice thing about De Aza, he’ll contribute in multiple areas. He’s been a strong baserunner thus far, accumulating a 2.7 BsR (or UBR). And he seems like a capable defensive center fielder, too. We don’t have a huge sample with De Aza, but UZR seems to think he’s at least passable out there.
The White Sox went “All In” last season, spending the most money on players in franchise history on to experience a crushing defeat. Because of that, the team decided to stand pat and take a chance on De Aza this off-season. And while all those high-paid players are finally living up to their billing, it’s De Aza’s performance that has been the most pleasant surprise. He’s gone from a player with no track record of success, to a pretty decent center fielder for at least the short-term future. For a team that has bogged themselves down with heavy contracts, the White Sox’s best acquisition may have also been their cheapest.