Getting late early for the White Sox

[Note: this article was written Saturday afternoon, and thus a lot of the specific info is out of date by a game or two. Just roll with it, as a lot of the broader points hold up.]

Can they win the division?

Hell yes.

This is my third straight year doing the five questions thing on White Sox at THT, and I’ve never been as bullish on the team as I am in 2011.

Their offensive should be a bit better with Adam Dunn. A full year of Edwin Jackson improves their rotation. The bullpen looks better with Sale and Crain.

The overall roster has improved, and this was a team that won 88 games and finished second last year.

Those were my words in THT’s preseason preview of the Sox. I thought the 2011 White Sox were the team to beat in the AL Central, and picking the Sox to win the division was hardly an unorthodox move. For example, in THT’s staff predictions, the Sox were the consensus favorites to win the division and only one of our 22 predictors had them finishing worse than third.

So it’s a bit of a surprise that the first week of May ends with the Sox possessing the worst record in baseball. This is thanks to an absolute death spiral the team has experienced, dropping 18 out of 22 from mid-April through last Friday.

All along, you keep waiting and expecting them to turn the corner, kick it into gear and play like a team that has talent. Yet they keep losing, falling under .500, into last, and finally the worst record in the game. Their nadir came May 3 in a game against the similarly struggling Twins. Minnesota starter Francisco Liriano, a man sporting an ERA on the wrong side of 9.00 when the game began, improbably no-hit the Sox.

What’s fascinating about this team is that there’s no really easy explanation for its slump. You can’t point the finger at one or two causes because most guys on the team have played a role.

In the early part of the year, back when they still had a winning record, the bullpen caused grief. The Sox led during each of the first six games they lost, and usually led late in the game before the bullpen choked up the lead. The chief culprit was Matt Thornton, an ace set-up man this year promoted to closer. He blew his first four save opportunities on the year. (To be fair, in two of those games leftfielder Juan Pierre made a key ninth-inning error).

After years of lights-out pitching for the Sox, Thornton allowed a run in five of his first six appearances this year. He’s improved since then, only allowing the opponents to score in two of his succeeding six outings, but even in those games he’s allowed five runs (four earned) off seven hits and two walks in 5.1 innings.

Chris Sale, who looked terrific last year as a rookie, has experienced a rotten start to his sophomore season. Veteran Will Ohman gives the Sox ‘pen a trio of lefties with an ERA over 7.00. Yeah, that ain’t good.

Dunn: still looking for his stroke

Fortunately for the bullpen, people have stopped complaining about its inability to hold leads. Unfortunately, that’s because they virtually never have leads to hold.

The hitting, which began the year very hot—the White Sox led the league in runs scored at one point long, long ago—completely evaporated.

They’ve scored 54 runs in their 4-18 slump, tallying more than four runs in a game exactly twice. The team’s entire batting average in that skid is .202. You rarely ever see a team bat that badly for that long.

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They also have an uninspiring .306 SLG and .276 OBP.

The most obvious problems have been Dunn, Alex Rios, and Gordon Beckham.

Dunn, the big signing in the off-season, missed almost a week in April after losing his appendix and hasn’t quite found his stroke yet. Through last Friday’s game, he’s 9-for-73 without his appendix. Plus he’s struck out 30 times, which even for Adam Dunn is a lot.

Well, at least Dunn has his appendix as to explain his performance problems. What’s Rios’ excuse? He was barely hitting .200 when the club began to flop, but in the 4-18 stretch he’s batted .157/.231/.300.

At the conclusion of the Liriano no-hitter, if you added together the batting averages on the year for Dunn and Rios, you’d have the mark by backup Brent Lillibridge. Yikes.

Perhaps most disturbing for the Sox has been the performance of second baseman Gordon Beckham. He looked like a real player as a rookie in 2009. Though Beckham had a horrible first half in 2010, he rallied in the second half, and looked to have adjusted to the big leagues.

Whither Beckham?

Like the offense as a whole, Beckham got off to a hot start in 2011, only to crater badly. Beginning April 11 and through Friday, he’s gone 10-for-70 with three doubles and two walks for an ignominious .143/.178/.186 AVG/OBP/SLG line.

Dunn, Rios, and Beckham are merely the most dramatic problems because they were expected to provide offensive firepower.

No one expected third baseman prospect Brent Morel to do much at the plate—and he sure hasn’t, batting under .200.

People figured A.J. Pierzynski would look older out there, and he sure has, batting .238 with three extra-base hits.

Juan Pierre is a 33-year-old whose game relies on his speed, so people aren’t too surprised he’s hitting .256 with no power, though people are a bit taken aback he’s been caught stealing eight times with five errors in the team’s first 33 games.

In the background of the early bullpen and sustained offensive problems has been the starting rotation. They haven’t been bad, but they haven’t been a real strength for the team, either.

Based solely on performance this year, the ace so far has been Philip Humber, a 28-year-old with three career games started prior to 2011.

Of their Big Four starters—John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson—only Jackson has been bad, but the others are merely around average.

Buehrle might be the most worrisome, as he has as many strikeouts as runs allowed. He pitched similarly last year and, not so coincidentally, it was one of the worst years of his career. He’s relying a little too much on a defense that has some serious holes in it. At 32, his days as an ace might be done.

So the team as a whole has underachieved because many of its key players have underachieved. Thus, an intended contender has played like a pretender.

Should we stick a fork in them?

Glass half-full

First, the Sox have had an unusually tough schedule so far. The average record of their opponents to this point is .534. For the rest of the year, the average record of their opponents is .507. That’s a notable difference.

Well, the previous paragraph is based on 2011 records. What happens if you look at the Sox schedule this year based on opposing teams’ 2010 records? (After all, the glass-half-full approach is that the Sox’s early season schedule isn’t too meaningful, so it shouldn’t be for other teams, as well). Based on 2010 records, the average Sox opponent so far has had a .504 record, and from here on out will have a .480 record. Either way, it’s about a 25-point gap.

More importantly, there’s a longstanding counterproductive tendency people have—buying high and selling low. It’s assuming that the hot hand will stay hot and the cool hand will stay cool. In reality, things almost always move to the middle eventually. Sometimes it just takes longer than expected.

Some guys are playing so far underneath their abilities it’s virtually impossible to imagine they’ll keep doing so badly—Dunn, for instance. Rios has done better since the no-hitter. The entire offense won’t hit .200 forever.

Here’s another way of looking at Chicago’s 4-18 patch: From 2000-09, how many teams ever went 4-18 during the season and turned out to be good? Most teams that go 4-18 turn out to be pretty bad, but four teams who ended the year with a winning record did it as well from 2000-09. Of those four teams, two (the 2000 Rockies and 2001 Red Sox) finished under .510. The most successful teams in the stretch are the 2005 A’s (88-74) and 2008 Astros (86-75).

Looking just at teams with a 4-18 stretch might be a little too literally narrow. The difference between a 4-18 stretch and a 5-17 stretch isn’t significant, so let’s look at teams that went 5-17. There’s the 2003 Twins (90-72), 2006 Angels (89-73), and, last but not least, the pennant-winning 2005 Astros (89-73), among others. Expand it further to 6-16 teams, and you find a pair of 100-game winners (the 2002 A’s and the pennant-winning 2003 Yankees) and a host of teams in the 90s.

This doesn’t mean the Sox are as good as those teams, but so far the Sox have seemed like a talented team badly underachieving, and recent history shows a talented team can underachieve about as badly as the Sox have lately. It doesn’t guarantee that’s the case for the Sox, but it may not be too late for them yet.

Glass half-empty

Yeah, but while you should always beware of buying high and selling low, there’s an opposing tendency to guard against: Expecting an over correction.

Let’s say the Sox really are—or at least ought to be—a 90-win team. I’m just pulling that number out of my tuckus, but let’s go with it. Say that’s their true talent level: 90-72 (.556). If we assume that’s the case, what should we expect from them after an 11-22 start? They’d have go 79-50 (.612) to get to 90 wins.

And that’s the problem. If a squad ought to play .556 on the year and is wildly off that at a month, you shouldn’t therefore assume they’ll automatically make up for lost ground. For the Sox, that means— going with this arbitrarily-guesstimated .556 “true talent level,” the Sox should go 72-57 the rest of the year, giving them a season record of 83-79. That’s if they ought to be a 90-win team.

If they have 95-win talent, expect them to go 87-75 on the year. You can kick it up a couple wins since their schedule gets easier, but unless you thought they were one of baseball’s best teams, they’re not a good chance to win 90 games.

Sure, good teams go through bad spells, but you shouldn’t automatically assume that just because a team has a bad spell it’s somehow guaranteed to make it up. Maybe. In the long run, things should even out and the numbers should be where they belong, but 162 games isn’t always a long enough run.

Yes, it’s early in the season, but when you lose as many games as quickly as the Sox have, too late can come pretty early. How early is too late? I dunno, but the season is over a fifth of the way complete. That’s not insignificant.

Summing up

The Sox are much better than they’ve played so far. But the problem is, they have played like that so far. I still like them on paper, and they should end the year over .500, but as I write this, the Chisox are 11 games under .500. Very few teams come back from this deficit, and there’s a reason for that.

The South Siders’ secret weapon is the division-leading Indians. If they turn out to be a six-week wonder, 87 victories could take the division. That could happen—hey, the 2003 Royals started out the year about as hot as this year’s Indians, and they finished the year barely over .500. But that’s beyond Chicago’s control.

The great 20th century philosopher Yogi Berra once said of playing in left field at old Yankee Stadium: “It gets late early out there.” It might be only 30-some games into the season, but that’s enough to make it too late when your record is too bad.

Chicago’s chances this year likely depend on whether Grady and the Indians turn into a pumpkin.

References & Resources provided the numbers. The part where I looked up 4-18 team records and the like came from harvesting season annual gamelogs from Retrosheet.

I also asked two Sox fans I know for their thoughts on this season, White Sox Fan Brother, and my perennial SABR roommate, Anthony Giacalone.

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Brandon Isleib
Brandon Isleib

Should SABR roommate be portmanteaued to SABRo?  In that case, of course, you would be Chris Sabro.

White Sox Fan Brother
White Sox Fan Brother

Only if he gets appropriately awesome glasses.