The future is officially the present for the Chicago White Sox. Among MLB teams last season, only four had an average batter age and an average pitcher age under 28 by the Baseball-Reference formula that is weighted on offense by games played and at bats and on the pitching side by games started, appearances, and, inexplicably, saves. Those four teams? The San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox.
The Pirates are nowhere near being a contender. The Tigers are relying on a young rotation and are hoping to piecemeal an offense together. The Padres and the White Sox are two teams with a ton of helium coming into the season because of elite, young position players. The Padres do have the better rotation, but these two teams, who were oddly similar going into 2020, both blossomed and now have a legitimate chance to reel off several straight playoff appearances.
Bench and bullpen upgrades would make me feel a lot better about the White Sox for 2021, but this is a team that has a tremendously high upside if Lady Luck shines her powers down from an injury standpoint. When slick-hitting second baseman Nick Madrigal returns, there won’t be many better lineups 1 through 9 and there aren’t many middle of the order hitters as dangerous as what the White Sox can put out there.
This has been a long time coming for the White Sox. They went from 2012 to 2020 without a winning season. They went 11 seasons between playoff appearances. Last season’s was short-lived with a loss in Game 3 of the AL Wild Card against the Oakland A’s, but it was a monumental step in the right direction for the White Sox.
They finished 28.5, 29, 35, 16.5, 19, 17, and 30 games out of first place the previous seven seasons. They had allowed 820 or more runs in each of the last three seasons and hadn’t cracked 710 runs scored since 2012. We’re not just talking about bad luck or injury misfortune. We’re talking about a team that was really, really bad.
In evaluating the White Sox going into 2020, I, like everyone else, expected improvement. It was hard not to from a 72-89 season with a -124 run differential like what we saw in 2019. The season win total market had greatly adjusted, too, putting the White Sox in the mid-80s for a betting line. The offensive breakout was not a surprise. A borderline top-10 pitching staff was and it would appear I underestimated this team.
Herein lies the problem with reading too much into 2020. The White Sox got to face the pathetic Indians offense, the Tigers, and the Kansas City Royals 30 times. In interleague play, the White Sox got the sad sack NL Central. Even the Minnesota Twins regressed on offense in a pretty big way.
So, that’s my question going into 2021. I know the offense is good. It’s a borderline top-five unit with room to grow because some very good hitters are a year older, a year wiser, and know the pitchers better. I also know that the pitching staff did overachieve last season. The league’s third-biggest ERA-FIP discrepancy at -0.52 suggests exactly that.
Is this a team ready to put it all together for a full season and meet or even exceed expectations?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Chicago White Sox||-143|
|Kansas City Royals||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+64 (5.12/4.05)||-113 (4.38/5.09)|
|3rd Order Win%||35.8-24.2||66.3-94.7|
|Record in One-Run Games||5-8||14-18|
Additions: Jonathan Lucroy, Nick Williams, Liam Hendriks, Matt Reynolds, Adam Eaton, Lance Lynn, Emilio Vargas, Tim Beckham
Losses: Nomar Mazara, James McCann, Jarrod Dyson, Nicky Delmonico, Alex Colome, Clayton Richard, Edwin Encarnacion, Dane Dunning, Avery Weems, Yolmer Sanchez, Ross Detwiler
Nothing against the players that now find themselves looking for jobs, but it is always exciting as a fan of the game to see filler and roster fodder on the losses list. I know, I know. That sounds cold and callous, but baseball is a business and my business requires looking at it with as little emotional attachment as possible.
When you see teams jettisoning guys like Nomar Mazara, Jarrod Dyson, Nicky Delmonico, and Yolmer Sanchez, it means that they have young and exciting players ready to step in. In the case of the White Sox, those players have already stepped in. When you no longer need those fringy, Quad-A types of guys, you have made it. Your window of contention has arrived. The White Sox are at that point.
Furthermore, when you see a limited number of additions, but a good group of impactful players, that is another good sign. The White Sox replaced that collection of departed outfielders with Adam Eaton, who is reunited with the team that he played for from 2014-16. Lance Lynn now slots in with Cy Young candidate Lucas Giolito and past Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. Liam Hendriks goes to the top of the depth chart for the bullpen as the new closer.
These are the moves that teams with championship aspirations make. Trim the fat. Fill the holes with proven talent. Go out and win games. The White Sox sure look like a team ready to win a lot of games.
|Batting Average (BA)||.261 (6th)||.261 (8th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.326 (12th)||.314 (23rd)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.453 (5th)||.414 (25th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.334 (8th)||.309 (24th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||113 (6th)||93 (18th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.314 (5th)||.329 (1st)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||25.2% (25th)||25.6% (28th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.9% (24th)||6.3% (30th)|
It was a short season. The White Sox played one-third of their schedule against Royals and Tigers pitching. They only batted .206/.255/.355 against the Indians, who had the best starting staff in baseball, so they padded their numbers against lesser teams. They posted a .850 OPS in 28 games against teams with losing records and a .712 OPS against teams .500 or better in 32 games.
We can poke a lot of holes positively and negatively in this White Sox lineup from the 2020 data set. We can play a lot of sample size games. We can point to the fact that the White Sox are full of young hitters still learning their way around Major League pitching. That Jose Abreu suddenly popped up with a year that mirrored his 2014 rookie season and won the AL MVP. He won’t do that again. No way, no how.
I understand the skepticism. I’ve had a lot of it. People were willing this team to be a contender in 2019 and it never happened. The only thing that saved Chicago’s offensive profile that season was what I thought be an unsustainably high BABIP, fueled by guys like Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada.
Well, Moncada did regress, posting a 96 wRC+ with a strikeout in over 31% of his plate appearances. Anderson, though, did not. He hung another high BABIP at .383 and maybe it’s time to just acknowledge that the White Sox have found something that works. They’ve consistently been an aggressive lineup and this is something that I’m going to change about my handicapping for 2021.
Drawing walks is important. A walk is a guaranteed base runner. You could hit a 110 mph missile and a fielder could make a play and throw you out or make a great catch. You could hit a 65 mph squibber and wind up on first base because it was placed perfectly. Walks are guaranteed base runners. I grew up as a baseball fan and an analyst as the Moneyball generation was taking hold. I understood the intrinsic value of a walk.
Now, as the game has changed, sign me up for the aggressive, DGAF style. Strikeouts don’t really matter that much. They aren’t any different from another kind of out. Fine, sacrifice flies are the exception. But, a lot of teams put themselves into deep counts by working the pitchers. When that happens, you often end up with two strikes, either from fouling off pitches or taking them. Hitting in deep counts is hard.
Walks meant more in the 2000s than they do in the 2010s. The weighted run value of a walk in 2020 was the highest it had been since 2010. That was largely because the 9.2% BB% we saw in the 60-game season was the highest since 2000. The weighted value of a walk was basically the same from 2012-19.
With so much more data in the Statcast era and with the changes to the game in terms of defensive shifting and the ever-increasing K%, I’m at the point where I’d rather have teams willing to hit their way aboard. The White Sox swing aggressively, make a lot of hard contact, and deal with the consequences of striking out. I like it. You’ll have some feast-or-famine nights from their offense as a result, but when you get guys that can force the issue with quality contact and power, it is a price that you are willing to pay.
Furthermore, as guys like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert continue to develop, their K% marks are likely to go down. Jimenez made that leap last season with a jump from a .343 wOBA to a .373 wOBA and an increase from a 116 wRC+ to a 140 wRC+. He shaved 1.8% off of his K%, which may have been a byproduct of the schedule, but I have to expect he keeps improving in that area.
Robert, who never really had a big K% issue in the minors, struck out in 32% of his plate appearances, but was still a league average bat and we should see a lot more from him going forward given how he assaulted minor league pitching.
The lineup will have more balance this season. Adam Eaton is a guy that walks and is an all-around quality hitter. Nick Madrigal may miss the start of the season, but the 2018 first-rounder has an incredible hit tool with tons of bat-to-ball skills. Madrigal suffered a serious shoulder injury last season with a tough rehab process, but he struck out 16 times in 532 plate appearances in 2019 across three levels of the minors. No, that’s not a typo.
I love this offense. You have to adapt and evolve as a thinker. I do still think that elite pitching staffs that induce swings and misses and suppress hard contact will hold them down. There just aren’t a lot of those around these days. Everybody gets some measure of swings and misses, but the limiting of hard contact is far easier said than done with this team.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.81 (6th)||4.91 (22nd)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.32 (10th)||4.89 (24th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.36 (12th)||4.81 (24th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.4% (14th)||21.3% (24th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.7% (21st)||9.5% (28th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||75.1% (6th)||71.3% (20th)|
The limb is a strong one when you go out on it to say that the White Sox will have a great offense. There is simply way too much talent for it not to happen this season, barring a litany of injuries. It is the pitching staff that will define the ceiling for this White Sox team.
It is a hard pitching staff to gauge. Unlike the offense, where the 1 through 9 looks good, there are very well-defined tiers with both the starting rotation and the bullpen. A major factor in my handicapping for season win totals is depth. Injuries happen. When below average fourth and fifth starters are thrust into middle of the rotation roles and minor league call-ups are forced into those vacated rotation spots, it can have a real snowball effect.
When I look at the White Sox pitching staff, “depth-shy” is the adjective I would use. We know that Lucas Giolito is good and he backed up his strong 2019 with a really good shortened season. We know what Dallas Keuchel is and I actually happen to like him more than most. We know what Lance Lynn has been, though I will address some concerns I have.
With Dane Dunning the price of doing business with Rangers to acquire Lynn, the White Sox are thin in the back of the rotation. Dylan Cease is not a Major League pitcher. You’ve got better odds picking numbers on a roulette table than you do of seeing Carlos Rodon healthy and useful for a season.
Michael Kopech should be ready to go, but he opted out of the 2020 season following Tommy John surgery to end 2018. He struggled in four MLB starts after owning Triple-A hitters in 2018, but he still has some control kinks to work out and hasn’t thrown a meaningful pitch in over two seasons. Jonathan Stiever jumped from High-A to MLB out of necessity last season and had poor returns in two starts. Jimmy Lambert had forearm trouble last season.
Upside is very limited from top to bottom outside of the top three in the rotation. I will be interested to see what happens with the White Sox pitching staff. Ethan Katz has taken over for Don Cooper as the pitching coach. Katz comes from San Francisco, where he was the assistant pitching coach. Katz worked for the Giants, Mariners, and Angels prior to this stop. Oh, and something else? He was Lucas Giolito’s pitching coach at Harvard-Westlake High School.
Katz’s run in North Hollywood also featured pupils Max Fried and Jack Flaherty. Katz was the person that turned Giolito on to the “Core Velocity Belt”, a training product used to, well, increase velocity. Giolito’s fastball velo went from 92.4 mph in 2018 to 94.3 mph in 2019. It was also around that time that Giolito developed his wipeout changeup. The additional velo and the improved tunneling created more separation between the FA and the CH for Giolito and it was the change that locked everything into place for the White Sox ace. Over the last 249 innings, Giolito has a 3.43 ERA with a 3.36 FIP and a 325/85 K/BB ratio.
You’ve heard me talk about it in these previews before, but I love outside of the box hires that are designed to challenge conventional norms and provide new approaches. Katz is 37 years old. He’s only four years older than Keuchel and Lynn, so you do wonder about how those dynamics will work, but Katz’s hire isn’t about fixing those guys or maximizing their potential.
They’re already there. It’s about squeezing development from left-hander Garrett Crochet, who flashed wicked, Andrew Miller-esque stuff in his six regular season innings. It’s about Cease and Rodon and Kopech and Stiever and the other youngsters.
This is why I harp on buzz phrases like “improvement at the margins”. Any additional production from Dylan Cease elevates the projection of this team because it is an area of perceived weakness. It isn’t like Keuchel will run a 1.99 ERA with a 3.08 FIP again. If a guy like Cease shaves a run or run and a half off of his FIP, that is a huge step forward and helps cancel out any natural regression.
Now, for my Lance Lynn concerns. Lynn had a 3.32 ERA with a 4.19 FIP for the Rangers last season. He was the benefactor of a 79.4% LOB% and a low .242 BABIP. Regression found him late in the year and he ended on a sour note. Lynn does have generally good numbers across the board and the walk issues of 2017-18 seem to be well in the past.
Projection systems put him around a 4.00 ERA with a similar FIP. That would be quite a bit higher than his career numbers and higher than what we’ve seen from him over the last few seasons. I am curious to see how he does on the South Side and in the Central Division where the parks aren’t as pitcher-friendly. I think a drop-off is likely here.
That is another reason why I’m so interested in what Katz does with the back of the rotation. While I think Giolito is a safe bet, Keuchel and Lynn are regression candidates and that will force the back of the rotation to make some sort of strides.
The White Sox bullpen was actually pretty good last season. Alex Colome was a regression candidate with his 0.81 ERA, 2.97 FIP, and anemic strikeout rate, so I actually like the swap for Liam Hendriks. Guys like Evan Marshall, Codi Heuer, and Matt Foster missed a lot of bats. Crochet will have more of a role. There aren’t a lot of household names here, but I see a pretty underrated group overall that should be better than average.
Positives & Negatives
Alright, I waited as long as I could to talk about this. I have no idea why the hell the White Sox hired Tony La Russa. The 76-year-old is not a new thinker. He hasn’t managed since 2011. He will be tasked with leading a team full of young, swagger-filled players to the promised land and I just do not for the life of me see how this going to work out well. The White Sox even had an out after their wildly unpopular decision. La Russa was pulled over for dunk driving in February, but the charges weren’t filed until October. He plead guilty to a lesser charge, but the White Sox had a chance to backtrack on what seems like a poor hire.
They didn’t. I have no idea how La Russa will communicate with a pitching coach that is less than half his age and deep into analytics. I don’t know how he’ll communicate with his players, most of them Latin American. Words cannot express how much I dislike this hire. I have no idea what the quantifiable impact of a manager is. I’ve seen estimates from nominal at best to as much as five wins over the course of a season.
This is just going to be weird all the way around and possibly uncomfortable.
Chicago White Sox Pick & Prediction: Under 91.5
This one might be a surprise to some people, but I am not ready to go all-in with the White Sox. The lineup is awesome and could really be exceptional. I think the lineup could outhit a lot of mistakes from the pitching staff or from the defense this season. I also believe that the lineup will do extremely well in spite of Tony La Russa and my concerns with the batting order. I’m really worried that he’ll hamper the progress of some young guys by leaving them at the bottom of the order when they shouldn’t be.
Here’s the thing, my friends. The White Sox ran a .583 win percentage in last year’s 60-game sprint while going 18-2 against the Tigers and Royals. Against teams with an actual pulse, the White Sox were 17-23. It’s not like the NL Central was anything special from an interleague standpoint. A .583 win percentage equates to 94.4 wins, but the schedule won’t be nearly as easy this upcoming season. The White Sox outscored the Royals and Tigers 141-68 in those 20 meetings. Those games made up one-third of the schedule.
Chicago will be a bully. They’ll make teams worse than them look bad. But, they also run the risk of really struggling with teams better than them or comparable to them. The rotation is definitely better on paper. The bullpen could be improved with Hendriks and with the hire of Katz.
I just don’t think there are enough teams markedly worse than them.
This is not a bet. This is just a pick because I give a pick on every team. I just can’t help but feel like we’re asking the White Sox to make a big leap and play at a consistently high level that they simply may not be ready for in 2021.