Among the many issues that plagued the White Sox's during their 63-99 campaign in 2013, the team's walk rate wasn't one that came as too much of a surprise. While most of the league has come to realize and appreciate the value of players with high on-base skills, the White Sox have lagged behind.
Despite shuffling through three different hitting coaches, the White Sox have ranked in the bottom half of the league in walk rate in each of the past five seasons. Last season, it plunged to a new depth as the team finished 29th out of 30 teams.
The White Sox's organizational philosophy in recent years has run contrary to the mindset of some of the league's more stat-friendly teams (which, at this point, includes the majority of the league). The team's hitting coach during the past two seasons, Jeff Manto, made that abundantly clear not long after taking the job. In November 2011 he said on WSCR 670 AM:
“Do we want Adam Dunn taking a ball (when it is) off the plate with a man on third and the infield back and you got (Justin) Verlander throwing and he walks him? I don’t know,” Manto said. “What happens is that you set up the double play. If you (hit) into a double play, you get out of the inning. We give high five for taking the walk, but we have arguably the most prolific left-handed hitter in the game at the plate. He can drive that run in.”
Adam Dunn, for what it's worth, posted the second lowest walk rate of his career in 2013. He has been the only regular in the lineup known throughout his career for having high on-base skills, reaching at a .366 clip overall despite posting his three lowest career OBP lines since joining the White Sox.
Of course, you can't blame Manto alone (or Greg Walker before him) for the on-base struggles of Dunn, who is 34 years old with obviously declining skills. But the philosophy team-wide has remained an issue even during the team's more successful seasons.
The success or failure of a team is not completely reliant on a hitting or pitching coach. While a coach can certainly be beneficial depending on the circumstances, there is no quantitative data that suggests a coach adds X amount of value to how a team fares in a given year.
That said, a team's organizational philosophy often starts with the major league coaches and trickles down throughout the minor leagues. A good example of this comes from within the White Sox's own organization. Don Cooper has been the team's pitching coach since 2002 and during that time he has developed a philosophy that has been prevalent throughout the organization and has gotten the most out of the resources given.
When the White Sox hired Todd Steverson as their third hitting coach in four seasons, Rick Hahn said he wanted Steverson to serve as the type of organizational fixture for hitters as Cooper has been for pitchers.
While talking to Laurence Holmes of WSCR 670 AM at SoxFest, Hahn said that with Cooper at the helm, every level throughout the organization knows what they're looking for in young pitchers. They know who they can and can't work with and the philosophy is communicated from Cooper all the way down through the minors.
With Steverson, Hahn wants to develop that same type of consistency with hitters and the approach was refreshing to hear during the offseason, particularly this quote courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times' Daryl Van Schouwen:
“There is no time clock in baseball but there are 27 outs and you want to maximize those with a good mind-set,’’ Steverson, 41, said. “The ability to get on base creates more plate appearances, and the more plate appearances the more opportunities to score runs.’’
While putting this approach into play throughout the organization will certainly take time, the results at the Major League level thus far have been a complete 180-degree turn from what White Sox fans are used to. Entering play Saturday, Marcus Semien, who has spent the majority of the first 11 games of the season batting second, is 11th in MLB in pitches per plate appearance (4.51). Leadoff hitter Adam Eaton is 37th (4.19).
As a whole, the White Sox have taken 40 walks through 11 games, which ranks sixth in all of baseball, and even perennial swing-happy hitters like Alexei Ramirez (3), Dayan Viciedo (4) and Tyler Flowers (2) have shown more patience than usual.
Also through Friday, the White Sox as a team are seeing 3.86 pitches per plate appearance, which is right around league average (3.87). Conversely, they ranked 28th in pitches per plate appearance a year ago.
Whether those numbers will hold true throughout the duration of the 2014 season is still to be determined, as will how successful the philosophy is in spreading throughout the lower levels. The White Sox are notorious for acquiring raw hitting talent and have thus far been unsuccessful in refining those players with an approach that translates to success at the major league level.
The wholesale changes throughout the organization are a welcomed change and a step in the right direction, but it's just a start. Hopefully the trend continues.
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