Thoughts From a Series Split in Cleveland and a 3-5 Start

The White Sox series split with the Indians, leaving both teams at 3-5 on the season, was quite an experience in contrast. After a 4-1 game where everything seemed right-save some early nibbling SP Jose Quintana- just about everything went wrong in the Thursday 4-2 loss.

The win Wednesday, more than anything, highlighted how the Sox have won so far this year (albeit in three games)- on the back of dominant pitching. With an offense that is averaging just over three runs a ballgame, with a high water mark of six runs in a game, the Sox have won their three games despite their revamped lineup, not because of it. Thursday was perhaps the most impressive pitching day on the young season, with the staff cruising to 14 strikeouts and one (unearned) run. Other than the first two innings, in which he seemed to be pitching too conservatively, Quintana seemed like his 2014 self before giving way to the bullpen, which finished with a flourish.  In three innings, the bullpen combined to allow one walk and no hits against eight strikeouts, highlighted by Zach Duke and David Robertson striking out the final six batters of the game.  

After such a pleasing win, Thursday felt like the opposite, a highly frustrating game in nearly all aspects (save maybe the bullpen! Having a dependable bullpen is fun!) While the four runs allowed are hardly terrible, John Danks’ 4.2 inning, four run performance was, as was his stuff. The onetime dependable workhorse struggled to hit the high 80s on his fastball with secondary stuff that had no one in the Cleveland lineup fooled by its second go-around. At this point, there is little reason to doubt this is what Danks is- basically, Eric Surkamp with $30 million owed the next two years.  

Though Danks was bad, it was the offense that really caused for frustration. Despite being issued four free passes through six innings by Trevor Bauer (who really epitomizes the phrase “effectively wild), the White Sox continued to hack at pitches out of the zone, allowing him to escape relatively unscathed. But though their failure to capitalize on Bauer’s wildness was frustrating, it was the ninth inning that was truly maddening.  Down 4-2 facing closer Cody Allen, Emilio Bonifacio and Micah Johnson reached base by way of walk and hit by pitch, respectively, as Allen showed no ability whatsoever to get the ball over the plate. Despite this, Robin Ventura called for Adam Eaton to bunt, a statistically bad decision that turned inexplicable by the 2-2 pitch, which Eaton bunted foul for strike three.  A masterful play by Cleveland SS Jose Ramirez and a bafflingly impatient strikeout by Jose Abreu followed, and the series was split.

Of course, only so much can be drawn from two games, or even the eight games that have been played so far. Small sample sizes such as this generally cause over-analysis of specific plays, players who are slumping or streaking, and whatnot. Though some claims can be made relatively definitively (like, for example, that the bullpen is a heckuva lot better than it was last year, or that John Danks doesn’t belong in a major league rotation), most of what has gone on cannot be yet differentiated as signal from noise due to randomness.

The bigger issue at hand from these eight games is the gap that has already emerged between the top of the AL Central and the White Sox. The Tigers, considered by many the preseason favorites to win the division, now hold a 4.5 game lead on the Sox, a difference that could very possibly be a deciding factor come October. Even if one were to assume equal talent levels for the Tigers and White Sox, the probability of the Tigers winning the division becomes significantly higher given this early head start. Factor in that they are more talented, and the similarly hot start of the Kansas City Royals, and the White Sox’ playoff hopes already seem dimmer than they were on opening day.

This weekend’s series in Detroit thus becomes much more crucial than your average April series. A series sweep by Detroit would put the Sox behind by 7.5 games already; a Sox series sweep would close the gap to 1.5. The implications of these differences come September are massive.

Luckily for the Sox, they will have their big guns going this weekend. As of Wednesday night, the Sox have announced Jeff Samardzija and Chris Sale will get the first two games, with the third starter yet to be announced but presumably being Quintana. The Tigers will counter with David Price followed by (judging by how they’ve lined up their rotation thus far) Kyle Lobstein and Anibal Sanchez.

Looking past Detroit, the Sox will continue with their April tour of the AL Central with a homestand against Cleveland and Kansas City before a trip to Baltimore, finishing a stretch of five straight series (and six of seven to start the year) against opponents who won at least 85 ballgames in 2014. They then conclude April with a series in Minnesota, at which point we will probably have a decent idea of the White Sox’s contention hopes for 2015.