The White Sox are 8-12. Disappointing, but not a disaster, especially given how many things seem to have gone wrong already. And while Samardzija and Sale getting absolutely rocked got most of the attention - sharpened into extra focus given the circumstances of the Baltimore "Series" - the undisputed story of the season thus far must be how terrible the offense has been.
Between rainouts and martial law-outs, the White Sox have played fewer games than everybody else so counting stats - like runs scored and walks - don't really paint an accurate picture. Rate stats are fair game, though!
The White Sox are currently 27th in the majors in OBP (last in the AL), and 27th in the majors in OPS (14th in the AL). Part of the problem here is their approach - they are 27th in the majors in BB% (last in the AL), and this can be explained in part because they swing at the 4th most pitches out of the zone out of all 30 teams. They swing at 33.5% of pitches out of the zone!
But frankly, they just swing at everything. They swing at 49.7% of pitches, two tenths of a point behind Milwaukee for most-swingiest team of them all - and we can see how well the Brewers are doing. I understand you can't just be Aaron Hicks and be super passive, put your bat on your shoulder at all times and hope they walk you. But seriously, you can't just be a team of Jeff Francoeurs either.
Okay, so they're free swinging - but despite the fact that strikeouts correlate to power, and that the White Sox have struck out at the 6th-highest rate in MLB, they somehow still haven't hit for any power. Their ISO is 29th! In other words: They aren't taking any pitches, they aren't making much contact, and when they do they aren't putting any juice on the ball.
It's only been 20 games, 1/8th of the season, so I understand that I don't need to freak out. Part of the reason it's so frustrating though is that this isn't a matter of the team doing things well and getting unlucky. The process has been terrible. And while they've faced some good pitchers, they've also faced some really mediocre pitching and gotten absolutely dominated by it - see: Volquez x 2, Milone, Gibson, etc. I get that on a given night any pitcher can have a good game, but at some point you have to be able to score more than 1 run against a garbage pitcher or you really don't stand a chance.
Another reason it's frustrating is that this has been the story with the team's offense for the better part of a decade now. Here's where the team has ranked in BB% in the past few years:
So you can see that even in the years where they fielded decent teams - 2012 and 2010 - this was still a huge weakness of the team. For all that some people say walks are boring, the fact is that without them, your team OBP is going to be low - which means tons of 1-2-3 innings, very few scoring threats, etc. Which is really frustrating and awful to watch.
For all that Hitting Coach Todd Steverson called out the team's horrid approach, it's hard to see that anything has changed.
So - what can improve?
--It's hard to imagine that the offense will remain this bad. Jose Abreu has an OPS of .886. Avisail is at .764. Adam LaRoche is at .657. Everyone - EVERYONE - else is below .600! (Okay so Gordon Beckham has an OPS over 1.000, but the whole rest of the bench has an OPS below .500 so I think that cancels out). Micah Johnson and Melky Cabrera have three extra base hits combined. Eaton and Melky are almost certain to finish the year with an OPS 2-300 points higher than they are presently. Alexei is also almost certainly significantly better than this, and we've seen him hit poorly to start the season before.
The concern is that Adam LaRoche is being allowed to play full time against all lefties, so his stat line could wind up being pretty brutal - not to mention that he's at an age where you can't guarantee that he'll bounce back. I think Tyler Flowers is probably better than this, but I don't think his true talent level is necessarily so much better than this that you can rely on him improving significantly this season. Conor Gillaspie might just be terrible, as much as it breaks my heart.
--There are some elements of approach you can control. Let's look at 3-1 counts. So far the team has had 50 PAs where they started 3-1. On those PAs, they're hitting .226/.520/.335.
28 of those PAs ended on 3-1, to the tune of 11 walks, 4 hits (three singles one double), and 13 outs made. Theoretically if you're going to swing on 3-1 you should be REALLY zoning in on a particular pitch in the hopes of killing it. Clearly this hasn't happened so far. I think there are more walks to be had here, and this can be place where doubles and home runs should be coming. They've been swinging and making contact with about half of the 3-1 pitches they've seen and they're doing NOTHING with them.
--Other possible solutions...
As much as I like the idea of J.B. Shuck - if he were able to tap into any of his 2013 magic he'd be a really great asset - he feels a little redundant with Bonifacio also on the roster. The redundancies in the Beckham - Shuck - Bonifacio trio become especially apparent when LaRoche keeps coming up to face tough lefties, or lefty relievers are brought in late in the game to neutralize him.
There are right-handed bats in AAA that could be called up to help out as occasional platoon partners for Gillaspie or LaRoche in the form of Matt Davidson and Matt Tuiasosopo. With the latter, you don't have to worry about messing with his development time - he's a quad-A 29-year old non-prospect who has had thousands of PAs in AAA at this point. He's been mashing in Charlotte ever since he joined the White Sox organization last summer and while I don't think he's a huge piece, I like his chances against lefty relievers better than LaRoche's.
Matt Davidson is interesting, because there is a very slim (but non-zero) chance that he could still be a major league regular, and he has seen a bit of a revival at AAA. He's still striking out like crazy, but those who are watching the games insist he is going up the middle / to opposite field more frequently, and has improved his defense to the point where he is solid at 3B. Unlike Tuiasosopo, who is really limited to COF, Davidson would be able to play 3B/1B as well, meaning he could cover both for LaRoche's inabilities against LHP, but also Gillaspie's. And well...potentially Gillaspie's problems against everybody.
Trades? The Brewers have started 5-17 and the rumors have already begun that they might be willing to have a firesale. Maybe Aramis Ramirez could help? Gerardo Parra? Jean Segura?
But in the end, as stated above, when three of the worst starts have come from Eaton, Melky, and Alexei, those aren't guys you can replace. They have established performance baselines, they're slumping to start the year, and you've invested heavily in them. You're just stuck waiting and that's not really very fun, is it?
The cool thing about baseball is that the season is really long. Sometimes that means you just have to be patient.
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