TCS Morning 10: At least the White Sox employ a killer

1. This was not a good nor sharp weekend of White Sox baseball. Defensive and baserunning blunders marked two ugly losses to the Cubs and served as a stark counterbalance to how they out-executed a superior team in Wrigley last month. Avisail Garcia just keeps running into outs until someone takes him up on it, routine throws to first are somehow still an adventure even with Conor Gillaspie off the team and no starting pitchers seem particularly invested in backing up their catcher...but White Sox  still employ Chris Sale.

Sale has spent much of the year not looking like himself or getting the results we associate with him, but with a 3.32 ERA in mid-August, he's still a good bet to slide his ERA under 3.00 for the year and finish the season with a glittery line befitting a pitcher of his brilliance. Because unlike so much of this team that has to struggle mightily to look acceptable, Sale's brilliance is easy and reliable, and a constant crutch that can prop the Sox up and make them look respectable even when they are certainly not. You could kvetch about the tortured nature of it all, or realize that we're too lucky to get to watch a player like Sale to gripe much about the timing.

2. So, about what set me off on this tangent: Sale tied a career-high with 15-strikeouts against a red-hot Cubs offense that had powered to nine-straight wins. He started the day touching 98 mph and was still doing it over 100 pitches later in the 7th, carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and used his slider as both a wipeout offering to hitters on both sides of the plate, and as a backdoor strike-grabber that he had the entire Cubs lineup too off-balance trying to cover his heat to ever touch. He used that last bit most notably to escape a bases loaded jam by freezing Jorge Soler to end that same sixth inning--the only frame in which his delivery of a scoreless outing was challenged--with a slider far enough off the outside corner to outrage some sliver of Cubs Twitter; the same population that will be regurgitating a near-identical laptop screenshot of Gameday's strike zone to crow about how Kyle Schwarber frames well enough to catch full-time later this week.

Sale struck out every member of the Cubs lineup save for Jonathan Herrera, who seemed to be the only hitter who adopted the Blue Jays' earlier approach of refusing to work the count lest the count work them. Much of the Cubs' muscle goes gets nullified by Sale's brutal matchup complications. Chris Coghlan and Kyle Schwarber sat due to how evil he is on lefties (and both struck out when they pinch-hit). Rizzo stayed in but went 0-2 with two whiffs and only reached base when he was plunked, and Kris Bryant is still figuring out how to get any kind of hold on Sale fastball; striking out three more times.

Until the sixth, the only baserunner on Sale was from Jorge Soler reaching on an errant throw bouncing off Adam LaRoche's glove, demonstrating how critical his ability to take the game out of the defense's hands can be.

Sale doesn't have any reasonable claim to the AL Cy Young. He's more than a run off the ERA lead, 30 frames off the innings lead and can't say to be contributing meaningful outings to a pennant race. But when he's at his best, everyone seems flummoxed to how he's ever vulnerable.

3. Filling out an 18-strikeout day for White Sox pitching were Nate Jones and David Robertson. Jones, still shockingly ready for war immediately after being promoted from Tommy John surgery rehab, kept his fastball velocity at 98 mph and above, and flashed two different off-speed pitches (the hard slider that lives in the low-90s, and something looking like his old curve at 80 mph) while striking out the side. Robertson, reliably great and earning his big money closer salary, was in the bizarre position of being the least electrifying guy to take the mound Sunday, and lost the shutout to a Soler solo home run. 

Still, together, the trio demonstrate what the Sox have already have in place if they can ever build enough depth to make a 90-win team: a dominant core that can overwhelm any other team in one-game or short series matchups.

4. Jose Abreu homered to the opposite field, inside-outted a single to deep right, walked, and recorded his only out on a ringing lineout to left field Sunday. He has now hit more homers since the All-Star break (8) than he had during the entire 2014 second half, and is hitting .291/.386/.564 during that time. It's a very reassuring return to form, if not the face-melting MVP burst that we were expecting after how he came out of the gates in 2014.

Gone is my prevailing theory of Abreu's first half: that it was dampened by nagging injuries that require rest, unless of course those injuries that held him down were somehow fixed with just five days off. He's kind of a mystery beyond how he mixes in Courtney Hawkins-style strikeouts between murdering pitches.

5. Sunday seemed to be the breaking point to move Tyler Saladino out of the No. 2 hole, as the Sox stacked Adam Eaton-Abreu-Melky on top of each other, and got dingers from the latter two. Saladino was heroic defensively Saturday and is consistently plus over there despite Sunday's error, but he had hit .218 with no walks in August out of the No. 2 spot. He wasn't even the best traditional No. 2 hitter on this garbage-hitting team anymore, which is saying something.

Scot Gregor questioned Twitter whether they thought Saladino should return to third base in 2015. Like Sanchez, and to some extent Alexei Ramirez, Saladino fields well enough to stay in the MLB roster mix, but he's nothing to stand pat with offensively. While we're on Ramirez, his recent success makes him the next candidate to be shifted up over someone like Adam LaRoche in the batting order. The Sox have 4-5 MLB-quality hitters on a given day; might as well let them hang out.

6. At the center, or is better said, at the beginning of the Sox collapse on Saturday night, was a curious decision to intentionally walk Dexter Fowler to get Jose Quintana a matchup with Kyle Schwarber, with two outs and Addison Russell on second. There's just no statistical basis for this. The difference between Fowler and Schwarber vs. lefties this season (125 wRC+ to 116) is far too slim to justify putting another on base in the fifth inning when 'a big inning' is as large of a thing to consider as falling behind a single run, especially when it pushes Quintana deeper into the heart of the Cubs order with more runners on.

So, it's a scouting decision. It's got to be a hard belief that Quintana, who had already retired Schwarber twice and struck him out, and given up an RBI double to Fowler in the third, had a decided advantage against the rookie that would hold up on the third time through the order. And it would be nice if some of that input came from Quintana. Dan Hayes suggested that glimmer of hope during the game.

Before Fowler’s intentional pass, Ventura went out to the mound to explain to Quintana his reasoning for wanting him to face Schwarber instead.

’You want your pitcher not getting blindsided by it,’ Ventura said. ‘He was fine with doing it. Execution wise it just didn’t happen at that point, and they got the hit. He understood and he was ready to go.’
— Dan Hayes

Quintana is ever the good soldier, but this idea comes out of the dugout, which is no surprise, since the Sox are second in the AL in intentional walks issued, behind only to fellow egregious disappointment the Seattle Mariners. Of course, it's hard to separate a dugout decision about a pitcher coming from Ventura from the input of Don Cooper, who it's hard to even begin a valid critique of. The decision-making of the Sox frequently works to make Robin Ventura look foolish, but obviously launching a full case against him is a careful undertaking and this is likely to be too muddled to be our jumping off point. However, I would still like it if the Sox wandered into less showdown with hitters with OPS' over 1.000 on purpose.

7. Ending a truly bizarre and pointless season, Emiliano Bonifacio, the $4 million super sub who never played at multiple positions, was the designated for assignment, just for the sake of keeping Trayce Thompson on the roster. That makes the last act Bonifacio had as a member of the White Sox a pinch-hit appearance in place of Tyler Flowers in the ninth inning of Saturday night's game, where the Sox were only down three. Which.....


--Bonifacio has had the worst season of his career (.167/.198/.192) but in just 82 PA (in four and a half months!) as Ventura rode Gordon Beckham hard early, and stuck with Carlos Sanchez religiously through the depth of his struggles while the Sox were theoretically competing, and never seemed to be nearly as valued during the season as he was when he was signed. Giving he's a 30-year-old speed player who struck out in a third of his plate appearances and got thrown out in four of his five stealing attempts, he didn't give the Sox much reason to look deeply into how much ability he had left.

--Keeping Trayce up is an interesting desire since J.B. Shuck is returning and they're effective in similar situations, and the only reason to hold Trayce out of the last couple weeks of the Triple-A season would be to give him consistent playing time here and...well, he didn't appear in a game all weekend.

--And maybe it's not the time for it. The Sox have a "we're competing until there's a 'X' near our name" approach to playoff contention, and by that measure it's not going to be the situation to break in a flawed rookie who has only a puncher's chance of becoming a regular down the road, let alone now. However, if that's the case...


Considering that Soto has more than doubled up Bonifacio's OPS and has only 157 PAs himself, maybe Boni was lucky to get as much burn as he did. Still, literally anyone else on the roster would have been better in that situation. Even...even....

...Trayce Thompson.

9. Whoever wins the last game in a tied series is a pretty goofy way to determine the winner of the Crosstown Cup and yet... we are. However, if they handled in this some more logical way, like, the previous season's winner just retains the trophy in the event of a tie, we'd be in the same position. I can cynical as anyone about the Crosstown Series: it's a meaningless trophy, it engages the meatball elements of the fanbases, it gives me a glimpse of Cubs Twitter bemoaning a Cy Young-Caliber ace getting borderline calls during a career-pinnacle demolition because PitchFX told them it was bad...but I don't actually want MLB to do less to hype up interesting matchups, or to discourage personal investment. It's a big part of what makes big, dumb and angry football matchups compelling in spite of ourselves. Obviously you adopt elements from that world with extreme caution, but we're not trying to strip all visceral elements from the sport either.

That said, for all the security the Sox boasted, I thought "Saturday night Cubs-Sox game" got dismissed as a terrible idea a long time ago.

10. The Sox travel to the west coast this week for a four-game set against the Angels before a weekend set with the Mariners. The next game they have with a first pitch before 8pm central time will be Sunday. The Sox have the opportunity to escort the scuffling Angels right out of the Wild Card race with a hot streak, before 10-straight games vs. sub-.500 teams. With even more luck, they'll prop their record up near .500 and provoke some more goofy conversations.

11. Almost forgot!

For a prospect with as much development and contact issues to work out as Adolfo, any stretch of missed time like this raises anxiety.