An Attempt at Optimism for 2016

Happy New Year! I want to thank everyone who stops by to read our stuff, and I want to thank James, Matt, Collin, and Ethan for allowing me to periodically drop by and spew vitriol at interludes between their pleasant, funny, and insightful commentary. Here’s hoping the 2016 White Sox give them happier things to discuss than in years past. 

To date, the outfielder free agent market has not been quite as robust as originally anticipated, and it’s possible that the White Sox are, in fact, one of the primary bidders for at least one of the remaining Big Three available. 

Given the White Sox’ track record of secrecy prior to a move, one could argue that the stated interested in Cespedes and Gordon in fact means that they are more likely to sign Justin Upton, but that way madness lies. 

The staff here has roughly espoused the position of, “We prefer Upton but any of the three would be a huge step in the right direction.” 

Counter to that, I have seen several variations on the following thought process expressed on social media:

“They won the offseason last year and added some big names and they were barely any better, so what’s the point? Even if they do it again they will probably get burned like last year."

While the roster is still flawed, and would be even with the addition of Uptgordspedes, there is a very real chance at a leap forward in 2016 because of where the upgrades were made. There's also the fact that they do retain the competent-to-plus services of Melky and Robertson from last offseason, and how concentrated the aggressive terribleness was at a few spots on the diamond.

Before I continue I want to put a big qualifier / asterisk to keep in mind throughout the discussion: If you follow me on Twitter, you can generally see me railing against WAR. I get what it’s trying to accomplish, but I think it fails in that task because the defensive metrics used - particularly UZR - are really, really horrible. Even its advocates / creator point out that it doesn’t necessarily even reflect what actually happened on the field, and even if it did it would take a 3-year sample to have any significance whatsoever. Therefore, if UZR is a huge component of WAR, a single year sample of it is pretty pointless.  

Also, WAR is basically trying to capture the fact that positional scarcity and other non-hitting contributions matter when it comes to winning, and it also tries to reflect the marginal value over freely available talent. Those are important concepts, but I don’t think it’s executed well enough yet for WAR the stat to be meaningful in the way most people use it. People who understand what it does don’t really need it, and people who don’t understand what it does won’t use it correctly.

All of that being said, I'm about to engage in a discussion that makes me very uncomfortable, as whenever you are optimistic about the team you root for you run the risk of looking like a stupid homer, and some of the ways I'm about to use WAR may look similar to some types of analysis that I hate. So I'm going to try to be careful. Here we go!

For the White Sox, WAR captures the fact that Avisail Garcia is bad in every facet of baseball while playing a not-very-demanding defensive position badly and not providing the commensurate offense expected of right field. His fWAR was -1.1 last year. 

Here, check out a graph that just captures offense - note: all of the big FA outfielders are vastly superior to Avisail defensively too!

WAR is also correct that the White Sox were irretrievably terrible at 3B (-1.3 fWAR in 2015) and 2B (-1.2 fWAR in 2015). WAR provides us with illusory precision, with those freaking decimal point readings, when in reality a huge component of it is some dude shrugging his shoulders and pretending to quantify the eyeball test of defense, but this jibes with everything that could be observed in 2015. White Sox 3B and White Sox 2B were catastrophically bad outside of a few weeks of competence here or there from Saladino and Sanchez. 

So when you add in Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, and Good Free Agent Outfielder, you get a boost beyond the production they provide on their face. Justin Upton is conservatively good for ~3 wins above replacement, and has posted marks between 4-6.3 in his career. Alex Gordon lost time to injury last year (WAR is a counting stat) but he has been measured at 5-7 WAR as recently as 2014. Even Cespedes - who is probably the most volatile of the three - posted his lowest WAR of 2.4 in 2013. Frazier too has been between 3-5 wins for the past few years. While Lawrie’s glove at 2B leaves something to be desired, his career wRC+ of 102 is 9 points higher than what 2B hit league-wide in 2015. Even giving up some value defensively, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Lawrie plays ~130+ games and the White Sox are the worst at 2B in MLB again.*

*I am using rough projections of WAR and ranges on them because for the purposes of this discussion precise WAR estimates aren't really necessary to demonstrate the phenomenon I'm trying to capture, and because defensive metrics yuck.

In this context, each of these positions would get an additional 1-2 win upgrade over what they’re replacing from 2015, because they aren’t substituting for replacement level. What the White Sox had last year was below replacement at all of those positions. 

Yes, the White Sox won 76 games in 2015. Recognizing how much I hate “add up the WAR” logic and that other components to their 76-win season may slide backwards, there is also the chance that - with a major free agent OF - they could comfortably add something like 10-12 “wins” at those three positions, and possibly more if things break well.

From another perspective - can you imagine Melky being the 5th-best hitter on the team instead of desperately needing him to be the 3rd-best? Can you imagine some sort of serviceable platoon at DH and having “only” one offensive black hole at shortstop instead of automatic outs in half the lineup? 

By virtue of just how horrible the White Sox have been at a few spots on the diamond, they could reap outsized gains by adding at those positions. After all, it's easier to improve from 30th in the majors at a position than, say, 15th. 

There. I just hope I haven’t burned all my positive thinking for 2016 on Day 1. 

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