The Detroit Tigers were the pre-season favorites to win the 2012 American League Central even before they signed Prince Fielder to replace the super-valuable Victor Martinez. At that point, pretty much everyone decided (understandably) that they were going to run away with it. If any team had a chance, it was maybe Cleveland, a flawed-but-interesting team. The Twins were almost universally expected to be dreadful, while the young hitting talent of the Royals held promise.
The one team that seemed uninteresting for once was the White Sox. They were not expected to finish last, and maybe they were thought to have a shot at second (without making the playoffs) if Cleveland stumbled, but they clearly seemed to be in a strange transitional mode. They had a new manager, Robin Ventura, who had not managed or coached on any level of professional baseball since his retirement as a player. They were not clearly rebuildling, and had a terrible farm system. They seemed stuck with “busted” and expensive veteran acquisitions from the past few “win-now” seasons such as Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, and Jake Peavy. Paul Konerko was still a good hitter, but was he really going to carry the team at his age? Was his sidekick going to be A.J. Pierzynski?
You know the rest of the story: with less than 50 games to play, the White Sox are winning the Central and have a two game lead over the Tigers. There is still plenty of time left in the season to blow the lead. Still, as of this writing, Baseball Prospectus puts the White Sox’ playoff odds at about 88 percent, with a 64 percent chance of winning the division. This despite not really making any “big moves” to obviously improve the disappointing 2011 team. Are they just getting lucky?
I have mentioned my puzzlement over the enigma that is Chicago General Manager Kenny Williams before. When I think his moves are good, they seem to bomb. When I think they are poor, the team wins. Pretty much every winning team gets “lucky” in some respect, whether through a relative lack of injuries, a surprising big year from a player or two or more, and other stuff like that. Still, as Branch Rickey said, “luck is the residue of design.”
Still, it was hard to see any intentional “design” in the White Sox’ off-season. There was talk about letting the kids play, but what young talent the Sox had simply were not that inspiring. They were stuck with big contracts for players like Alex Rios and Adam Dunn who looked like they were finished. And so on. The Danks contract was fair, but sent a mixed signal in terms of the “rebuilding” talk. While Williams and the White Sox had had some success, it was a few years ago, and it was hard to argue that they deserved the benefit of the doubt. But are they more Royals than Rays?
I can see why the 2012 White Sox might be considered “lucky.” Four names stand out above all others as “lucky” signs: Pierzynski, Rios, Dunn, and Peavy. Pierzynski is having the best season of his career at 35 due to a shocking power breakout: a careerhigh 23 home runs already this year (and a 137 wRC+) in only 377 PA. Alex Rios was terrible in 2009, and 2011 made his decent 2010 look like a fluke. But he is hitting the ball with authority now and also having a career-best offensive season (131 wRC+). I discussed Dunn a few weeks ago. Jake Peavy had been intermittently effective for the Sox the prior two seasons, but had been disappointing and often hurt. This year he is pitching as well as he had since his heyday in San Diego. Those are just a few examples, but they are the most prominent. Given how improbable they seemed individually, combined with all the other good stuff happening for the White are they mostly getting lucky without design?
Well, maybe. But without dealing with every thing about the team, I do want to point out some reasons to think Williams and the White Sox need more credit than just having hot dice.
1. Not everything has gone well for the Sox this year. For all of their success with position players, many of them disappointed. Alexei Ramirez had a good case for being the best overall shortstop in the major leagues coming into 2012, but his bat has totally collapsed this season. Gordon Beckham has been Chicago’s regular second baseman, and he has sunk to a new low offensively, and I was not sure that was possible. Of course, that “low” would be a dream for Brent Morel. That is the White Sox’ Opening Day middle infield (first base aside). So it is not as if of their hitters have been hot. Moreover, Paul Konerko had a concussion and went on the disabled for the first time since 2008 (more on that later).
Let’s not forget their pitching. Despite Jake Peavy and others pitching well, there have been some major disappointments this year. Gavin Floyd has been mediocre, having his worst season since 2007. John Danks got his new contract, pitched lousy for nine games, then got hurt. Philip Humber was a nice scrap-heap reclamation project for the White Sox last year and was a good starter for them. He pitched a perfect game early in 2012. But then he fell apart badly and got demoted.
Of course, every team have players who play worse than expected. But that is the point — the White Sox have, too, so it is hard to argue that they have been especially lucky in that respect.
2. Kenny Williams loves to trade more than he loves players. That is, he does not seem to “fall in love” with players and make them untouchable, even if he acquired them. And some of his trades have blown up in his face — for example trading Nick Swisher to the Yankees for basically nothing after one disappointing season. On the other hand, he bought low on Kevin Youkilis this year, filling a hole the White Sox badly needed to be filled, and it has paid off so far. He has also supplemented the bullpen to give it an additional edge. Don’t forget earlier trades for players like Peavy (they gave up some decent pitching for him, but he’s been great this year) and Matt Thornton.
3. While he does not fall in love with players, he also needs credit for the guys he does not give up on. Now, while it is fair to note that Williams and the White Sox could not have dumped Rios and Dunn (short of straight up dumping them) prior to the 2012 season even if they had wanted to do so, they managed to avoid just putting them in the organizational doghouse. Credit has to go to Rios and Dunn for starting the season well, but still, we cannot simply ignore the front office still having faith in those players. Something similar could be said about Peavy.
That also extends to the extensions they have Pierzynski and Konerko — they might have been a bit questionable in different ways, but the team made the choice to bring them back, and they have played well. If we are going to mock teams for contracts one wrong, they should get credit for when they go “right.”
4. The White Sox have consistently had one of the worst-rated farm systems in baseball the last few years, and while most of their leading 2012 players are veterans, they do have some amateur talent they signed that are huge contributors. First and foremost is Chris Sale. Last year, he looked like a good left-handed reliever. But he has basically dominated after some worries about his health in moving to the rotation this season (a move for which the front office also deserves credit). But hey, I bet the Sox only drafted him because Christian Colon was already taken. That same draft also brought them closer Addison Reed in the third round. Those are some nice acquisitions.
5. As I said, one cannot get into every little thing here, but I think it is also worth mentioning a few other items that cannot simply be ignored. First, there are the contributions of the coaching staff put into place by the front office. I am not one to tout great coaching as the secret formula, but Don Cooper is widely thought to be one of the best pitching coaches in baseball. Adjustments made by Dunn and Rios might also he in part due to coaching. And, hey, remember when people were laughing at the Robin Ventura hire?
Something that I cannot get into in-depth here because of space (and my lack of expertise) is that the White Sox regularly have the fewest days missed on the disabled list (or are near the bottom of the rankings). They are understandably hush-hush about this, but part of that is probably due to an excellent medical and training staff, but also because they seem to look for players that are likely to be healthy. I suspect the Sox were ahead of the curve on that aspect of sabermetric research. That probably also played a part in their willingness to give the contracts they have given to players like Konkerko, Pierzynski, and Dunn. Guys like Peavy are the exception in Chicago. Think about what I said earlier: an unathletic dude like Paul Konerko is on the DL with a concussion (a fluke injury), and it is his first DL stint since 2008.
So am I saying that Kenny Williams and his staff are geniuses? I still honestly do not know. They do seem to have some good fortune this season. Still, they have had their share of “bad luck” this year, too. I may not know how the White Sox do it, but that is why I’m typing this on a couch and Williams’ team is on top of the standing. Something more is afoot on the South Side than clover leaves and horseshoes.