Believe it or not, the Chicago White Sox’ season is already 1/18th complete (at least the regular season…). The 7-2 start has the south side of Chicago nearly as excited as their neighbors to the north. Unlike the Cubs, this season did not come with high hopes, so the start is fairly surprising. The front office was aggressive this offseason to avoid last year’s fate and so far, the end result has been successful. However, it hasn’t been the initial plan to improve the team as the reason for success, but rather a couple of creative moves late in the offseason.
The front office showed clear direction early on in the offseason of what they believed needed to be fixed. They saw the team’s .686 OPS in 2015, last in the American League, and began strides to improve that as quickly as possible. Tyler Flowers (.652 OPS in 2015) was gone early and in came Alex Avila (.739 career OPS, .440 in 2016) and Dioner Navarro (.685 OPS in 2015, .125 in 2016). With possible budget concerns, Rick Hahn then got creative with trades for Brett Lawrie (.706 OPS in 2015, .600 in 2016) and Todd Frazier (.806 in 2015, .556 in 2016). These moves improved three different spots in the everyday lineup offensively, but the fan base wanted more. With free agents like Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton remaining, there was still hope on another large acquisition.
I wrote my offseason report card on February 10, giving the White Sox an overall grade of a C- on the offseason. They had not signed a big outfield free agent and I thought leaving that opportunity on the table was a failure. On the day I wrote that, the White Sox made a seemingly minor transaction. Mat Latos was brought in on a one-year, $3 million contract that, at the worst, was going to be a lottery ticket. They followed that two weeks later with signing Jimmy Rollins, an eye-roll inducing “White Sox move” – by that, I am referring to bringing in a veteran with a successful past well beyond their prime. Two weeks later, they brought in Austin Jackson (.679 OPS in 2015, .549 in 2016), figured to be the grab bag prize after all of the big item outfielders had left the market.
Rollins has been fine, sporting a .207/.226/.345 line in the first nine games, including a game-winning home run in game two. His value certainly includes some intangibles, as he allows Tyler Saladino to play sparingly, and can provide mentoring to Saladino and eventually Tim Anderson. It’s the other two after-thoughts, made late in the offseason, that have been the key to the White Sox’ hot start.
If you look at the 2016 OPS listed above on all of the offseason acquisitions, it’s clear that the start hasn’t been initiated by a hot offense like the front office may have envisioned as they made those moves. Going back to my report card, I gave the moves an ‘F’ grade defensively, which pulled down the overall grade. Again, the piece was written before Austin Jackson was brought in, which vastly improved two defensive positions. Jackson hasn’t been outstanding at the plate (he has certainly been susceptible to some ridiculous bad luck, missing possibly two home runs in Chicago due to cold weather, and also missing a grand slam in Minnesota by mere inches), but his excellence has been impossible to ignore in center field. Adam Eaton has also been great in right field. His transition has been seamless from center, and it’s been hard for a ball to find any grass in at least two-thirds of the outfield. Melky Cabrera is always an adventure in left, but Jackson can certainly cover a portion of his responsibility.
Fielding has improved in the infield as well – the total defensive efficiency rating, according to baseball-reference.com is second best in the American League thus far in 2016. That is an impressive improvement from last year’s last place ranking. It’s been more than just avoiding errors but playing smart baseball. Thursday’s game had a play that perfectly exemplified the type of play that the White Sox have been doing that was simply non-existent last season. With the White Sox holding on to a one-run lead in the sixth inning, the Minnesota Twins’ Eddie Rosario led off the inning with a single and stole second. Joe Mauer hit a ball down the third base line that Todd Frazier fielded cleanly, but it would have been a tough play to get Mauer at first. Frazier faked the throw and caught Rosario off the base, getting him into a pickle, earning the first out of the inning. The White Sox were able to escape the inning without allowing a run. Frazier also had an outstanding diving play for the 27th out of the game. While Frazier and others haven’t met expectations at the plate, the defense being played has been key to backing up an amazing start to the season for the pitching staff.
In nine starts, the White Sox rotation has seven quality starts, with Jose Quintana’s 5.2 IP, 2 ER in his first start just falling short of the arbitrary qualifications of a QS. John Danks’ lone start is the only starting performance in the 2016 season that fell short. The success isn’t surprising for Chris Sale, Quintana, or Carlos Rodon, as all were expected to have strong seasons. The loss of last year’s catcher Tyler Flowers was a concern, as the numbers available have defined him as an above-average pitch framer. Flowers was the starter for every Sale start in 2015 and was also seen to be a reason for Carlos Rodon’s late success last season. Avila and Navarro may appear to be a step back in pitch framing, but it clearly hasn’t had much of an effect on game-calling for the rotation.
From the early results of the 2016 season, it’s the late acquired Latos that could potentially make a very good rotation great. Latos has made two starts in a White Sox uniform, going six innings each time and sports a shiny 0.5 WHIP. Navarro seemingly has become his “personal catcher”, whom he had success earlier in his career with Cincinnati. His 2015 campaign, spread across three different teams, and even his spring training starts this year, had no one predicting this start from the veteran. Even with a starting rotation that is trustworthy three out of five games as the White Sox sport, there was still some worry what was going to happen the other 40 percent of the time. If Latos is good for six innings each time out, not taxing the bullpen past what can be normally asked, the lasting effects can be extremely valuable. Even if Danks may be reaching the end of his usefulness, the team can prepare around that. Whether it’s using off days to skip starts or having long relievers at the ready, having those means at the ready one time through the rotation is a lot more manageable than two. Latos provides this opportunity and his output may be more consistent than any of the minor leaguers awaiting their chance at the Major League level.
While the offense has actually regressed to a .651 OPS in 2016, the record hasn’t been dragged down by it like it was last year. It’s been pitching and defense that have been the driving factors behind the hot start. Good defense has saved the starting pitchers in pitch count, allowing them to go late into games. If the team can continue to play smart, strong defense, there is no reason to not believe that the team can keep this up. It hasn’t been the early attempts to improve the offense that has the White Sox in first place; it’s been the creativity late in the offseason by the front office to strengthen the defense and rotation that deserves a large portion of the credit.