The Chicago White Sox Have a DH Problem

It’s early in the 2016 season but the designated hitter position is having a rough start. Three of the seventeen worst qualified wRC+ values in the league belong to designated hitters. Two of these are household names – Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Alex Rodriguez is not far behind. Clearly, these are three players who will be given a long leash by their respective teams due to their careers. There is enough belief in these players that it can be chalked up to a slow start, possibly due to their aging bodies.

The other designated hitter on the list is Avisail Garcia, the DH for the Chicago White Sox in 12 of their 16 games so far. Garcia does not have the career, nor anything within shouting distance, of Pujols or Fielder, but his leash has remained as long as the two veterans in the early going. With the White Sox trying to contend this season (as are the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers), how long will they let Garcia man a position that should solely be used for offensive output?

While it’s unfair to Garcia to compare him to Pujols or Fielder at his age, there are still enough major league at-bats to begin an evaluation of his potential. In 2015, Garcia was given a full season (his first) to see if there was a chance that he could become a regular in the lineup. Garcia finished with the 19th lowest wRC+ of any qualified player in the bigs last season. While that is alarming, the fact that he was a corner outfielder made the gap between the White Sox and other competing clubs that much larger.

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The 18 players with a lower wRC+ were either middle infielders, catchers, center fielders or Pablo Sandoval. It’s a generally accepted strategy that a team should find offense from their corner outfielders and corner infielders, along with the designated hitter in the American League. These positions have a lower number of chances in the field, so the swapping out of offense for defense is acceptable in those areas. A team can accept a drop in offense if it goes along with outstanding defense from a shortstop or a catcher, but generally go a different direction at the corner positions.

To keep adding on, Garcia was also a below-average defensive player so the White Sox were not getting value there as well. To improve that situation, the team brought in Austin Jackson during the offseason, moving Adam Eaton to Garcia’s right field position. The move was thought to create a platoon at the designated hitter position between Garcia and Adam LaRoche, but when LaRoche abruptly retired, Garcia was on his own.

While the Boston Red Sox may have already moved on from Sandoval, the White Sox keep plugging Garcia in the lineup each day. The Garcia defenders believe that at 24, he is still too young to give up on and should be given extra chances to mature into an improved hitter. The numbers scream out that improvement has yet to be made, and they may be possibly trending downward.

Garcia struck out 23.5 percent of his at-bats in 2015, good for the 24th worst rate among qualified hitters. High strikeout rates are usually attributed to power hitters, who go for broke in attempts to swing for the fences. For these players, a few hundred strikeouts are acceptable. Of the 23 players with a higher strikeout rate than Garcia, 11 hit 20 home runs. Garcia only had 13 and only three of these players hit less. In 2016, Garcia’s strikeout rate is up to 30.2 percent.

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In 2015, Garcia had the highest swinging strike rate in the league (17.3 percent) – exactly as bad as it sounds — he swung and missed the most in baseball. In 2016, he has only the third highest rate, but his rate has moved up to 18.6 percent. In 2015, he simply swung at the third most pitches, including the third most at pitches outside of the zone (60.2 percent and 46.6 percent, respectively). This season, he has the third highest overall rate (60.9 percent) and second highest outside of the zone (45.1 percent). In the first few weeks of the season, Garcia does seem to be regressing from what were already very low levels.

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To be fair to the White Sox, their original plan may have been only for Garcia to face left-handed pitching. In 2015, he was slightly above average against lefties (103 wRC+) with a .293/.353/.407 line. He has only had eight plate appearances against lefties thus far in 2016, making it unfair to judge off such a small sample, but he does only have one hit, for what it’s worth. The AL Central, the White Sox division, oddly only has one left-handed starter in any of their current rotations (outside of the White Sox). The numbers become even more stacked against Garcia as those are the teams he will face the most. It is time for the White Sox to look elsewhere.

If the organization is not ready to bring someone in from outside, they will have to choose from a farm system that does not provide an obvious solution. However it’s not hard to believe that anything would be better than the output Garcia has given them over the last year plus the first few weeks of 2016. Carlos Sanchez spent most of the season in the major leagues last season, and while he is far from a prototypical designated hitter, his availability may be able to give a player like Brett Lawrie or Jimmy Rollins a break in the field. Travis Ishikawa is another player with major league experience, will provide a backup at first base (which the team doesn’t have) and provides a bat from the left-handed side of the plate. Younger options like Matt Davidson or Jason Coats may still warrant time at Triple-A, but can remain options further down the road. These options may become viable if the current possibilities do not fare better than Garcia.

The Chicago White Sox have mismanaged the designated hitter position for some time now. They have four of the lowest 25 wRC+ values in the last ten seasons from designated hitters with at least 250 at-bats. They have gotten below negative one bWAR in five of the last six seasons at the position. The only season that they weren’t below that value (still -0.6) was 2012, the last season they remained in the playoff hunt through September. The designated hitter position should be a gift to American League teams, but the White Sox have treated it like anything but for the last half-dozen years. If an attempt isn’t made to fix the situation there in 2016 soon, they may find themselves the same place they have been since 2008 – home in October.

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