The hot start to the 2016 season for the Chicago White Sox has fans and experts alike making comparisons to their 2005 club that won the World Series. Possibly the most equivalent characteristic between the two seasons thus far is that few saw the success beforehand. As someone who has written 5,600 words on the 2005 season, I am well aware that it’s a long season and I am not ready to make the leap to compare the teams just yet.
But there is something that has jumped off the screen while watching the games this April that has led me to believe that what made 2005 special may be occurring again this year. The team is playing “smart ball.” The term, coined by Ozzie Guillen in 2005, created as a contradiction to analysts saying the White Sox were a “small ball” team. That 2005 team hit 200 home runs, good for fifth in the majors, so Ozzie was accurate in that they did not play “small ball.” It was the way the White Sox played that made outsiders believe they were more of a “small ball” team – running the bases well, excellent fielding, and enough runs to support a fantastic pitching staff.
The recipe has been the same thus far in 2016, and the most surprising part is how quickly they have corrected last year’s imperfections – the same things they have excelled at this April.
Through Wednesday’s sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays, the White Sox are hitting .238/.306/.377 with a 91 wRC+. The 2015 White Sox went 8-11 in April while hitting .241/.291/.352 with a 74 wRC+. The significant change in wins does not seem to be due to a change in production at the plate. The team actually has a worse average, but the other numbers display that the team’s run production is up which could mean they have been getting these hits at “better” times.
Another possible reason for the team’s success this season is their baserunning. The White Sox were one of the worst teams in the league in baserunning last year. Fangraphs has a metric called “Baserunning” — or BsR — which is an attempt to encompass all baserunning statistics, like stolen bases, taking extra bases, etc. The White Sox were 27th in the league with -15.6 BsR in 2015, meaning they accumulated 15.6 less runs than an average team just from their baserunning. In 2016, they haven’t gotten off to a great start, -2 BsR (24th in the league), but last April the team had a -2.4 BsR (26th in the league).
As far as stealing bases, the team hasn’t showed improvement in success. The White Sox had a 62 percent success rate in stolen bases in 2015 (27th in the league). After two stolen bases Thursday night, the White Sox are up to 56 percent (9-for-16). Of course the success rate has decreased, but the attempts are something to take a note of. In 19 games in April of 2015, the team only attempted nine stolen bases and they have now nearly doubled that total this April (in four more games). The most astounding statistic that can’t be left unmentioned: the White Sox did not successfully steal third base all season in 2015. They have already done that twice in 2016. The team may be showing a change in philosophy in trying to be more aggressive on the base paths.
The biggest improvement for the team may be in the wonderfully named statistic, TOOTBLAN (thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop). In 2015, the White Sox were thrown out on the bases (caught stealings and pick offs not included) a nauseating 74 times (according to baseball-reference.com). That total was the highest in the majors. This April, they have only been thrown out on the bases five times. Quick math puts them on pace for 47 TOOTBLANs, a markedly less total (47 would have been the fifth lowest total in the league last year).
There is still room for improvement for their baserunning, but a more aggressive philosophy and increased acumen on the base paths has arguably been a reason for the success shown early this season.
Before John Danks took a sledgehammer to the team’s pitching numbers Thursday night, the 2016 White Sox were sporting a 2.24 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and a 3.85 xFIP. In April of 2015, the staff had a 4.57 ERA, 3.82 FIP, and a 3.97 xFIP. It doesn’t take a sabermatrician to notice the vast improvement for both the rotation and bullpen have made in 2016. Swapping Jeff Samardzija and Hector Noesi for Mat Latos and Carlos Rodon could be a reason for the rotation’s improvement, and having Matt Albers and Nate Jones healthy for the full month has certainly helped the bullpen’s numbers. When digging into the numbers further — and the always helpful eye test — it’s not just the swaps, nor Chris Sale and Jose Quintana turning into superheros, that are the only reason for the improvement.
Last April the White Sox pitching staff had a .311 BABIP, which matched their season number as well. In 2016, that number is down to a minuscule .252. There may be some normalization to the figure (the average BABIP is around .300), but defense does have an effect on that number as well. Advanced statistics for defense have been the toughest to grasp, and sabermatricians still admit that they are far from perfection. Fangraphs’s statistic of Defensive Runs Saved — or DRS — is the equivalent of BsR for defense. It attempts to discover how many runs are saved by a team’s defense, compared to average. The 2015 White Sox were 28th in DRS with -39, or 39 runs less saved, than an average defense. This season they are a positive 11, which is third best in the league. Baseball-reference agrees in their formula – the White Sox have a .735 “defensive efficiency” (second in the league) compared to last year’s .673 total (28th).
Adam Eaton has been the standout of the early season for defensive improvement. The move from center to right field has worked out better than most could have imagined, probably even Eaton himself. Take a look at the numbers below, via Fangraphs.
The combination of adding Austin Jackson to the outfield, which pushed Avisail Garcia to designated hitter, has improved the center/right combination 32 DRS. Melky Cabrera has been right around his production from last year but the duo of Jackson and Eaton has seemingly caught everything. With the understanding that you have to accept these statistics with some hesitation, the eye test can come into play. Jackson and Eaton have been outstanding with their first steps and route efficiency, not to mention Eaton’s arm creating a number of outs this season. There does seem to be an increased faith from the pitching staff that these guys are going to go out and catch it when fly balls are hit.
The Chicago White Sox certainly had a very active offseason and a significant amount of turnover but there was a question about what the actual sum of the new parts would amount to. The easy takeaway from the hot start is that the pitching staff has been incredible. While that is certainly true, the “baseball smarts” of baserunning and solid defense has played a large part in this team having MLB’s highest win total. Keeping those two areas consistent should be a more reasonable task than the outstanding pitching numbers. With continued improvement in those spots, who knows – maybe there will be more comparisons to 2005 as the season progresses.