Changing Sox: We shouldn't be surprised to see Chicago in the race
Having reeled off 13 wins in 14 games, the White Sox are baseball's hottest team
Strong starting pitching, not offense, has been the key to Chicago's hot stretch
In fact, no player other than A.J. Pierzynski has been hitting exceptionally well
It's strange but true that when a ball club is obviously playing well above its talent, everyone expects it to regress, but when a ball club is just as obviously playing well below its talent, no one expects it to improve. Whatever hard-wired neurological reasons there are for this tendency, no team this year has suffered so much from it as the Chicago White Sox, who had to reel off a 13 wins in 14 games to get anyone to notice that they've been good all along.
Does that sound absurd? On June 8, the day before they started their run as the hottest team in baseball, the Sox were 24-33 and 9 1/2 games out of first place. Days later, a report broke that manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Ken Williams had nearly been in a fistfight. The big questions surrounding the team were whether one of the two would be fired before the end of the year, and which veterans would be traded off, and how quickly.
Now, not so much. "When things aren't going well," team owner Jerry Reinsdorf said as the team was at its lowest point, "there are just tensions, natural tensions. If we win five or six games in a row, it will go away." Those words look very prescient right now.
Over the last two weeks the Sox have whipped good teams in the Tigers and Braves, beaten down the hated Cubs, and thrashed the lowly likes of the Pirates and Nationals. In close ones and blowouts and even in games started by stud pitchers Tommy Hanson and Stephen Strasburg, the Sox have been beasts. It has all brought them within 2 1/2 games of the lead in the American League Central. Suddenly, the idea of Williams and Guillen brawling seems comical rather than sad, and the idea of either one hitting the bricks seems a lot more remote. But the truth is that they didn't do anything wrong to begin with, and haven't done anything especially well of late. We're just seeing a good team rouse from a weird slumber.
To understand why the Sox were in such a bad place to begin with, you have to understand their philosophy. On Chicago's South Side, the idea is basically to build a team that will, if everything goes as it should, win about 88 games. With bad luck, such a team will finish a bit below .500; with good luck, it'll win the division and enter the lottery drawing that is playoff baseball. This isn't the most ambitious plan, but it has won a World Series and helped the team avoid the kind of protracted run of bad baseball that can ruin credibility with the public.
This year, the philosophy manifested itself in a nearly total reliance on the starting rotation. On paper, the front four of Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd was arguably the best in baseball. The idea was that with any kind of backing from a decent bullpen and a vaguely adequate lineup, these four would be enough to make the White Sox good, and perhaps great. It wasn't a bad idea, really; it just didn't work for the first part of the season.
Through June 8, Buehrle's ERA was 5.40, Peavy's was 5.90 and Floyd's was 6.18. Making things worse was that three of the team's four most important position players -- Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham -- were all playing terribly, with their on-base plus slugging ranging from Beckham's miserable .515 to Quentin's merely wretched .697.
Another way to put this is that of the eight players around whom the team is really built, six were playing horrifically bad baseball for no apparent reason. Given the expected atrocious hitting from the soft part of the lineup, players such as Juan Pierre and Mark Kotsay, even brilliant starts from Danks, Alex Rios and Paul Konerko weren't doing much for the team.
The good part of the story for the Sox is that lately the pitching has been as great as it was lousy -- from June 8 through June 24 the team ERA was 2.13, and of the big four only Danks had a mark over 2.00. (His was 2.05.) This isn't how reversion to the mean is supposed to work; if you have a lot of really good pitchers who have been tossing meatballs, you can expect them to start pitching well eventually, but not really to make up for two months worth of bad play by pitching like a set of Ubaldo Jimenezes. Still, the Sox will take it.
The great part of the story for Chicago, though, is what hasn't been happening. It has been widely noted that during their recent run the White Sox went eight games without hitting a home run and still smacked their opponents around. What has been less noted, but is more significant, is that the team increased its run scoring about 25 percent without anyone other than catcher A.J. Pierzynski (a .395/.425/.605 line) hitting exceptionally well. Beckham and Pierre have been hitting like pitchers of late, while Rios, Quentin and Konerko have been doing more or less what they were being counted on to do, with OPS marks in the range of .850.
What this means is that while the White Sox' recent hot stretch is the result of great pitching, they're not totally reliant on their front four all pitching like vintage Bob Gibson, as no one in the batting order other than Pierzynski has done anything of late that he can't be expected to keep up. And should Williams, never shy about dealing, actually find a left fielder capable of slugging above .275, or a designated hitter who can best a .210 batting average, the offense will get quite a lot better.
However uninspired the baseball they were playing earlier this year was, the Sox are now in the race and should absolutely be expected to stay in it. More than that, should they make it to October they'll be scary, with a vicious rotation, a deep bullpen, a decent defense and a lineup that's a nice trade or two away from having no obvious soft point. Reinsdorf just could end up being more right than he dreamed.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.