Despite having a roster mess, the Chicago White Sox brass after 2013 decided that to help their punchless offense it was time to find a new hitting coach. Jeff Manto was having a difficult time getting results as the Sox were last in walks, doubles and second-to-last in OBP and OPS. When finding Manto’s replacement, the White Sox put in more effort hiring a hitting coach than hiring managers. According to MLB.com’s piece back in 2013, the search for Manto’s replacement was extensive.
After assistant to the general manager Jeremy Haber put together a dossier of about 16 or 17 candidates, thorough research by the front office narrowed those candidates down to six. Hahn and assistant general manager Buddy Bell sat down with them for interviews, with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, executive vice president Ken Williams and manager Robin Ventura joining the mix for the couple of ensuing finalists who came to Chicago.
The last man standing was Todd Steverson, who impressed the White Sox so much that they offered him the job on the same day of his interview. Liking his method of “Selective aggressiveness” it was the hope that Steverson could bring what he learned from the Oakland Athletics, offer a fresh take on approach, and that would translate into results. In 2013, the White Sox team OBP was .302, so it wasn’t like Steverson had a high bar to clear.
95 games into the 2018 season, the White Sox team OBP is .303. They are the only team in Major League Baseball that doesn’t have a hitter qualified for a batting title with an OBP higher than .340. Matt Davidson leads qualified hitters with a .330 OBP. For the non-qualified hitters, Omar Narvaez currently leads the team .356 in 165 plate appearances, Kevan Smith is second with a .348 OBP in 89 plate appearances, and the recently demoted Charlie Tilson was third with a .331 OBP over 121 plate appearances.
If your initial belief when it comes to the White Sox getting on-base is that they always struggle in this department, well, you’re right. As a team, the White Sox haven’t been above average in OBP since 2010, when Greg Walker was the hitting coach. In 2011 and 2012 they were hovering around average, and ever since 2013, the White Sox have been terrible in this department.
Including 2018, 14 of the last 16 seasons the White Sox team OBP has been below league average. Even the World Champion squad in 2005 had a team OBP of .322 which was below the league average of .330. Only the 2006 and 2010 crews were above league average. The 2006 squad had Jim Thome (.416 OBP), Jermaine Dye (.385 OBP), and Paul Konerko (.381 OBP) carrying the load, and in 2010 Konerko’s .393 OBP was a heavy lifter paired with two slap hitters in Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel (.341 OBP), and outfielders Carlos Quentin and Andrew Jones.
Back to the 2005 squad, and also including 2008 AL Central division winners, both teams were a bit of anomaly. There is a strong positive correlation between OBP and Winning Percentage. Back in 2015, The Full Count looked into this relationship and found an r-value of .535. Thanks to Scott Lindholm, a frequent contributor to Beyond the Box Score, he helped me visualize this correlation from 1930 to 2017.
Scott also provided another look of OBP Difference, which is a team’s OBP versus their opponents OBP.
The principle is simple, right? More times a team gets on base, the better chance they will score runs. More runs a team scores, the better chance of that team will win games. Of course, there is more to that in winning baseball games, but a good offense goes a long way. For the 2005 and 2008 squads, they had to make up for their lack of getting on-base as consistent as other teams by being really good at hitting home runs or having five excellent starting pitchers.
Who is to blame for the White Sox woes getting on-base at a league average clip? Is it Todd Steverson? Hard to pin all of the offensive problems on one person but since he’s been on the job, there hasn’t been significant, if any, positive results. However, this has apparently been an issue before Steverson’s arrival, and thus we must move up the corporate ladder. This problem rests on Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn, and their past inability to build a roster with players who can get on-base frequently. We know that part of this rebuild is a change in focus on different types of players the White Sox are bringing in, and Hahn/Williams deserve credit for that. If you haven’t drowned in the deep end of the dour pool, there is a glimpse of hope of a lousy trend reversing.
Let’s look at the White Sox minor league affiliates during the same time frame.
Birmingham, Winston-Salem, and Kannapolis are seeing a significant increase in team OBP from 2017, with the Intimidators leading the South Atlantic League in that category. Players acquired in trades like Eloy Jimenez, Luis Basabe, and Blake Rutherford are drivers in these changes. Hahn deserves a pat on the back for that, but having Nick Hostettler drive the draft efforts, and Chris Getz managing player development may pay dividends. We already know that 2016 first rounder Zack Collins is an OBP machine, but players like Seby Zavala, Joel Booker, Gavin Sheets, Alex Call, Luis Gonzalez, Laz Rivera, Tate Blackman, and Anthony Villa have been contributors for their respective teams. Add in Marco Paddy’s international additions Micker Adolfo and Luis Robert, too. Some of this success is due to age and being older in experience compared to the competition, but as players have been promoted some are carrying over their ability to reach on-base. This is a good sign and hopefully continues into 2019.
Not every prospect is going to pan out, and eventually, Hahn/Williams will need to team up in finding free agents and/or make trades to improve the 25-man roster in Chicago. This is an area where the team needs a shift in focus. Far too often the Sox have always been looking for a left-handed power bat, and boy, have the results been ugly. One suggestion would be to look away from home runs and instead focus more on players who get on-base at a better than .340 clip. Yes, that does mean skipping on players like Mike Moustakas who has a career .305 OBP. Focus more on players like AJ Pollock who has a career .343 OBP.
If this rebuild is going to work, the White Sox need to have a better offense. It’s pretty clear that the offensive strategy of today hasn’t worked. They need a new approach. One that starts with a simple step: get on base. Perhaps bring back a fan favorite marketing slogan could help. Instead of “Selective aggressiveness,” it should be “Get on base, or die trying.” Ok, maybe that’s a bit too much, but a greater emphasis is needed in Chicago for having players find a way to get on-base by any means necessary.