Rookies bailed out White Sox DH situation twice in 2021

Had Eloy Jiménez not decided to hang his pectoral tendon out to dry on Camelback Ranch’s left field wall, Andrew Vaughn would’ve been the White Sox’s Plan A at DH to open the 2021 season. It struck me as a strange bet, especially after a winter where credible-to-excellent bats like Michael Brantley and Kyle Schwarber on the market. In a way, the soft spot on the roster was a luxury, in that the White Sox didn’t necessarily need to pursue an ace defensive outfielder in order to add balance and lift to the roster. They could just focus on getting a strong lefty hitter, and if it looked like they were blocking Vaughn, well, good. Vaughn hadn’t logged any minor league experience above High-A, so the Sox could let him force the issue for a year.

But Jiménez indeed injured himself, which added “play left field on a regular basis” to “face angry MLB pitching” on Vaughn’s list of tasks he’d never performed before. It also opened the White Sox’s DH job to a cast of leftovers with Yermín Mercedes getting the first cracks.

It could’ve been a disaster, and it probably should’ve been a disaster.

Instead, it was a massive improvement.

YearPAXBHHRRBIBB%K%AVG/OBP/SLGOPS+fWAR
20196224717759.325.4.205/.285/.35665-.3.6
20202531913259.128.5.148/.238/.35061-0.8
2021638482610010.322.4.250/.334/.4301050.9

This year’s menagerie of White Sox designated hitters only needed to be able to lift their feet in order to clear the bar set by the previous years, but they exceeded it by plenty, fitting snugly into the middle of the pack. Here’s where they’ve ranked in OPS the last three seasons:

  • 2019: Last
  • 2020: 14th
  • 2021: 6th

But while I was compiling the list of the White Sox’s longest homers of 2021, I itemized the production from the principal players involved, and that’s how I realized just how lucky the White Sox were to avoid having the DH collapse on them for a third straight year.

Table by Visualizer

They got the best month of Yermín Mercedes’ baseball life early, and the best month of Gavin Sheets’ baseball life late. In between looked a lot like the previous years:

  • April: .392/.433/.660
  • May: .214/.297/.316
  • June: .186/.271/.256
  • July: .195/.276/.414
  • August: .189/.294/.347
  • September: .310/.417/.560

Or to group them:

  • April and September: .350/.424/.609 over 224 PA
  • May-August: .197/.285/.333 over 414 PA

Ironically, the White Sox might’ve lucked out for 2021 by sticking with Edwin Encarnación through most of the 2020 season. If the league figured out that Mercedes couldn’t turn around fastballs the year before, he’s probably neutralized from Opening Day in 2021. Then what?

Well, you could say the butterfly effect would mean Jiménez doesn’t see a similar fly ball that leads him to maim himself on the fence, so Vaughn would’ve been waiting in the wings at DH in a world where Mercedes flops as the Plan A in April. But in that world where Mercedes saw meaningful time in 2020, maybe the White Sox advance a round deeper into the postseason, they spend more money over the winter, and the DH is neither Mercedes nor Vaughn. It probably pays to be proactive more often than not, even if this sliding door opens to a world where Jiménez instead separates his shoulder riding a mechanical bull or something.

* * * * * * * * *

One lesson is that the White Sox shouldn’t cordon off DH to a declining hitter who can only play first base, if that. The White Sox made Adam LaRoche and Yonder Alonso their first moves of those winters, and while Encarnación was a more reasonable why-not signing after heavier lifting had been accomplished, it resulted in the same dead end, and all rather predictably.

The other lesson involves the White Sox taking proper inventory with Sheets, who provided that stretch-drive/postseason muscle that Mercedes wasn’t given the chance to offer the year before. The difference is that Sheets received two cups of coffee instead of one. The first was successful, but the White Sox cut it off before it sagged into “unsuccessful,” because Sheets had a hard time adjusting to heavier doses of slower stuff down in the zone.

The second was a triumph, and there’s not yet a catch. He hit .282/.363/.535 over 80 plate appearances in September, then went 4-for-12 with a homer and a double in the postseason. He became a lot better at fending off breaking pitches while still being able to cover the fastball, as you may remember from his battles against Sonny Gray.

In serendipitous timing, James Fegan wrote about Sheets’ emergence this morning. Sheets wasn’t willing to get into the mechanical adjustments that video sessions with Yasmani Grandal helped refine, perhaps partially because it’s more about more frequently accessing a swing he already had in his bag than any wholesale changes. He describes it as reducing his fear of breaking balls so he can’t be so easily lured away from his strength.

“The biggest thing for me is just getting on time for the fastball and then working off that,” Sheets said. “It was something that I wasn’t doing early when I got up here. I was getting in between pitches because I knew guys were starting to use a lot of breaking balls, and then I was missing pitches to hit.”

There’s something to that, whether it’s because Sheets faced too many two-strike counts in the second half of July, or because Mercedes shows how turning around fastballs remains a vital skill for a bat-first hitter, even if pitchers are throwing them less than ever.

But is it enough for Sheets to be given the primary DH job without a more established veteran? I think, as I did with Vaughn entering the 2021 season, it’d be cool if a key offensive position didn’t rely so heavily on a player who still might have some necessary struggling ahead of him, especially since there isn’t much behind Sheets in the system from his side of the plate. Unlike Vaughn, at least Sheets has established years of multiple years of high-floor production in the high minors beforehand. Now he’s raised his ceiling by showing the ability to adjust at MLB adjustments even once.

I could buy into a staunch belief in Sheets if the Sox thought he was really ready, because you had to like what he showed. But until the Sox actually invest to solve at least one of the multiple recurring position-player issues, when the Sox do something that looks like corner-cutting, it’s going to be a little difficult to distinguish faith from prayer.

(Photo by Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Greg Nix

I’d feel okay if the Opening Day plan was a Sheets/Vaughn platoon, because either of those guys could take the job and run with it (and Vaughn has shown enough usefulness to capably back up the four corners). Burger is also a third guy of interest if those two crash and burn, or are pressed into duty elsewhere. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than Yonder Alonso, anyway.

itaita

Plus, i think out of all the options that you can fill at a trade deadline DH is one of the easier ones. So i can agree with letting Gavin Vauger get a tryout.

jhomeslice

Exactly. They have Eloy, Vaughn, and Sheets for LF/DH, they should get more than adequate production at DH if they do some sort of lefty righty platoon of Sheets/Vaughn. As long as they don’t try to skimp by with Eloy, Vaughn, Sheets for DH, left field, AND right field. RF has to be one of their top 2 or 3 needs.

HallofFrank

Maybe Vaughn’s long-term outlook takes a backseat to the 2022 White Sox, but I don’t love a plan that involves Vaughn only getting PAs against LHP. At least, that’s not an ideal way to develop your bat-first 1st rounder who’s already by a lack of experience. If he doesn’t have a spot on the MLB roster, I’d prefer to send him down or trade him.

Greg Nix

We need to start thinking of depth as a positive. That’s how the Rays, Dodgers, etc operate. Putting Vaughn or Sheets in a position where they can thrive over 120 games while carrying enough options to NOT rely on them for things they’re bad at is a good thing. Not everyone is a true everyday player, particularly early in their careers.

Last edited 9 months ago by Greg Nix
HallofFrank

Yes, I agree with this. But, a Vaughn / Sheets at DH is likely not 120 games for either. Granting some injury and both players cycling in at other positions occasionally, that’s probably closer to ~100-110 games for Sheets and ~60-80 games for Vaughn.

Plus, the key to my point is not depth in the abstract, but the development of a first-round, 3rd overall pick whose potential value has increased significantly by the move from 1B/DH to corner OF. The Rays cycle in prospects for depth, sure. But, this early in his career, they were never going to plan Wander Franco platooning, even if he initially struggled (I’m not saying Vaughn is as good as Franco, to be clear).

All this to say: yes, please, more depth. But player development is part of the picture, too. And Vaughn is a guy who is already way behind in professional PAs. Making plans for him to play well less than half the time, and even then only in narrow situations that don’t challenge him to grow, is a mistake in this particular case.

metasox

How many games can Grandal catch next season? He only managed 80 this past season and missed time with an injury. If Grandal’s bat is going to be in the lineup close to every day and the Sox want to keep him healthy, I would expect him to spend a lot of time at DH.

Last edited 9 months ago by metasox
Wayne

JIm, I am sure you will get to where you think this team needs to add this offseason (before and after the new CBA is my guess).
Are you looking for the White Sox to add 2 players for the RF and DH spots? With Engel, and 2 of Sheets, Vaughn, and Adolfo; I think they can fill 1 of the spots. If they went all out at 2B and pitching, I could even let those guys cover the 2 spots (with a lower tier add as well).

ParisSox

This is the thing. We are so used to settling as White Sox fans. Why not add at all positions, have too much depth, and trade when we see how things shake out.

Get a SP, Castellanos, and a 2B.

Then worst case Sheets and Vaughn refine their skills further in the minors or are traded for more help.

jhomeslice

No kidding. Tired of settling, and hearing fake narratives about winning being their goal. They looked like they didn’t even belong on the same field as the Astros because of a 55 million dollar gap in payroll for starters. 2b may be their biggest need, but RF is also. Honestly I don’t see this team going farther without an addition like either Semien or Castellanos, or some other equivalent talent. They are a high quality star player short, at least. They cannot afford to “get by” with what they have, or by adding marginal upgrades. Engel is just as injury prone as Eaton, which means they cannot count on him at all.

soxygen

Great stuff, Jim. DH is not a position that, historically speaking, has deserved such fine writing. But 2021 was a heckuva season and you captured that here.

We need a good left-handed bat, and preferably one that can play every day. Maybe the thing to do is find one of those first and then see where that leaves us positionally.

In a resource constrained world, I guess I’d prefer to see the Sox put their resources into 2B, RF or SP. Then use DH for load management plus Vaughn and Sheets. I’m not sure how much trade value Adam Engel has after all the injuries, but he definitely has some and he appears to be the odd man out.

calcetinesblancos

I want the Sox to go after this Seiya Suzuki guy.

MileHiJoe

Could be the modern version of Tadahito, his numbers from the Japan league are favorable to Tad but I’m not going to pretend I know what the level of talent in the JPL is right now.

MileHiJoe

Thought he was mostly infield based on his BR but I am incorrect

Root Cause

With the current roster, the DH position is log-jammed. Abreu and Grandal probably will need more DH days to keep them fresh.

I think Vaughn and Sheets have done enough to warrant an extended look next year. We already know that they won’t fill all the needs this winter so tell Vaughn to get ready for RF and Sheets for 1st. Get 2nd base and the pitching staff aligned this winter. Tweak what is needed next July.

shaggy65

Let’s not take for granted the fact that Sheets seems good at hitting FROM THE DH SPOT. We’ve seen over and over that most good MLB hitters are not good DHs. Abreu and Jimenez are perfect examples.

If the kid with a lefty power bat seems able to hit without playing in the field then let’s not overthink things.

dansomeone

When Jiminez separates his shoulder riding a mechanical bull this spring, I’m blaming Jim