The White Sox’s running game is coming to life

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

The 2020 White Sox lineup was one of the youngest and most athletic in baseball, but it didn’t manifest itself in the stolen bases column, which is where youth and athleticism often prevail.

The Sox had a couple of valid reasons, like Yoán Moncada’s year-long COVID-19 battle, and the fact that their league-leading home run minimized the value that the stolen base provides. It just wasn’t worth the effort or energy, so Rick Renteria’s team largely stayed put.

Tony La Russa’s White Sox are already more than halfway to the White Sox’s 2020 total of 20 stolen bases despite playing less than a third of the games. They’re sixth in Major League Baseball with 12 steals, but they also have the most swipes of any team that’s only been nabbed once. The Tigers and Yankees are the only teams without a caught stealing on their record, but they’ve only stolen four bases apiece. And hey, Nick Madrigal might’ve been safe on the unsuccessful attempt, but La Russa was too slow on the challenge draw.

This facet briefly disappeared after a three-steal game against Seattle, and not by coincidence. That’s the night that Billy Hamilton strained his left hamstring while taking third base, and the Sox didn’t even muster an attempt in the six games afterward.

Balancing the universe, the return of the White Sox’s running game was accompanied by the return of Tim Anderson from his hamstring strain. The White Sox are 5-for-5 over their last five games, and Anderson’s responsible for three of them, including this delightful slide into second.

It’s great to see Anderson running so soon after a leg injury, because that kind of wear and tear is often the reason Anderson stops trying to steal. Entering the year, Anderson accumulated more than two-thirds of his stolen bases during the first half of the season:

  • 2020: 49 over 317 games*
  • 2021: 24 over 253 games

(*Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t divide 2020’s 60-game season into halves, but it makes sense to lump in his 49 games from last year into his first-half stats since we’re discussing in-season endurance.)

Anderson’s injuries have been minor — a hamstring this year, a groin injury in 2020, an ankle in 2019 — but they’ve all involved his lower half, and they’ve all been enough to take his edge off his activity on the basepaths. Anderson’s growth as one of the game’s best bat-to-ball guys means he doesn’t need to wring as much value out of his legs, but it’d be cool if he could sustain what they add to his game for more of a season.

We saw an example of this back on April 17, when Anderson was able to tie the game in Boston 90 feet at a time. He led off with a single, stole second, then took third when the throw bounced into center.

Adam Eaton’s fly wasn’t deep enough to get him home, but Yoán Moncada’s got the job done, and a 3-2 game became 3-3 after just one measly base hit.

Anderson’s not the only one running more. Luis Robert has also entered this particular chat, contributing the two non-Anderson steals over the last five games.

I’d been watching Robert take leads off first base and wondering why he wasn’t running more, in large part because Robert’s spending more time at first base. The guy’s got a .351 OBP this April after a .216 last September. The increased potential of a stolen base has been noted and appreciated, and now maybe it’s becoming realized.

Robert’s history of slide-related maladies makes the risk of a stolen base a little greater than an out, but if he’s put the threat of yet another hand injury behind him, his legs can also help the White Sox compensate a specific shortcoming elsewhere. Hitting with runners in scoring position is a difficult task across the entire league, and the White Sox compound that problem with their general vulnerability to right-handed pitching.

The White Sox’s .690 OPS against righties is a little worse than league average, mostly due to a substandard slugging percentage, which rose 20 points to .370 after their four-homer game on Tuesday, but is still 20 points below the league average. Their OBP is actually decent compared to the AL (.320 vs. 307), but it’s not a strong number in and of itself, especially with a lack of power making the journey around the basepaths a longer one.

It’s harder for the White Sox to hit righties, but it’s far easier to run on them. The Sox lineup also has at least one guy in Madrigal who’s 1) a great bet to make contact and 2) likely to keep it on the ground, and that paid off with a picture-perfect hit-and-run with Andrew Vaughn in motion during the series at Fenway Park.

You may be reading these paragraphs about stolen bases and hit-and-runs and wonder what year it is. We’re indeed having this conversation in 2021, a year where catchers spend a lot of time on one knee to grab strikes, so maybe it’s even easier to take these bases. There are reasons to run beyond “it’s fun,” although entertainment value has its place as well.

Ideally, the White Sox offense won’t be reliant on steals, because that means they’re reliant on Anderson, Robert, Hamilton, Adam Engel and Leury García getting on base, and all have histories of OBP droughts. Yet two of those guys are delivering right now, and Hamilton had moments before his injury. As long as some of their faster guys are standing on first, La Russa may as well start testing for the limits of that advantage, at least until the ball once again starts flying over the fence on a reliable basis.

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

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ParisSox

I loved Robert’s run production on opening day when he doubled with two outs, stole third, and then came home on a wild pitch.

As Cirensica

Robert is quietly becoming the heart of the White Sox production. He is getting on base. He is walking! Running and has some gap power with a major league leading 8 doubles (tied with JD Martinez). He is starting to look like Maggs but with more power and a lot more Ks. Lowering his %K rate is huge in a player like Roberts because he has an explosive bat that when he connects, very often, it won’t be a cheap out.

GrinnellSteve

His tools are insane. It feels like this isn’t so much a hot streak but a real and lasting improvement. He’s getting better at recognizing balls and also strikes he can’t punish, and he’s laying off more of them. The league should be very afraid of his development.

phillyd

I wish Moncada would mix in a SB here and there.

jorgefabregas

Moncada’s sprint speed has only been league average thus far this year. Was actually faster last year (which was about equal with the previous year).

Greg Nix

I’ve always wished Anderson would run more. He singles a lot and doesn’t get caught all that much, so if he can stay healthy it feels like a 30-steal season is well within reach.

calcetinesblancos

I feel like stolen bases and bunts are similar in the sense that making the opposition think it MIGHT happen arguably has more value than the act itself. But we definitely have enough speed to get in a pitcher’s head, which is always good.

GrinnellSteve

It’s always good to have a well-rounded offense. I know the value of a stolen base or an extra base taken has been devalued in recent years, but I like the idea of putting pressure on defenses and on pitchers. We certainly have the stallions to do it.

I think efficiently stealing bases is especially important for Madrigal. If you have a no-slug game, some of those singles, walks and HBP’s need to turn into doubles somehow.

Law&Law_Attorneys@Law

Anderson is so fast when healthy he blows by the bag. Just another of his skills that makes him fun to watch.