The White Sox are winning by minimizing suckage

I’ve been deep into the NBA this year, in part because my favorite team, the Phoenix Suns, is good for the first time in recent memory. A lot of the credit in their dramatic turnaround from the worst franchise in basketball to the league’s second-best record goes their new Hall of Fame point guard/Winston-Salem Dash co-owner, Chris Paul. But co-equal credit should go to their devotion to a theory developed by podcaster Chris Vernon: Don’t Play Guys Who Suck. The idea is that you can offset a relative lack of high-end talent by having a deep roster of players who are not outright minuses. It’s harder than it sounds!

That mantra came to mind when I was browsing FanGraphs yesterday, because the White Sox had only one position player (Yoan Moncada) in the top-50 in fWAR entering Wednesday’s games. Surprising for a team nine games above .500 and sitting in first place. For comparison, the Angels had three position players in that same top-50 (Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Jared Walsh) but were in last place, six games under .500.

A few thoughts, beyond that it sucks to be an Angels fan. For one thing, this illustrates that the 2021 Sox have largely been carried by their pitching staff (Carlos Rodon, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, and Michael Kopech are all among the top-50 pitchers in fWAR). Secondly, what the team lacks in superstars, they have so far made up for with cromulent performances throughout the lineup and bench. In fact, they’ve fielded only two under-replacement level position players: Leury Garcia who has battled his way back to -0.2 wins after a brutal start, and Nick Williams, who put up -0.2 wins himself in just 13 plate appearances.

This is especially surprising considering the early injuries to Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, and Adam Engel that have destroyed the team’s outfield depth. It’s also especially surprising considering it’s the friggin’ White Sox, and we have grown accustomed to wasted roster spots.

Here’s a fun list of all the below-replacement position players the team has fielded in the last three seasons (minimum 10 plate appearances):

PlayerYearPAWAR
Edwin Encarnacion2020181-0.3
Nicky Delmonico202022-0.3
Zack Collins202018-0.2
Ryan Goins202010-0.2
Daniel Palka201993-1.4
Yonder Alonso2019251-1.3
Welington Castillo2019251-1.0
Jon Jay2019182-0.9
Jose Rondon2019156-0.6
A.J. Reed201949-0.6
Nicky Delmonico201968-0.5
Matt Skole201980-0.5
Zack Collins2019102-0.3
Ryan Cordell2019247-0.2
Charlie Tilson2019157-0.2
Seby Zavala201912-0.2
Trayce Thompson2018130-1.3
Ryan Cordell201840-0.6
Charlie Tilson2018121-0.6
Nicky Delmonico2018318-0.3

Long-suffering White Sox fans will also recall the deep pits of suck that submarined promising rosters in the Chris Sale years, and even the post-World Series teams. Guys like Dioner Navarro, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Keppinger, and Mark Kotsay sabotaged otherwise promising seasons by being total black holes.

But we’re not seeing that so far this year. Even players who looked like dead weight entering the year (*cough* Jake Lamb *cough*) have scratched out ways to not subtract from what the rest of the team is doing, even if they’re not actively adding much to the winning efforts.

There’s probably a bit of luck involved here, but credit the White Sox front office for (finally!) filling out the roster with guys who can be counted on to do at least one thing well enough to keep them afloat. Billy Hamilton doesn’t hit, but he can run and defend. Neither Adam Eaton nor Yasmani Grandal are making contact, but both are getting on base enough to add value. Blessedly absent are the Delmonicos and Jays who make you wonder how exactly the team envisioned them contributing at all.

And despite his blundering incompetence in other areas, some credit should also go to Tony La Russa for generally putting imperfect players in the positions where they’re most likely to succeed. Lamb has only one plate appearance against a lefty so far. Hamilton’s contributions with the glove have outweighed his weak stick in part because he’s played 38 2/3 innings as a defensive replacement.

The big question now is whether this will last, particularly if Eaton and Kopech’s dueling hamstring issues — tightness for the former, soreness for the latter — keep either or both of them out for an extended stretch. Kopech’s universal awesomeness has covered for disappointing performances elsewhere in the bullpen (though Evan Marshall is the only arm actually below replacement). And obviously losing another outfielder will not make La Russa’s job any easier, even if Eaton and Engel trade places on the active roster. Surprising performances from depth pieces like Rodon, Cease, Yermin Mercedes, et al., have already bought the Sox time for Moncada and Jose Abreu to rebound from slow Aprils… Is there enough talent left to patch even more holes?

Hopefully, the front office will extend the newfound “Don’t Suck” philosophy to the trade deadline, and we’ll see actual reinforcements instead of the end-of-career vets that have been White Sox staple acquisitions. If so, and if Jimenez, Robert, and Engel all return to their pre-injury forms at some point, there’s no reason we should have to watch below-replacement baseball at all this summer (except in Minnesota ????).

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Greg Nix
Greg Nix

Greg Nix writes stuff all over the internet, and sometimes even on TV. He loves the White Sox and the Phoenix Suns even though they bring him nothing but pain.

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Otter

I’ll be surprised if they don’t send Mendick down when Engel is ready, but there really is a compelling case to DFA Leury. Of course, that’s a lot of Hamilton in center if Engel gets hurt again, so it will be Mendick.

calcetinesblancos

I bet you could find a trade partner for Leury. I don’t think you’d get anything amazing back, but even if you just add to your minor-league pitching depth that would be considered a win.

As Cirensica

Leury is a valuable bench player, so DFAing him is not a good move. Making him a bench player with occasional starts is, but alas, that’s been really difficult. I know he is a -0.2 fWAR player, but he has patched so many holes, provide days of rest to many positive contributors that analyzing his contributions merely focusing on his production could be misleading. He is not going anywhere.

roke1960

I agree completely. Leury is very valuable as a couple-of-time-a-week bench player. Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for Leury), the last 2 managers have thought Leury is an everyday player. Also unfortunately, this year all of our good outfielders are hurt so he HAS to play every day. They really need to acquire an actual medium-impact bat to place in the outfield, but we know Rick won’t do that with Eloy and Robert coming back in the next year. So we’re stuck with Leury playing every day, at least until Engel comes back. But now with Eaton potentially hurt, he just slide comfortably over to right when Engel is recalled.

As Cirensica

The fact that Leury has avoided the IL himself is quite impressive. After Eaton, Leury is “due”. Start printing Goodwin’s jerseys.

HallofFrank

The OF is too thin to cut ties now, but if and when Eloy and Robert return Leury should be the odd man out. A Mendick that can play a passable RF is a better version of Leury on a healthy roster.

Otter

Yeah, I’m starting to think Mendick as a super sub has more value as the bat is (probably) better especially if you think he can cover short for two or three games a month. We know Hamilton can cover center (and is much better defensively) plus provides more speed. Lamb is hitting righties (which he he did in the past 2019 aside) so he can cover left/third and PHing.

calcetinesblancos

Is there anything Leury does that Mendick can’t? I bet Mendick would even play a better CF, but that isn’t saying much IMO.

texag10

Weirdly, Leury is worlds better at hitting left handers compared to Danny. I’ve been thinking about lineup construction without Leury. By default, Engel would be our starter in CF when he comes back which isn’t a bad thing. Obviously sample size is a major thing here but career splits against RHP actually favor Mendick over Eaton but I don’t think Mendick is ready to start full time in the OF. So with an OF of Vaughn/Engel/Eaton, you’d have Hamilton and Collins locked in as bench players for OF/C. Mendick kind of splits the difference between Leury and Lamb as a bench player. Lamb has a better bat but Leury brings more versatility and speed. Based on all of that, I have to assume TLR will prefer a Collins/Garcia/Hamilton/Lamb bench.

HallofFrank

Wow, I did not realize how poor Mendick was vs. LHP—or how good he is against RHP. His 133 wRC+ is second on the team vs. RHP, behind only to Moncada’s 139. Get this man some PA’s vs. righties!

As Cirensica

Mendick’s good wRC+ vs RHP is probably a byproduct of his limited exposure.

Jim Margalus

Jace Fry is beginning his rehab stint tonight with Charlotte.

WilliamKin04

Good, I feel like he’s going to have a breakout year, especially with Katz. Maybe he can replace what Jimmy Cordero was in 2019 and 2020 (before Ricky overused him)

jhomeslice

They played today. Fry with a scoreless inning and 2 K’s, nice outing for him.

GrinnellSteve

That’s a breathtaking list from 2019, breathtaking as in “a punch to the solar plexus.”

MarketMaker

it’s funny, good orgs have been so much quicker to move on from bad performance. the sox have not prior to this season. nothing wrong with a bunch of guys getting 10-20 PAs and getting dropped. it’s when you waste hundreds of at-bats that it really becomes indefensible.

calcetinesblancos

Signing Encarnacion was bad on so many levels.

HallofFrank

And yet – although it didn’t work out, it made the most sense at the time of any of the others on that list.

calcetinesblancos

Respectfully, I actually didn’t think it made any sense. Couldn’t play the field, old, expensive. They should have let Collins DH a fair amount while rotating in rest days for the other guys. You also wonder why they didn’t just plug Yermin in there. He had a great 2019 in the minors.

HallofFrank

Nelson Cruz plays the field less, is older, and more expensive, but he’s also one of the best hitters in baseball. But 1-year, $12m is just not expensive for a guy coming off a 129 wRC+, 34 HR, and 2.5 fWAR season. For a team with playoff hopes and abysmal DH performance, it was a reasonable, even good, signing that just didn’t work out.

I agree, though, that they should have cut ties with Edwin sooner and pivoted to Collins and Yermín.

SoxSideMike

Nice article, thanks for posting. It feels good to root for a team that doesn’t suck (for a change).

As Cirensica

I know most of White Sox hate the Cubs, but this is top notch funny

Amar

That was pretty funny, thanks.

joewho112

I like how Baez gets caught up watching the play at home and forgets to run to first for second

As Cirensica

The worse thing is that there were TWO outs. LMAO! 1B only needed to force the out by stepping on the first base and inning over, but….the circus!

GrinnellSteve

I hope they don’t tighten things up by the time we play them.

calcetinesblancos

That actually is pretty damn funny considering that even at the end of the fiasco at home they could have just thrown to first if someone was covering and the run wouldn’t have counted.

Jim Margalus

I didn’t realize that the first few times I saw it circulate on my feed. It adds another layer.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I didn’t even realize there were 2 outs. What on earth?

burning-phoneix

From what I guess happened is that the first basemen was gonna apply a routine tag even though he’s off the bag because why not? Most players just slow to a jog and head straight to the dugout, not evading the tag. Some may play a little joke by running back to homeplate but then they get tagged regardless…..when Baez kept running it just short circuited all baseball logic for the 1B and he had no idea….he has left reality and entered Javier Baez’s Magical Realm.

asinwreck

Greg identifies an important key to successful roster construction. Discussions of 2005 often point to the rotation, but ensuring every position on the diamond had at least a competent starter was a major break from the recent past (and, unfortunately, not followed up in future years). Having Tadahito Iguchi at 2B and AJ Pierzynski behind the plate stabilized positions of real weakness.

The 2021 Sox may need a couple dozen more outfielders to ensure competent play there, though at least (knock wood) they are not the M*E*T*S.

Trooper Galactus

Nicky Delmonico making that list three straight years indicates the level of organizational malfeasance in the outfield during the rebuild. He really made that good debut in 2017 last. Also, I think Collins might be close to a net negative. While his offense is bad, it’s relatively normal for a backup catcher. But his framing is literally among the worst in baseball per BP, and that’s even with Rodon’s no-hitter offsetting his numbers a bit. Of course, if he manages to be literally replacement level as the backup catcher, I’ll take that over the garbage we had to see there before McCann.

burning-phoneix

Thinking about Collins, I noticed Giolito throwing to him much better than he did Grandal. This was also the case last season with McCann so it might be some psychological reason that Gio isn’t getting along with Grandal or Grandal’s pitch calling not meshing well with Gio. Unfortunately game calling and pitcher management can’t be measured in stats but it does seem Collins is at least decent there.
Not to mention I was checking baseball savant’s pitch framing data and no surprise that Collins is near the bottom but I noticed that his framing for pitches in the top of the zone, where Gio makes most of his stuff work, is actually better than league average. Also, his framing on the inside part of the plate (when versus RHB) is VERY good, which I think helps Rodon a lot when he slings those sliders to RHB.

soxygen

I read that list of negative WAR players and laughed, then cried.