Drop in opposite-field homers forces White Sox to consider new directions

If you had to list the reasons why the White Sox dramatically underperformed expectations in 2022, the mind first turns to team health, and the baffling mismanagement of it throughout the season.

But even if the White Sox didn’t lose Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, Yasmani Grandal and Luis Robert for large chunks of the schedule, the White Sox still might’ve faced an uphill battle with meeting projections, because the baseball betrayed the way they were built.

A lineup with plenty of all-fields power saw decreased utility in two-thirds of it. The ball just didn’t fly, and it particularly sagged in distance to center field and right. A lot of hitters, White Sox and otherwise, griped about it throughout the year, and Alex Speier of the Boston Globe circled back to the topic to do a year-end assessment:

Barreled balls (defined by MLB.com as balls hit 98-plus miles per hour at a launch angle that typically yields an extra-base hit) to the pull side saw a slight drop in the frequency with which they left the yard. In 2019, a pulled barrel resulted in a homer 74.3 percent of the time; in 2022, that was down to 65.7 percent.

But to center and the opposite field, the decline was profound. Barreled balls turned into homers with roughly 31 percent less frequency when hit to straightaway center, and with 29 percent less frequency when hit to the opposite field.

The White Sox suffered a similar drop to center field

  • 2019: 120 straightaway barrels, 54 homers
  • 2021: 132 straightaway barrels, 52 homers
  • 2022: 144 straightaway barrels, 41 homers

… and the opposite way:

  • 2019: 61 opposite-field barrels, 31 homers
  • 2021: 58 opposite-field barrels, 27 homers
  • 2022: 63 opposite-field barrels, 19 homers

The average White Sox fly ball on barrels flew five feet shorter to center, and seven feet shorter the opposite way. José Abreu lost 500 points of slugging on barrels to center and right, while Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez suffered even bigger drops, albeit in considerably smaller samples.

Yasmani Grandal had the goofiest drop of all — from a 3.143 slugging percentage on barrelled straightaway and opposite-field flies in 2021 to a .667 SLG in 2022 — although between his pull-happy approach and problems with his legs and back, he only had six such barrels all year.

That paragraph backs into one of the few reasons to feel encouraged about Grandal’s potential contributions in 2023. The White Sox were bottom-five in pull-field fly balls while dealing with drastically diminishing returns on what they considered a strength, and while Grandal has his hands full in getting healthy and fighting the aging process behind the plate, he doesn’t have to tinker with his approach in any way. Hell, with radical infield shifts being banned, he’ll be encouraged to lean into it.

If you’re thinking regression will set in at some point, the executives cited in Speier’s story don’t sound optimistic:

“If you’re sitting there and planning your club, you’re thinking, ‘Gee, the ball doesn’t travel like it used to, so how am I going to play this?’ “ said Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, citing Nick Castellanos, who went from 34 homers in 2021 to 13 in 2022, as a player whose numbers didn’t align with his quality of contact.

“We’re all getting whipsawed by this,” said another GM. “We’re all trying to figure this out. We’re not used to that. There was a long period where it felt pretty stable. Now it doesn’t feel stable. You’re always trying to evaluate players in the context of what’s going on. That’s become really [expletive] hard.”

I’m looking forward to seeing whether the White Sox will attempt to steer away at this, because all-fields power is something they’ve stressed as an organization. In James Fegan’s roundup of five noteworthy position player prospects back in June, Chris Getz cited opposite-field gap power for three of them:

“[Bryan Ramos] has a tendency to want to move a little too quick, and try to get the barrel out and turn left. When he squares up a ball to right-center, it is loud. So really it’s about harping that same approach that we’ve been talking about, whether it be with Lenyn Sosa or Colson Montgomery, that center to right-center gap, because he’s got plenty of strength to take to the pull side, he doesn’t need to try to drive the ball to the pull side, that can naturally happen. And with that approach, it allows him to stay on sliders, hard sliders down on the way out of the zone, to be able to shut down those pitches and drive the ones that are hanging.”

That all sounds good in theory, but it’s playing out rather differently in practice, so much so that 17 homers was good enough to lead the team in 2022. The problem extends beyond Frank Menechino, and it’s why I’m suspicious of the idea of promoting Chris Johnson from Charlotte to replace him.

But it’s also why I’m looking forward to hearing from Mike Tosar, if and when the White Sox make his apparent hiring official. He was credited with helping Jorge Soler and Salvador Perez with their transformation into league-leading home run hitters, and while Soler’s 48-homer season is partially a product of 2019’s happy fun ball — remember the Bomba Squad Twins? — Perez’s surge occurred in a saner environment.

If Tosar is indeed aboard to roll up his sleeves and get to work with White Sox hitters, then that’s one step in trying to back out of a dead end the White Sox’s GPS didn’t tell them was coming. Which players stay, which players go, and which ones arrive may be evidence of further recalculations.

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Jim Margalus
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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knoxfire30

Speaking of a guy who didnt lose his power I wonder if the sox kicked the tires on Hunter Renfroe who just got traded for a sack of potatoes…. sure he is right handed but a team low on power and in need of two OF’s probably could of used a guy who would be at worst a league average defensive left fielder and provide maybe 30 homers. Especially if the plan is to have Colas up which helps balance the handiness problem a bit.

Augusto Barojas

This team hasn’t hit well against righties for 3 straight years, and Abreu was one of their most productive hitters vs RHP. They don’t have a single good lefty hitter on the roster. I don’t count Sheets/Moncada/Grandal as “good”, although god willing the latter two should not be as awful as 2022. Colas might wind up the best lefty hitter on the team, let’s hope so. They’re gonna need more than him though.

2023 is a throw-away season, there’s no use trying to find bandaid type aging veterans like they always do. Please nobody like Peralta/Myers. Let Colas play, and accept that this team is playing for 2024/25, hopefully. I think bad trades are as likely as good ones, so I hope they just don’t do anything stupid going that route, personally.

Last edited 14 days ago by Augusto Barojas
upnorthsox

Yes it’s maddening, this is the 2nd RF traded in the last week for something that could’ve easily have been matched by the Sox and just his RHP HRs in 2019, 2021, and 2022 would have led all Sox hitters this yr. Add to it not pursuing Bellinger and that’s 3 potential RF who have hit 30 HRs recently not acquired for costs that could have easily been met.

HallofFrank

Is it really maddening, though? I’ll grant you that it’s maddening if the Sox go with only internal solutions. But Renfroe is a lefty masher who’s bad defensively—not exactly the blueprint for an OF the Sox should be looking for. Bellinger makes more sense, and there’s some merit in trying to recapture some of his MVP magic—but he’s also been a consistently terrible hitter for 2 seasons. Right now, you’d have to expect he’s a drain on the offense rather than a boon.

All that to say: yes, the Sox need to add to the OF and it’d be inexcusable if they didn’t, but I’m not exactly heartbroken that they’ve missed out on these two guys.

mrridgman

I thought Bellinger might be an interesting flyer-sign until I saw a projected salary of $22.5M in an Athletic article. That doesn’t mean he’ll get that much, but I don’t see how you could justify a flyer for more than $10-12M.

HallofFrank

Sure. I think “possible interesting flier” is a good way to characterize Bellinger. My point above was just that he’s not worth getting upset over. The Sox can and should do better (though I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on it).

Augusto Barojas

I am not concerned if the Sox do not make any OF additions at the moment, as long as they don’t sign some veteran scrub like Peralta and keep Colas on the bench or in the minors as a result. They should waste no money at all on 1 year dumpster dives for a change. Marginal/bandaid improvements are utterly pointless with where this team is at.

HallofFrank

Yeah, there’s no hope. They should tear it down and rebuild.

Augusto Barojas

A team coming off a .500 season set to lose 2 of their top 3 WAR players, and maybe best hitter vs RHP the past 3 years, with an owner that wants to trim payroll (after doing nothing to improve the team the past two years when they actually could have)… yeah, lots of reasons to be hopeful.

HallofFrank

Sure, so it’s time to rebuild. Trade Cease, Robert, the whole gang. If you believe there’s no hope, that’s absolutely what they should do.

Augusto Barojas

Trading Cease/Robert isn’t a good plan, but neither is wasting their prime years by doing nothing for 2-3 straight offseasons and hoping a mediocre team with a bottom ranked farm system magically gets better without any good free agents. Just because they don’t trade Cease and Robert doesn’t mean that 2023 isn’t basically a throw away year for this mess of a team, sans Abreu/Cueto.

I just hope they don’t add annoyingly mediocre veterans like Myers or Peralta and idiotically keep Colas on the bench or in the minors, as if wasting 5-10M on declining players is going to make this team appreciably better. I’d rather see Colas/Sosa(or Romy) at RF and 2b than max 1+ WAR type scrubs, no matter what Colas/Sosa do. Save the money, let the kids play, and look to 2024 – if they actually sign a damn free agent or two that doesn’t suck for once.

Last edited 13 days ago by Augusto Barojas
jhomeslice

I’ve never understood the rose colored glasses crowd with this team. I just don’t get it. It’s like they haven’t watched this team the past two seasons not be able to play defense, or hit against RHP. They’ve played .500 since July 2021. They had a few good players and were an interesting team in 2020 that needed to get a lot better to compete with the top teams. With some smart and aggressive moves they could have at least moved in the right direction. But instead of getting better, they did nothing – and now they are now worse than 2 years ago, and nowhere near their stated goal of a championship. Springer and Semien would not make this team as good as the Astros, but if they wanted to compete, they probably needed not just one, but both of those guys. Or 2 other very good players. The ownership does not care about winning, end of story. You can’t win without a much, much better roster than this one. Period.

HallofFrank

Lol do you all read the comments on this site? You won’t find many, if any, rose colored glasses here.

But there’s a *huge* gap between “rose colored glasses” and “there’s no hope.” Neither is warranted. “There’s no hope” certainly isnt grounded in reality. National voices, statistics, and projections simply don’t support that view.

Last edited 13 days ago by HallofFrank
Sf52

Reinsdorf’s draconian 40 plus years of terror has been nothing more than perpetual 3-5 year rebuilds.

The R word is music to his ear$

jhomeslice

Bellinger would be interesting but there are several interested teams. Which means the Sox are unlikely to get him because of course they never win a bidding war. Also there’s Pollock taking less money just so he could leave, obviously because he didn’t enjoy being part of this shitshow with Tony at the helm for an utterly stupid amount of time. It seems reasonable that he might tell his former teammate Bellinger not to bother with this team since it has an ownership with no aspiration to win, and very little competence. Pollock came from a great organization, to one that sucks by comparison.

That’s the problem with running things as badly as the Sox have – it ruins your reputation as an organization, and good players who want to win (or want the most money they can get) will find better options. I doubt the Sox are looking to shell out what it would take to sign Bellinger in the first place.

Foulkelore

I only wish that they would try to sign good free agents, so we could even see if their reputation was actually hurting them.

jhomeslice

I’m sure if they were the top bidder, they would still get a lot of guys to come here, no doubt. But all else equal, if you are a good player thinking about signing with the Sox, do you do so for similar money to what you can get elsewhere, knowing that you might be the only good free agent they sign for the next 3-5 years? If the Sox bid the most, maybe you sign. But if it’s a tie, there are way better franchises to play for.

Doing nothing for two straight offseasons, the Sox ownership showed that it has no integrity as far as the fans or the team is concerned. They blew it, and this team is in limbo now as a result. A completely unfulfilled and undeveloped potential, and nothing more.

vanillablue

Why would a dead ball disproportionately affect opposite field HR’s? Are they hit at lower exit velocities? Seems like there must be a bunch of other variables at play. The Sox might improve a little just due to regression to the mean, it doesn’t seem wise to change to a pull-happy approach based on one season. What if they change the ball again?

OldMMJ87

I think the reason the dead ball disproportionately affected opposite-field home runs has more to do with the drag of the ball in the air rather than exit velocity, but I don’t totally understand the physics of it. The prospect of the ball again mysteriously changing is frightening and I’m sure causes a headache for MLB executives. I don’t quite get why MLB can’t figure out how to make the balls with any degree of consistency, it seems like this wasn’t a problem until around 2017.

a-t

Lower exit velocities is the key, yes. Broadly speaking across all hitters, pullside gives noticeably more exit velo but also a lot more grounders; oppo has less EV more fly balls. So the latter is most affected by the ball. In the case of the HappyFunBall, oppo is ideal bc elevating is the key. With the dead ball, exit velo becomes king: all those oppo fly balls are now outs instead of homers, which is a great way to drastically underperform on offense.

Biomechanically, the bat reaches its top angular velocity during a swing at a point when angled towards left center or so, assuming a righty stance perpendicular to the plate. Higher bat velo -> more force exerted on ball -> higher exit velo. So Eloy goes center/oppo a lot bc he’s crazy strong and exit velo is simply not as much of an issue for him, just elevation is.

Last edited 14 days ago by a-t
upnorthsox

Add to that that most are trying to hit a slider oppo which is the worse pitch to hit for a HR. That’s just not a sound strategy.

Yes but even Eloy got most of his HR this year by pulling the ball vs oppo/center in previous yrs:

https://www.fangraphs.com/players/eloy-jimenez/17484/spray-charts?position=OF&type=battedball&pid2=17484&ss1=2022&se1=2022&ss2=2019&se2=2019&cht1=hittype&cht2=battedball&vs1=ALL&vs2=ALL

2020 and 2021 are more of the same.

ChiSoxND12

Certainly not the take-home of the excerpt, but I would quibble with Alex Speier deeming an 8.6% decrease as “slight” when it comes to pulled barrels leaving the yard 3 years ago vs today

PauliePaulie

Would be much less of an issue if they walked, otherwise got on base, ran the bases well, played sound defense, had team speed, stayed healthy, fielded optimal line-ups, hit RHP, utilized shifts or had plate discipline.

Augusto Barojas

True. This team is bad at many things, and great at basically nothing. Hence the 25 game difference with the Astros.

Bonus Baby

Have they announced whether they’ll be using the same balls again in 2023, or different ones? If different, they really should be giving them to teams now, so they can at least train for that kind of ball — but I don’t know if there’s some other kind of new ball release plan.

Bonus Baby

Thanks for the answer!

The natural comment, of course, is “well, they should tell people before they change things instead of after.”

Also, I’m not very conspiracy-theory oriented, but it does occur to me that people in the know on whether the ball will be lively or not might be able to make some money betting off that insider information. Seems like the kind of situation that MLB should want to avoid.

lifelongjd

MLB must be the only multi-billion organization that constantly changes a key component of its infrastructure which impacts its overall product. I can’t remember it always being like this. It’s maddening