Even in a 60-game sprint, White Sox can’t outrun their weaknesses

There are a number of things that have been a little too tidy about the White Sox’s 2020 season. A third place team according to projections, the White Sox were the first American League team to clinch, which seemed a little too simple. Before that, you had Dallas Keuchel publicly criticizing the team following a sleepy 5-1 loss, and the White Sox opened the next game with a 4-0 lead. They didn’t lose another game to Detroit all season.

Baseball, a game composed of discrete zero-sum battles, doesn’t often lend itself to such simple story arcs. The White Sox should know this better than anybody, because they’re well acquainted with the forces of pressure and regression from previous seasons:

  • 2016: Started the season 23-10, yet somehow lost 30 before they won 30.
  • 2012: Led by three games with 15 to go, only to go 4-11 and lose the division by three games to Detroit.
  • 2010: Trailed by 9½ games on June 8, led by 3½ games on July 20, trailed by 12 games on Sept. 21.
  • 2008: Led Minnesota by 2½ games with seven to play before getting swept in the Metrodome, forcing the White Sox to win three games against three opponents in three days to reclaim the Central.
  • 2005: Led the Central by 14½ games at the end of July before seeing it get trimmed down to 1½ games in late September.
  • 2003: Led the Central by two games on Sept. 9, then the Jose Paniagua Game happened, and Twins won the division by four.

2000 was the last time the White Sox coasted into the postseason, but even, they did so with a pitching staff in tatters.

(This is why when asked if I’d trade the 2005 World Series for a run of Dodgers-like excellence in Monday’s episode of the Sox Machine Podcast, I said 2005 without giving it thought. Imagine how irritating the curse talk would have gotten, especially when “lack of a pipeline” is the through-line for all these struggles.)

With the season being condensed into 60 games, I’d kinda been hoping that the reckoning-for-the-team’s-shortcomings part would’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. Alas, the editors left that part in. The White Sox have lost four consecutive games, and their grip on the AL Central lead in the process. If that’s not enough, the White Sox have to solve Zach Plesac in order to keep the Indians from closing within one game of second place.

It’d be a lot more infuriating if it didn’t make total sense. The White Sox outpaced a lot of things this season, but logic was never one of them. Keep these three things in mind:

No. 1: The White Sox built their record on the weaknesses of weak teams.

The White Sox went 18-2 against the Tigers and Royals, which if a point some fans are tired of hearing. It’s true that all the games count the same, but after the White Sox swept Detroit in the four-game series a week and a half ago, only quality teams remained on the calendar. And it’s not even the idea of quality teams as it is quality teams with right-handed pitching.

The White Sox are still 13-0 against left-handed starters this season, but they were 13-0 on Sept. 5, when Lucas Giolito beat Kris Bubic. Tonight’s game against Zach Plesac will be the 17th consecutive right-handed starter they’ve faced. The Cubs might have a couple of lefties to offer, depending on how they arrange their rotation for the final series, but when the postseason rolls around, it’s back to righties, righties, righties, unless they somehow lineup with Oakland. Even then, the threat of Chris Bassitt’s Ongoing Revenge looms.

No. 2: The Twins and Indians are built to torment the White Sox.

Minnesota has a deep, powerful lineup that doesn’t give suspect starting pitching many breaks. Cleveland has a stable full of right-handed pitchers with excellent command, and can stack half a lineup of patient switch-hitters against a pitching staff that’s short on lefties. The White Sox needed a Josh Donaldson ejection to even up that season series, but the Indians are pulling no such punches. If the White Sox’s privilege of a better record was a first-round matchup with the Indians, I wouldn’t have considered that a win at all.

No. 3: The White Sox risked a trade-off by setting up their pitching staff for the postseason.

If the White Sox wanted to push for the AL Central, they probably would have kept Lucas Giolito on his original schedule and returned Dallas Keuchel to the rotation as soon as the injured list allowed. Instead, they prioritized the postseason calendar by padding the calendar with Jonathan Stiever, Reynaldo López and Dylan Cease against Cincinnati. They lost two of three.

Regarding the bullpen, they did add Garrett Crochet to signal their intent to win now, but they also placed Evan Marshall on the injured list with the intent of having him back for the Cubs series. The lack of big innings from the White Sox lineup against those strong right-handed starters puts strain on the good relievers, or encourages Rick Renteria to take risks that go poorly (Gio González in the ninth, for instance).

With home-field advantage being negligible this season, it makes sense to have all the important players ready to go for the games that count. Of course, there’s a chance that Giolito and Keuchel both lay an egg, and the White Sox beat the bubble home, but that’d preferable to laying an egg with Giolito and Keuchel unavailable and/or compromised.

* * * * * * * * *

Either way, the management of starters and relievers is secondary to the White Sox’s massive struggles at the plate. The September splits for the lineup’s fixtures are lopsided, with a clump of hitters who are meeting or surging past expectations …

  • José Abreu: .354/.407/.659
  • Tim Anderson: .365/.389/.541
  • Eloy Jiménez: .301/.333/506
  • Yasmani Grandal: .241/.371/.466
  • Nick Madrigal: .317/.358/.365

… and a counterproductive cluster that barely has a pulse:

  • Edwin Encarnación: .172/.269/.397
  • James McCann: .162/.200/.432
  • Yoán Moncada: .167/.282/.258
  • Nomar Mazara: .196/.237/.286
  • Luis Robert: .086/.198/.129

Solving the White Sox’s lumpy lineup was so much simpler when McCann looked like an upgrade over Encarnación, and Adam Engel seemed like an easy call over Mazara. It’s a lot harder when McCann’s scuffling while Grandal suffered a bruised hand, and Engel is now offers more hope than two starters.

Abreu tried to rally the troops with a Keuchel-like appeal through the media

“I think that starting today, you’re going to start seeing a very different team, a better team than you saw before. It’s going to be really important for us to take this moment as a big challenge, as a big learning process for us going forward to the postseason. … This is just another opportunity for us to get better and be more prepared for what is coming.”

… but they ended up getting walked off for a second consecutive game.

It’d be fun to say Keuchel is the better leader, but he just has better timing. He got to make his call to arms during a series against the Tigers. Abreu had something to say before a Shane Bieber start, and the Sox are facing pitchers closer to Bieber-grade the rest of the way.

Overcoming this is not out of the cards, but Rick Renteria is mostly handcuffed. I’d like to see him bat Madrigal leadoff, or otherwise stack the five or six spots with the Sox’s non-flaccid bats, just so we don’t spend a late inning crossing fingers that Mazara or Robert survives his fourth at-bat so Madrigal can get his. I’d also like to see Marshall return and Colomé with no restrictions, along with a rested Codi Heuer and Garrett Crochet.

That’s about all the talent Renteria can hope to have, put into a position where they can maybe help. After that, the only solution is the hardest one to achieve: playing better against competition that tends to make players play poorly.

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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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dwjm3

“The White Sox needed a Josh Donaldson ejection to even up that season series, but the Indians are pulling no such punches.”

One nit I want to pick here. We don’t know Josh Donaldson would have done any damage if he didn’t get ejected. I thought that line sounded two pessimistic as we did execute well against Donaldson and the twins in that series.

Ted Mulvey

Perhaps not offensively, but I believe Jim is referring to his defensive absence. From the recap of that game:

Donaldson’s replacement, Ehire Adrianza, struck out in his only at-bat to start the eighth. The Twins were trailing by 1 at that time, because the White Sox struck for two runs on another play where Donaldson’s absence was detectable.
The White Sox had runners on the corners with two outs for José Abreu, as Jarrod Dyson led off with a single, survived almost getting caught off first on a lineout to right on a hit-and-run, then stole second and moved to third on Tim Anderson’s groundout. Yasmani Grandal kept the inning alive with a walk, and José Abreu came to the plate.
Rocco Baldelli went to righty-killer Sergio Romo, and on the fifth pitch, Romo got one of the preferred outcomes — a weak grounder to the left side. Perhaps Donaldson takes charge of the play and cuts it off with a strong throw to first. But Donaldson wasn’t there, and Adrianza let Jorge Polanco play it from a deepish shortstop position. His throw was well late, Dyson scored the tying run, and Eloy Jiménez smoked a double down the left-field line that put the White Sox ahead.

joewho112

I agree with stacking the lineup’s good hitters together. Always in favor of that.

Any word on Bummer? Getting him and Marshall back would be a big boost. You can live with mediocre starters if you only need them to throw 4 innings.

knoxfire30

Bummer and Rodon back, cishek and detwieler gone… those are real moves from a team that wants to win in the post season!

HallofFrank

Yes! I’m curious to see how they use Rodon. I assume low relief, for now. He could be a good pair with Lopez or Cease to get the Sox through 6-7.

I should have learned better than to expect much from Rodon, but here’s my fun/bold prediction: the Sox make it to game 3 in round one of the playoffs. Dunning starts and gets in trouble. He can’t make it through the 3rd inning, but Rodon comes in and throws blanks through 7 and the Sox overcome an early deficit to make it to round 2.

As Cirensica

You are curious about how the Sox will use Rodon, and I am curious how long he will pitch before hitting the IL again.

But if I am betting man, Rodon will be reinstated in the rotation. Bummer and Crochet will be the LHP relievers

Oddvark

I think it’s too late in the season for Rodon to be used as a starter for the first time in almost two months. So I would bet on a long relief role that allows the Sox to keep Cease and Lopez (and even Dunning) as starters on short leashes if they don’t have their best stuff/control.

joewho112

Only 4 games left in the season. Are they going to start him once then make him start a playoff game? I doubt it. It’s not like he is perennial Cy Young contender.

As Cirensica

Fry, Bummer, Crochet, Rodon. That’s a heavy left-side bullpen. Not necessarily a bad thing. Hopefully we can avoid the Luplows

joewho112

So outside of the Central teams, are the other playoff teams left handed batter heavy?

As Cirensica

Also, I am glad that I am actually not a betting man ????

Eagle Bones

I’m actually a little surprised they got rid of Detwiler, but I guess this is what it feels like to actually have a roster without a bunch of useless parts on it.

asinwreck

Bummer being able to return to the active roster is most welcome news. I’ll give credit to Hahn for cutting Cishek (and, before him, Herrera) rather than hoping his veteran moxie would succeed in the postseason.

joewho112

I, for one, am in favor of this new actual talent > veteran leadership + experience philosophy. Now apply it to Encarnacion (not cutting him, just benching)

HallofFrank

Edwin has been very disappointing, but bench him for who? Engel’s replacing Mazara. McCann, maybe, but Edwin’s got a higher OPS (.666) than McCann (.632) in September, so that’s no good. That leaves Yolmer or Dyson—not exactly thrilling options.

I was stumping for the Sox to bring up Vaughn a couple weeks ago. The Crochet experiment has me pining for it even more. But I assume that’s out of the question at this point, so I’d vote for rolling with Edwin and hope for the best.

phillyd

Vaughn is on the postseason roster, fwiw, or at least the 40 man postseason roster.

MrStealYoBase

Sox record in 1 run games: 5-7 (0-3 v Cleveland)

Sox record in games decided by 2 runs or less: 11-9 (1-5 v Cleveland)

Sox record in games decided by 3 runs or less: 16-12 (1-6 v Cleveland)

They can seemingly win close games against everyone not named the Indians.

joewho112

Yet another reason to make them change their name. Not one of the top 5 reasons, but a reason none the less

craigws

Fewer.

NateDPT12

Jose Paniagua was in 2003. The same year as Manuel debuting Cotts in Yankee Stadium even though Buehrle could’ve gone on normal rest only to have Buehrle lose to the godawful Tigers the next game.

It’s funny you bring up the patented Second half/September fade if the White Sox as my brother and I were just talking about this last night. I think you could add the 06 team to this list as well. They weren’t in 1st place but they were in a 105 win pace at the halfway mark and ended up winning 90 finishing in 3rd.

Willardmarshall

Somehow I’m almost comforted by the case you make for inevitability….

John SF

Imagine how irritating the curse talk would have gotten, especially when “lack of a pipeline” is the through-line for all these struggles

This made me think back to the pipeline of the past, as well as current situation.

I still vividly remember 2016 when we called up Timmy to save our floundering team just as it was starting to really fail. He was our lone good call up option, although we did trade away a formerly top-prospect and a lotto ticket for some starting pitching help in a trade that famously went really welL for us. We didn’t really have anyone besides them to call on.

I wasn’t watching everyday back for The 2012 team, but I know it was driven by the emergence of a young Sale, and I know that the farm was pretty bare behind him.

This year, we’ve had the following rookies come up and contribute: :
– Robert
– Madrigal
– Dunning
– Heuer
– Foster
– Crochet
– Stiever
– Lambert
– Hamilton
– Burdi
– Collins
– Mercedes
– Gonzales
– Basabe
– Mendick

And they have been a big part of why our 447 winning percentage from 2019 has jumped to 618 for 2020 (so far).

Some of them didn’t work out, or faced big setbacks— as is to be expected. I hope Hamilton makes it someday, but it probably won’t be with us.

Some were given only a bit more than a literal cup of coffee, and then sent back down. But if Edwin Encarnación has been seriously injured instead of just seriously scuffling, we might have seen more of Mercedes. And if Abreu were still hitting against RHP the way he did the last few years, we would have seen more chances for Collins to platoon. More outfield injuries have given Gonzales more time to play, or kept Basabe on our roster. The fact that those guys didn’t get many chances doesn’t negate the fact they were available as depth.

Meanwhile, we had a critical mass big enough to get great performances out of a lot of young guys, while still absorbing injuries (Lambert, Madrigal) and sending guys back down who need more seasoning (Burdi, maybe Stiever soon).

And down on the farm, we’ve still got a lot to offer the 2021 team and beyond! Vaughn would have easily been our top prospect in 2016. But would Kelley also have been? Would Thompson or Dalquist have been our number 2 that year?

Anyway, it’s exciting. We’ve graduated most of our talent, built a good team, and we still have a farm system worth looking at!

Hopefully we are entering a Dodgers like period of sustained success, and that really will help us from feeling too bad if we get bounced in the first round next week.