Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The 2013 Chicago White Sox--A Post Mortem

My allegiance lies with the Cubs, but since I listen to Chicago's 670 The Score on a daily basis and they carry the White Sox games, it's hard not to be exposed to them. They were a genuine surprise in 2012, essentially unchanged over the offseason, so expectations for 2013 were high. Wha' happen?

Any time wins decrease by 22 without an extreme overhaul, it's safe to say blame can be spread around, and the White Sox are no different. They faced challenges in all three facets of the game, but one of them WASN'T the pitching. This chart compares the core pitchers from 2013 to 2012:
Different metrics appeal to different people, so I left them all in. All data is adapted from Baseball-Reference, and I'm pretty sure if the image is clicked it will look much clearer. Beginning with Chris Sale, at a superficial level he regressed from 2012, going from 17 to 11 wins, a gross simplification as his WAR value INCREASED from 5.9 to 6.9. I have no shortage of posts discussing the utter uselessness of the win in the modern era of baseball, and Chris Sale will become the new poster child for the #KillTheWin movement--even though he cooled off in September (by "cool off" I mean his ERA increased--to 3.44), he's still ranked as one  of the top 10 pitchers by WAR by FanGraphs. He improved in every pitching aspect--WHIP and BB/9 decreased and KO/9 increased. It isn't Sale's fault that the Sox had such a terrible year--23 of his 30 starts were quality starts.

Even the pitchers behind Sale were pretty decent...WHEN THEY WEREN'T INJURED. Gavin Floyd was lost very early in the year and has quite likely played his last game as a Sox. John Danks wasn't very good after returning from an extended injury layoff. Jose Quintana was a pleasant surprise but is probably little more than a decent #4 starter, and to view him as the second coming of Chris Sale projects unrealistic expectations. To the extent a bad team needs a closer, Addison Reed did an excellent job as teams only batting .215 against him. The Sox cleaned out pitchers in July, trading Matt Thornton and Jake Peavy to the Red Sox in separate deals and Jesse Crain to the Rays. The Sox came into 2013 with an expected rotation of Sale, Peavy, Danks, Floyd and a belief they'd fill out the fifth spot with someone decent enough and they ended it with Sale and a whole lot of question marks. Having written all that, it wasn't the pitching that was the Sox undoing.

This chart shows the primary position players:
The last three columns are Baseball-Reference WAR values, offensive (oWAR), defensive (dWAR) and total. The offensive and defensive WAR values don't add up to the total because there are other unlisted factors, but these are the primary determinants. As a reminder:
WAR between 2-5   Solid season
                           5-7   All-Star-type of season
                           7+    MVP-type season

After 2012 A.J. Pierzynski was allowed to leave as a free agent and no one in Chicago shed a tear. 36 is ancient for catchers and there was no guarantee that he would replicate a very effective 2012, and at what cost? He signed with Texas for one year at $7.5 million, which in retrospect looks pretty good. Sox catchers, not so much--they combined for a .194 batting average with 16 home runs.

What happened to the offense was decreased production ACROSS THE BOARD. Paul Konerko has been playing on borrowed time as the common mantra has been "Well, he's gonna breakdown SOMETIME." The 37-year-old player in general seems to be reverting back to historical norms after a brief surge from around 1995-2007. The hope was his production would be replaced by an improvement from Dayan Viciedo, but HE regressed as well. The real Adam Dunn appears to be somewhere between the awfulness that was 2011 and the less-than-spectacular 2013, but neither is worth $15 million. Dunn has historically had an OBP around 140 points higher than his average (major league average is around 70), and when that spread drops to around 100 points, a .219 average isn't enough. Conor Gillaspie started out strong but ended up not hitting enough to be a regular third baseman, and at 25 is a little old to be considered a prospect. After being injured at the beginning of the year Gordon Beckham bounced back nicely and produced enough offense to justify his glove for a team that can cover those offensive shortcomings--unfortunately, he had fielding issues as well. He also needs to draw more walks to offset his lack of power.

All in all, it added up to a team that scored a staggering 150 runs fewer than in 2012. This chart shows the runs, runs allowed and unearned runs from 2012 to 2013:
A real factor in the Sox woes were the number of unearned runs they allowed, 80, an increase from 30 in 2012. Unearned runs can be tracked but they're rarely broken out as a separate category--I show them in my Mistake Index. One team was worse, the Astros, and anytime the comparative team is the Astros, it's a very bad situation. How does a team have such an increase in unearned runs in one year?

With horrendous defense. This chart shows the number of errors by position:

For the most part it was the same players playing these positions, and somehow their defense got much worse in the space of a year. Things can change for individual players, but to have an ENTIRE DEFENSE, particularly one comprised of veterans regress en masse during a season is unusual, perhaps even unprecedented. Gordon Beckham almost doubled his errors (maybe that's why his offense improved), Alexei Ramirez and Starlin Castro battled neck-and-neck for the Major League lead in errors by shortstops (they tied--how fitting) and positions that typically don't make a lot of errors did. The sad fact is that errors turn into unearned runs around 55% of the time, and if a team is going to commit almost twice as many errors as in the previous year, they better be able to pitch and hit well enough to overcome giving away around 70 runs. The Sox didn't, and they gave away 80 runs--just under two-thirds of Sox errors became unearned runs.

It only seemed like every game featured a Sox player being thrown out on the bases (like the three that occurred in the final game on Sunday)--they were thrown out trying to advance on the base paths 53 times, no dramatic change from 2012 and right in the middle of the pack for all of baseball. They were picked off 19 times and their stolen base totals and success rate were essentially unchanged from 2012. No team in baseball history has ever run their ways to success and the White Sox were average in this regard.

As mentioned, it's unusual for teams to fall so far without drastic changes in the lineup or injuries to key players. This wasn't a factor for the Sox as their fate was sealed by the time they started trading players in July. This leaves two possibilities:
1. The Sox wildly overachieved in 2012
2. The Sox massively underperformed in 2013
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but even the successful 2012 season produced only 85 wins, not exactly the stuff of post-season success.

And it doesn't look good going forward. Nothing on the Charlotte or Birmingham rosters screams out future star, but I don't claim to be any kind of minor league savant (arguments can be made I'm not too good with major league rosters either). Free agency, particularly in the past 5 years or so, has never been a path to rebuilding as much as finding a missing piece, and this year's free agent crop is underwhelming at best (I wrote on this a couple months back, and my thoughts haven't changed). I'll write on the Cubs tomorrow, who had a very similar 2013 but with a far different future if events transpire as they hope (despite what Gordon Wittenmyer wrote recently), but the Sox future appears bleak. They're old with no young talent on the cusp of replacing them, Avisail Garcia notwithstanding. It was a rough Sunday for the Chicago teams as all three lost, and the question for the Sox is whether this year was an aberration or a glimpse of the foreseeable future. It's my unfortunate opinion that it's the latter.

1 comment :

  1. I hate to say it, but your last sentence is likely very accurate. I think the Konerko era is over in Chicago and if they need to just unload everyone and start all over (even of those players are of low quality), that may be the best path to take. There is no immediate hope for the White Sox, and I can't help but say that we should not try to pretend there is...

    P.S. I appreciate your fairness in treating the White Sox. Almost all of my on-line acquaintances who are fans of one team or the other absolutely despise the other; it's embarrassing to see what these jokers write about the other team. Then again, these ARE on-line comments...