It’s Bold Prediction season over on the fantasy side, and since it’s in the water, it’s starting to spread. And though this bold prediction will be a silly enterprise, it’s not an insane one. It’s a prediction like any other, a dart thrown at a board with some intention and thought behind it.
The projections on our site that say that the Chicago White Sox are a .500 team poised to finish tied for second, five or six games back of the Indians in the American League central? Those represent the meat of possible outcomes, the median result of throwing thousands of player projections into a battle with each other.
But the error inherent in projecting one player adds up with each additional player added, and the error bars on those projections are relatively large. One standard deviation is around five wins, meaning that a result that is ten wins above or below the projection is not out of the norm.
That’s better than any list of predictions would do, but it also offers hope (and despair) to anyone spending too much time on the projections page. Ten wins in one direction, and the Cubs are fighting for a wild card, and the Dodgers are sitting at home when the playoffs start. Ten wins in the other direction, and the Diamondbacks play in October, and the Mariners win their division.
A ten-win swing for the White Sox, and they’ve got 91 wins and are a virtual lock for the top eight records at the end of the regular season. The question is, how do they get those ten wins?
The easiest answer sits near the top of their rotation. While Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are better-known assets, veterans that are easier to project, Carlos Rodon is nothing of the sort. In fact, pitchers and young players are the toughest populations to project.
If you wanted to call Rodon’s two-win projection light, you could just point to Rodon’s draft position and pedigree, and the fact that even in a debut full of struggles, he was worth two wins last year. That might be enough.
Mechanically, though, there’s evidence his late-season command improvements had their root in a sustainable change. Rodon’s two best walk rates came in August in September, after he moved closer to third base on the rubber. Zack Greinke told me just this past weekend that he, like most pitchers (he felt) has better command to his glove side, and that his overall command improved dramatically when he moved towards first base on the rubber. Maybe the same will be true for the lefty.
An average walk rate, along with all of the strikeouts on the back of that velocity and good slider, would probably be worth around a win. Not even the Fans projection gives him that sort of command, but improvement is not linear. Especially if the command spreads to his changeup, which got above-average results in every way except balls and strikes. If he reins that pitch in, you could see Rodon doing something like Tyson Ross did last year when he put together four and a half wins.
A healthy season from Mat Latos could beat his projections, as well. Projection systems are agnostic to the reason behind the failure, they just see failure. Latos recently said the left knee problems he battled last year are behind him. He is only 28 and was worth nearly five wins in 2013. The Fans have him at 2.5 wins, so there’s another win. We’ve got three extra from the starting staff so far.
The rest of the team doesn’t feature the type of young talent that feels as volatile as Carlos Rodon. There’s only one position player that could be anywhere from a hero to a zero next year because of a lack of established track record — Avisail Garcia.
One of the worst twenty players in baseball last year, it’s easy to be down on Garcia. So far, he’s combined poor plate discipline with bad decisions on the basepaths and atrocious defense! There’s something to hang your hat on.
But now the team doesn’t depend on him. He’s projected to be replacement level, so *any* step forward pushes the team forward. And this is a player that scouts felt would grow into his power, now in a role where his defense won’t hurt. His batted ball exit velocity was three miles per hour higher in the second half, and his two best months for fly balls were August and September. What if he finds even the league average power than the Fans give him? There’s a win.
Jimmy Rollins is the opposite of young and volatile to project. But behind him is the best prospect in the White Sox organization. Tim Anderson is super athletic and made a huge stride with respect to making contact last year. If that sticks, even if he has no patience and little power, his defense and speed alone could be worth a win. It certainly speaks to depth at a tough position.
The bullpen is already the fifth-best bullpen going into the season based on projections. But projections smash everything towards the middle, and if the White Sox had received four wins from their bullpen last year, they would have been tenth-best. The fifth-best bullpen last year got five wins from their bullpen. We’re deep into the funky math, but we’ll give the team a win based on ordinal rankings instead of projected value.
We’ve gotten the White Sox a little over five extra wins, which is just about tied with the Indians… but the news that Adam LaRoche has retired, news that docks the White Sox nearly no production by projections, that news has netted the team an extra $13 million. Perhaps that’s enough to prod Mark Buehrle back to the team to improve their fifth starter situation.
Or maybe it’s enough to keep in the coffers for a mid-season acquisition should the team surprise early on. David Price was worth nearly three wins in the last two months, and Cole Hamels was worth half that. Being in a spot to pounce on some early luck is also worth something.
By the time the White Sox have traded for Andrew Cashner and called up Tim Anderson to star on the middle infield behind surging young stud Carlos Rodon, we’ll know this prediction wasn’t so crazy. If everything else falls into place, we’ll know I’ve got an altar to Jobu in my office. Because the White Sox will have gotten their ten wins, and will have surprised anyone who didn’t read this piece.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.