In 1992, Gene Lamont took over as manager of the Chicago White Sox. The following season he led them to 94 wins and a playoff berth. In 1994, his team was on pace to win close to 100 games when a players’ strike ended the season in August.
Why were the 1993 and 1994 White Sox serious title contenders?
“We had really good players,” said Lamont, now the bench coach for the Detroit Tigers. “Once Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez came in, we had five good starting pitchers. We had a good offense, but if you look at most teams that are really good, they have good pitching. We had Jack McDowell, who won a Cy Young one year. Alex Fernandez was awful good. Scott Sanderson was good. Tim Belcher was our fifth starter the year we got in the playoffs.
“Roberto Hernandez came on as a good closer. Kirk McCaskill, who had been a starter, was good in the bullpen. In 1993, Scott Radinsky was our only lefty and was always ready. I don’t remember a game where Rad wasn’t ready. He got a lot of left-handed outs for us. We had pitching.”
His teams also had hitting. The lineup was strong from top to bottom, and no one was stronger than Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt was American League MVP in both 1993 and 1994. His OPS in the latter of those two seasons was 1.217. Is he the best hitter Lamont has seen?
“If you’re going to look at the best, you probably have to look at Bonds,” said Lamont. “I had Barry as a coach [in Pittsburgh] and they were different guys. But Frank, right then, was the best offensively. He got big hits and could hit the ball out anywhere – right field, left field, center field. A guy who can do that today is Miguel [Cabrera]. Frank obviously also drew a lot of walks.”
Thomas ranks 10th all-time in walks. I asked the former skipper if that was ever a point of criticism, ala Joey Votto today.
“You heard people talk about that, but a hitter is what he is,” answered Lamont. “The people who’d complain about a guy like Frank taking a lot of walks are the same ones who’d say ‘What’s he swinging at that pitch for?’ if he starts swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and popping them up. As a hitter, you have to be who you are.”
The Big Hurt wasn’t the only disciplined hitter on the team. In 1993, he was one of five players in the starting lineup with more walks than strikeouts. Joey Cora, Lance Johnson, Tim Raines and Robin Ventura were the others. According to Lamont, the hitting coach deserves much of of the credit.
“Walt Hriniak wanted guys to stay on the ball,” said Lamont. “Our guys worked the count, but what they did was look for good pitches to hit. They weren’t up there to get walks. That wasn’t Walt’s theory at all. He did a good job as our hitting coach.”
Another thing that stands out about the 1993-1994 White Sox is their brainpower. Close to a dozen players from those teams went on to become managers or coaches. Bere and Ellis Burks worked in front offices, Darrin Jackson is a broadcaster. The smartest team Lamont has been associated with?
“It would have to be one of them,” said Lamont. “Robin is managing. Ozzie [Guillen] managed. Rad is a good pitching coach. There are others, as well. We had a lot of guys with high baseball IQs. Jack McDowell was a really smart pitcher. Robin and Ozzie were extremely smart players. So was Joey Cora.”
Raines is among those in the coaching ranks. When he played under Lamont he was in the decline phase of his career but still an asset. In 1993, he had an .880 OPS and 21 steals in 115 games.
“Raines was good for us, but he was at his best when he was in Montreal,” agreed Lamont. “When I was in Pittsburgh as a coach [1986-1991] we could hardly get him out. He had great speed and was a true base stealer. When I had him in Chicago he picked his spots a little more. If you look at what he did in his career, especially in Montreal, he should get strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.”
The Montreal connection is notable. When the 1994 season ended prematurely, many thought the Expos were the best team in baseball. Lamont isn’t so sure.
“For my first managerial job I had a team that was close to ready to win,” said Lamont. “In 1992, what happened is Ozzie got hurt [in a collision with Raines] and we still weren’t quite ready. The next year we made the playoffs. In 1994, before the strike, I thought we had the best team. Montreal was good, but I liked our chances.”
Lars Anderson is running out of chances. The former top prospect in the Red Sox system is at peace with that.
His career cratered last season. Playing for his fourth organization in two years, Anderson was cut loose by the White Sox after hitting .194/.312/.251 in Triple-A. The release came in July, yet no teams came calling. For the first time in his life, the left-handed-hitting first baseman was on the outside looking in.
Anderson is introspective. He’s also honest. He readily admits the opportunity the Chicago Cubs are currently giving him might be his last. He’s hitting a respectable .254/.357/.407 in Triple-A Iowa, but he’s doing so in part-time duty. At age 26, he’s gone from phenom to big-leaguer to being a veteran presence on a minor-league bench. And he’s loving every minute of it.
“I’m just happy to have a job and contribute, even if I’m not playing every day,” said Anderson. “It’s very rewarding. There are some younger guys here and by helping somebody you learn a lot about yourself. It’s this weird paradox. By teaching you learn.
“Playing baseball now is a different reality than it was before. It’s a lot more in the moment. It’s no longer this grand hope of playing in the big leagues and having this great big-league career. I don’t think I’d have that feeling had it not been taken away from me.”
Anderson had the game taken away because – in his own words – he fell down a rabbit hole.
“I could name you 20 reasons I struggled last year,” said Anderson. “Probably the biggest one was mental. I came out of spring training with the Blue Jays swinging the bat well, but then I strained a hamstring. After I got designated for assignment and traded to the White Sox, I didn’t play for three weeks. Once I did start playing I had no feel for my swing. It’s kind of a butterfly effect. You confidence isn’t there and your numbers aren’t there. Then you start pressing. It’s a dark rabbit hole to go down, and I wasn’t strong enough to climb out it.”
The time he spent away from the game helped Anderson recharge his batteries. He went to Burning Man and to the Outside Lands Music Festival. He played music with friends. And while he’s young enough that his career is potentially far from over, he pondered life after baseball.
“The pressure is kind of off now,” said Anderson. “I feel like I don’t have much to lose. In many ways, I don’t think anybody who plays professional baseball really knows what’s going to happen when it suddenly ends. It’s so much a part of your existence that it’s almost like a death ritual. Just like you don’t know what’s going to happen when you die, you don’t know what’s going to happen when you get released. I went straight into pro ball from high school and all of a sudden it was gone. Poof. But I didn’t evaporate, I continued to breathe. All this fear and anxiety, but then it happened and it was ‘Man, I have to find a way to get home. Where is my next meal and where am I going to sleep tonight?’ I still had to live, but that’s a pretty cool feeling to have. You know you’re going to be fine.”
Brian Barton embraces life and feels you should as well. The former St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves – and current Southern Maryland Blue Crabs – outfielder is a motivational speaker and the author of two books. The most recent is “Stats and Situations: The Game Plan To Success.”
Barton is more than just another professional athlete dabbling on the speaker circuit. The 32-year-old studied aerospace engineering at the University of Miami and has traveled the world. When I first interviewed him five years ago, he called himself “a knowledge seeker” and talked about a recent trip to Ethiopia. His final words were “There’s always hope in my eyes.”
I asked Barton why he’s playing in an independent league.
“The reasons are twofold,” said Barton. “One, I’d always had the goal of making it to the major leagues and once I got cut I set a goal of getting back. The next year I did get back, but it was such a short stint – just one day. I thought, ‘Well, I could technically count it, but it doesn’t really whet my palate.’ After that I was released by the Dodgers out of camp and ended up in the Atlantic League, where I won the batting title [in 2010]. Cincinnati picked me up and sent me to Triple-A, but I had some injuries and ended up getting released again. But I still feel I have something to offer the game. My love for the game is still there.
“The second thing is that baseball is a good platform to impact the lives of people, especially youth, in a positive manner. That’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Baseball is often used as a metaphor for life, and that is how Barton structures “Stats and Situations.” In his words, “Half of a chapter explains the baseball concept of something, and the other half explains the life component of it.”
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life is to appreciate the journey,” Barton told me. “In both baseball and life, we go through journeys, and along with those journeys there is a process. In the first chapter I talk about the routine. In baseball, each and every player has their own routine to prepare for a game, and it’s important. Following a routine in your life is important as well. To me, there’s a big difference between building a routine and simply falling into a routine. One you control, and the other controls you.”
Not surprisingly, Barton stresses the importance of teamwork. While one chapter focuses on RBIs – “just like in baseball, you need to produce to be successful in a job or a relationship” – he recognizes you can’t drive in runs without runners on base.
“Baseball is one of those tricky sports where you can’t control everything,” said Barton. “I talk about that in the chapter called 6-4-3. You’re your own island – you can only control what you can control – but you can’t win without your counterparts. You have to be in sync with your teammates to achieve a common goal. Nobody on this earth becomes successful on just their own merit. It takes some help from outside influences as you make your journey.”
Drew Pomeranz has found his curveball, which is good news for the Oakland A’s and the lefthander’s career. After three lost seasons in Colorado – a 4-14 record and a 5.12 ERA – he’s flourishing in his new environment. Pomeranz is 3-1, 1.14 and has thrown 10 scoreless innings in two starts since moving into the rotation.
The 25-year-old southpaw isn’t sure why his off-speed offering is once again reliable. But he’s glad to have it back.
“It’s the same spike grip I’ve always had,” Pomeranz told me recently. “For some reason, I simply didn’t have it the last couple of years in Colorado. I pretty much just had one pitch out there. Maybe [Coors Field] affected it a little bit, but it also could have just been my mechanics. I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t as sharp for whatever reason, but I have it this year and it’s been a big difference for me.”
One thing that hasn’t returned is the inadvertent screwball action Pomeranz sometimes got on the pitch at the University of Mississippi.
“That doesn’t really happen anymore,” said the southpaw. “Sometimes when I’d throw it arm side it would go that way, but not so much with these baseballs. I think it’s the baseball, because it would do that in college a little bit. Maybe throwing it a little harder… I don’t know. It’s a little tighter spin with these baseballs.”
I asked Alan Nathan, a renowned expert on the physics of baseball, his opinion on the subject.
“The principal difference between MLB and NCAA baseballs is that the seams are higher in the latter,” said Nathan. “For sure, the higher seams will affect the grip and could have an effect on the orientation of the spin axis. Although I can’t conjure up a mental image of how it is done, it would not surprise me if the axis is tilted in such a way to get armside rather than gloveside movement on the curveball.”
According to his manager and his catcher, Sonny Gray doesn’t always know which direction his two-seam fastball is going to go. Opposing hitters certainly have no idea. The 24-year-old Oakland righthander is quickly becoming one of the best young pitchers in the American League. And he’s not easy to catch.
“Sometimes he doesn’t know what his fastball is going to do,” said manager Bob Melvin. “I’ve used the word hydroplane before with what his ball does. Sometimes it cuts, sometimes it sinks, sometimes it doesn’t know what it wants to do. The catcher has to be on it when he’s catching him, because there’s a lot of movement, and a lot of late movement. I’ve stood down there in some of his bullpens, and for anybody he’d be hard to catch.”
“It’s a two-seamer, so you’re expecting it to sink,” said catcher John Jaso. “I would say 70 percent of the time it will sink, but 30 percent of the time it will cut. And it’s coming in at 95 mph. When you catching, you’re protecting in the direction you’re assuming the ball will move. If all of a sudden it moves in the other direction, that’s going to be tough on a catcher.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.