The Sky Is Not Falling on the South Side

© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Bashing the White Sox is commonplace these days, and you can’t say the negativity hasn’t been earned. Widely expected by fans, reporters, pundits, and computer projection systems (as well as their sarcastic creators) to steamroll one of the worst divisions in baseball, the Pale Hose have struggled to consistently stay at .500, let alone stay ahead of the Twins and Guardians. Yet there are still reasons to think that the Sox, if not the team they were believed to be, can still salvage the 2022 season without divine intervention.

They’re Still Relevant in All the Projection Systems

Yes, when you look at the White Sox, you see some major, gaping holes, many of which are problems of the team’s own making, whether because of poor evaluation or inaction. Coming into the season, they were near the bottom of the league in our positional power rankings at second base and right field despite an offseason that saw a plethora of good options at those positions. They also didn’t assemble much in the way of depth in places where they had injured players or underwhelming options. Similar to my approach to mowing my backyard, they did the bare minimum.

But all of this is already baked into the cake, so to speak. The projection systems still assume that Leury García is awful and that Chicago needs another bat; the forecasts for players like Yoán Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jiménez, and Lance Lynn have already taken major hits. As for the team’s lack of depth, the ZiPS projected standings use a methodology that attempts to properly discount teams with underwhelming Plan Bs.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 84 78 .519 43.8% 10.6% 54.3% 3.9%
Minnesota Twins 84 78 .519 39.0% 10.7% 49.7% 1.1%
Cleveland Guardians 81 81 3 .500 17.2% 7.8% 25.0% 0.7%
Detroit Tigers 69 93 15 .426 0.1% 0.0% 0.1% 0.0%
Kansas City Royals 65 97 19 .401 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

ZiPS still sees the Sox as a coin flip to make the playoffs, and in most of the scenarios where they miss, they still make things interesting in September. Other projection systems are less bullish on the team, but not alarmingly so: our site playoff odds, which use a ZiPS/Steamer mix, have the White Sox at about a 45% chance to play in October. The most bearish of the bunch, from our friends at Baseball Prospectus, still have the Sox at just under 40%. One factor helping? Both ZiPS and the FanGraphs odds see them with by far the easiest remaining schedule in the American League.

There’s Still Significant Upside Remaining

While expectations may have dampened for a lot of the roster, there’s a lot of star-level potential remaining. Jiménez is currently only projected as a league-average player overall, but he’s also been held back due to a number of injuries. He still has as much raw power as practically anyone in baseball, and he’s too young to write off his 2020 season as a fluke. Lucas Giolito has an inflated home run rate and a high BABIP, but those are volatile stats and there’s nothing fundamentally broken about him. Lynn’s return has been unimpressive, but considering his 3.26 ERA and 3.39 FIP over the previous three seasons, it wouldn’t be that crazy for him to beat the ERA/FIP around four that the projection systems peg for him this year.

The Good News Is Sticky

There isn’t much that has gone better than expected for Chicago, but what few positive developments there have been appear largely sustainable, at least for now. Andrew Vaughn has been a bright spot, and given his age (24) and his status as a top prospect, that he has improved considerably from last season can’t be easily dismissed as a fluke. Remember, 2020 was supposed to be the season that this college slugger blew through the minors; instead, it was a lost development year. His 2021 struggles ought to be considered in the context of a player with no experience above A-ball playing a new position.

José Abreu is at an age where decline is inevitable, but he also seems to be temporarily arresting the process by tinkering with his approach at the plate. Even during the stretches where he has struggled over the years, Abreu has always hit the ball very hard, and his improved plate discipline this season allows him to leverage that offensive skill. For the first time in his career, he’s swinging at fewer out-of-zone pitches than average, and relative to his early years, he’s trimmed about a quarter of the bad pitch offerings. ZiPS and Steamer both now project Abreu to finish with around 5 WAR for the season; the only time he ever passed that threshold before was in his rookie season nearly a decade ago. The full version of ZiPS is even more optimistic, with the system thinking he’s “earned” a .560 SLG this year, a mark almost as positive as Statcast’s xSLG of .576. He’s even been a little unlucky in the BABIP department:

Similarly, the question of whether Michael Kopech could stay on the field has largely been answered in the affirmative, though he obviously still carries significant risk like any other pitcher does. But he’s certainly less of a what-if than he was at the start of the season.

The Trade Deadline Favors the Sox Over the AL Central

The Twins and Guardians will likely both look to improve at the deadline, but of the trio, I think the White Sox might be the ones incentivized to be the most aggressive. There’s an obvious desire to salvage a disappointing season and meet the higher expectations that were in place for the team. It didn’t quite work out last year, but a club that’s willing to trade Nick Madrigal for a Craig Kimbrel rental is likely one that is willing to roll the dice. The organization has to know that the farm system isn’t going to provide much in the way of reinforcements over the next few years, so once players like Giolito or Tim Anderson start hitting free agency, the party may be over quickly if they’re too patient. Now, one can rightly argue that a weak farm system is a handicap in trades, but the minors are weak, not completely empty. Quantity, the right name, and a willingness to absorb at least some of a bad contract can go a long way in closing a deal. It’s not as if they need to acquire Juan Soto to improve the offense, though I’d totally be in favor of that!

The Sox having such gaping holes, while an obvious problem, also makes them an easier team to improve. Where Minnesota is weak, they’re mediocre rather than atrocious, and the Guardians don’t appear to be in full win-now mode. When I project the marginal benefit of adding a 3-WAR player for two months in ZiPS at each position for these teams, the top results in terms of added playoff probability are White Sox second base, White Sox right field, and White Sox Spare Starting Pitcher.

The White Sox Would Likely Punch Above Their Weight in the Playoffs

About 10% of the time, the White Sox make the playoffs via a Wild Card spot instead of winning the division. But in the silver lining category, making the playoffs via the consolation route instead of winning the division title doesn’t really matter for Chicago this season. Even if the Sox turn things around in a historical way and win, say, 55 of their remaining 75 games, a torrid .733 clip, they’re still significant underdogs to get a bye over the Yankees or the Astros. Division title or not, this team was always likely to have to play in the Wild Card round.

In addition, the Sox are well-designed to excel in the playoffs. A disproportional amount of the team’s value is in their frontline talent and the top few starting pitchers, spots you can leverage in a short series. ZiPS sees them as a .545 roster in the regular season but a .562 team come playoff time, the largest positive differential of any team in baseball. Their 4% World Series championship percentage in ZiPS is the third-best in the American League behind, well, you know who.

The Manager Isn’t That Big of a Deal

I was not a fan of the Tony La Russa hiring, nor am I a backer of his continued employment as the team’s manager. He seems out of touch with the modern game and, at times, oddly unaware of the non-modern game; I don’t remember 80s managers intentionally walking batters with two strikes! But he’s mainly getting the right players in the lineup, and many of the cringe-worthy lineup cards are due to the team’s construction rather than TLR’s decisions. I’ve heard the whispers about issues in the clubhouse too, but being a struggling team and hearing it from the fans is rarely conducive to a happy atmosphere. As long as La Russa generally plays the right nine dudes, doesn’t get into fistfights with his players, and doesn’t decide to aggressively push Kopech’s innings, there’s a limit on how much damage he can do. Of course, I wouldn’t object if the front office decides to shake things up and go another way with their on-field management after somehow getting Jerry Reinsdorf’s blessing!

With nearly half of a season to go, three weeks until the trade deadline, and a weak division, the Sox still largely control their destiny. They could bungle the second half of the season as much as the first, but for now, it’s too early to start ordering the lilies and penning the eulogy.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

The sky is definitely falling. They play terrible defense, give away an out on the basepaths at least once a game, and the manager IS a big deal. He seems insistent that Leury Garcia is an everyday player, won’t use his best relievers unless they are ahead or tied late in the game and does a half dozen little things a week that put his team at a disadvantage. I’m not going to name them all here, but on any given day I can give you a bunch of recent stuff that makes you wonder how this guy ever won anything.

It is also possible they may have quit on him. I usually say that’s a lazy narrative and that teams that are not hitting always look dead, but in the first two games of this series they had 64 PA and saw 209 pitches. They don’t have a lot of patient hitters in general, but that’s inexcusable. Robert especially seems to be holding a lot back both in the field and on the bases. There are rumors that he and other players have been instructed to do that to stay healthy. They are going to be the healthiest team on the golf course in October.

They are 21st in run differential after being 6th last year. Maybe they win enough to take this awful division, but then we just get to watch LaRussa get outmanaged to an early exit again. Backing into a playoff spot is a far cry from what White Sox fans were promised, which was a World Series contender. This is the most disappointing season of White Sox baseball since 1984.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Even if Robert was “holding back”, does that explain his .323 OB%? Or a .148 ISO?

Further, given the injury history of Robert/Eloy et al, is it that unreasonable to ask them to “hold back” a bit in a division that was supposed to suck?

1 year ago
Reply to  airforce21one

It isn’t just those two. According to various reports, it’s also been Anderson, Moncada, Vaughn, Grandal, and at least a few pitchers that have been told to give less than max effort at points during the season. There is a difference between playing smart and playing afraid of injury and they seem to be erring on the side of caution, with emphasis on the erring. At some point, you have to play baseball and stop acting like the regular season is just a walk through or else there is no point to having talented players.

I also need an explanation why this entire team is 25th in HR and 28th in ISO after being19th and 16th last year with basically the same players, except less Robert and Jimenez. last year. Nothing about this team’s performance this year makes any sense.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeS
1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Basically the same team except less Moncada, Jimenez, Robert, Grandal…

I’m absolutely shocked the team has a lower ISO this year!

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

The good news is that run differential is not as predictive as the projections, and they’ve somehow not totally fallen out of it despite the terrible pythagorean record. I think it’s fair to note that this team is objectively still in a decent position. Which is interesting precisely because subjectively it is really, really ugly.

The managing stuff doesn’t matter that much, except for one thing. The thing that could really end it–and this is entirely possible–is if La Russa has lost the team. Because if he loses the team, the projections don’t know that. And given his behavior lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Leury Garcia is in the lineup because Danny Mendick is out for the season. And using your best relievers when you’re ahead or tied is pretty much par for the course for all teams.