The White Sox beat the Blue Jays last night by a score of 10-1 (box). Comprehensive victory. Chris Sale won his fifth game, going a ho-hum 8 innings versus a lefty-destroying lineup in a hitter’s park. Southside hitters compiled 15 hits. They won on Monday in the first game of the series and five of the six games before that, too, and today they go for the sweep at the Rogers Centre — at which park the Blue Jays haven’t been swept since 2013. No one is saying that two games and the prospect of an early (and difficult) road sweep make a season, but the White Sox are one of two teams in baseball with 15 wins, and that merits some investigation. It would merit investigation no matter what team it was, but it especially merits investigation given where the White Sox were projected to finish this season.
At the beginning of the season, our projected American League Central standings looked like this:
There’s a lot of parity in the AL this season — not necessarily top-tier parity, but a solid, middle-of-the-road type where each of the division races could go down to the wire. The AL Central fits that mold, with the preseason projections telling us the Indians were clear favorites — though if the 2014-2015 Royals were any indication, we could expect the race to possibly be tighter. The Central was potentially seen as one of the more volatile divisions, with the possibility we could have a four-way race for the division. There was even the idea before the season started that even the Twins — with a little luck and a few breakouts — could be in the mix, but that seems less possible (to put it nicely) given their woeful start. Where do the playoff odds stack up for the Central now? Let’s take a look:
This graph shouldn’t necessarily cause us to make hard assumptions related to where these teams are going to finish, but it should illustrate how much the White Sox have improved their chances with a 15-6 start. On Opening Day, Chicago was projected to have a 26.1% chance at making the playoffs out of the Central; three weeks and a few days later, those odds are now over 50%. The reason we should feel hopeful about about that start and give it some possible legitimacy is because the White Sox are ticking off the necessary boxes for them to produce a successful season.
That starts, naturally, with the pitching staff. Here’s a listing of every MLB team’s current ERA vs. FIP so far this season (scroll over the points for more information):
That’s the White Sox with the best team ERA in the American League. That’s also the White Sox with the best team FIP in the American League. The rotation and bullpen has been a top-four combination for almost the entire first month of the season, and it starts with early Cy Young Award-favorite Chris Sale and second-in-command Jose Quintana. That’s not a big surprise — we knew both of these lefties were very good — but it’s the level of performance that might be a surprise, if you somehow didn’t expect Sale to compete for top honors among pitchers. Sale and Quintana have been worth two combined wins already, and they’re both among the league’s top-30 pitchers by a quick but useful ERA estimator. They’re both also among top 15 in FIP and top 25 in xFIP.
Those two haven’t been the big shocker in the rotation, however. That award goes to Mat Latos, who has been riding a bottomed-out BABIP (.167) and incredible strand rate (96.9%) to a 0.74 ERA in four starts. That won’t last, and his strikeout rate (13.8%) is worryingly just over half of what it was even a season ago — but considering how much the White Sox invested in him, any positive production is gravy. He’s been worth half a win already, and even if (and when) he regresses, reaching or exceeding his ZiPS projection of 1.6 WAR this season seems easily within reach.
Finally, there’s Carlos Rodon. He’s been less than stellar if we look at overall stats, and the improved command from the end of last season hasn’t translated to this one as well as some might have hoped, but he’s had three very good starts surrounding one extraordinarily bad one; in most ways, Rodon simply doesn’t feel like a long-term concern, and we’ve already seen the upside. For Rodon, it feels like a matter of time, and that time is already here or fast approaching.
With regard to the later innings, we find that the White Sox bullpen has posted the third-highest WAR, ground-ball rate, and two-seam velocity in the majors so far in 2016. That type of makeup is necessary playing half of the season at U.S. Cellular Field, and the stellar strikeout and walk rates of all members have left only two with a FIP over 2.50. Considering this bullpen came into the season with the fifth-highest projected WAR in baseball, that type of performance is not a surprise, nor is it too likely to falter completely.
And, finally, there’s the hitting. Avisail Garcia deserves his own post (and will surely get one at some point), but this is basically a make-or-break season for him given his (lack of) production over the past two seasons. Despite his still terrible, .211 BABIP-driven offense (78 wRC+), there are signs that he is at least trying to change his approach at the plate. Take a look at his batted-ball breakdown between last season and this one:
Sure, the non-existent line-drive rate is scary, but the almost 20-point increase in fly-ball rate? That certainly looks like a man who is trying to hit more home runs this season. Probably related: his strikeout rate is approaching 30%, which is officially Joey Gallo territory. Will the revamped approach save Garcia’s career? Who knows! But it’s at least interesting that he’s trying something new, hitting more flies, and producing more hard contact. He knows what this season means, and crazier things have happened than hitters finally cashing in on their raw physical potential after a few awful years.
Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera has seen fit to cut his strikeouts almost in half while doubling his walk rate compared to last season, Jose Abreu hasn’t even gotten going yet, and Brett Lawrie is walking twice as much and producing 12% more offense than a league average hitter. Jimmy Rollins doesn’t look quite done yet, and should he start looking like it, Tim Anderson waits in the wings. Oh, and one final thing: the team is playing the second-best defense in baseball by UZR/150.
The White Sox have now won at least 15 games in April with pitching, timely hitting and great defense. It’s early, and the playoffs are just a glimmer in some faraway imagined future, but Chicago is playing like, well, a very good baseball team. That doesn’t mean everything, but it means something, and it’s always better to have a great April than to have a mediocre or bad one. There will be regression. Mat Latos will come down to earth. The offense might not be as clutch in the future as they have been. But Abreu will pick it up; Rodon will probably even it out. A month ago, the idea of the White Sox making the playoffs was contingent on them meeting myriad above-average expectations. Since then, they’ve done nothing but check those boxes, one after the other.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.