The White Sox Position-Player Catastrophe by Jeff Sullivan May 11, 2015 Over the weekend, the White Sox scored 16 runs against the Reds in three games, and just Sunday they got the best of the impossible Aroldis Chapman, walking off after three consecutive hits. With that in mind, this would seem a funny time to be critical of the White Sox position players, but then, for one thing, the season’s been a lot longer than a couple days. And, you know what? So much content is published with timing in mind. People write about a player after he has a big game. It’s natural, but you can think of it as a form of bias. In this post, let’s not be swayed by recency. Most recently, White Sox position players have been good. Let’s knock ’em down a few pegs! You already know it’s been a struggle for the Sox, and after spending the offseason trying to build a contender, already they’ve approached a decision point. It’s not time yet for the Sox to pull the plug, but it’s an increasingly likely outcome. At this moment, the White Sox sit dead last in the majors in team WAR, which means they rank even behind the Phillies. People have their differences with WAR, but history shows that WAR and team performance are very closely connected. Good teams don’t rank last. (Good teams don’t rank close to last.) On the pitching side, things could be better and they could be worse. The team sits in the middle of the pack, which seems appropriate for such a top-heavy roster. There are clearly good pitchers, and there are clearly replaceable pitchers. But as for the position players, collectively it’s been a nightmare. By WAR, the Sox are in last place, and they’re in last by more than a full win. By WAR, the Sox have performed below replacement-level. This is a disaster, so let’s break it down. I’ll employ the help of some images. Each will display the Sox MLB rank in some statistical category. For example, where do the Sox position players rank in WAR? We’ve been over this. Wins Above Replacement OK, great. We’ve established that no one’s position players have been worse than Chicago’s, at least by this measure. Yet this measure considers a variety of different things. You’re familiar with how WAR is complicated. Time to look at the inputs. Why not start with offense? wRC+ Sitting at 85, the Sox are sandwiched between the Mets and the Angels. The team walk rate is bad, a hair below 7%. The strikeout rate is fine, but the problem is contact quality more than it’s contact. By hard-hit rate, the Sox rank 28th, and by isolated power, the Sox rank 29th, and last in the American League. The problem hasn’t been Jose Abreu, although he is probably a little below expectations. Nor has the problem been Avisail Garcia, or Adam LaRoche. The rest of the lot have struggled, none more than Adam Eaton, who we get to talk about again later. Eaton, for what it’s worth, has seemingly been ill for a stretch, so maybe that’s caused him to under-perform, but performances are performances once they’re in the books. What’s in the books is that Eaton is currently slugging .268. Melky Cabrera has looked more like his 2013 self than his 2014 self. Which is weird, because his 2013 self played through a tumor in his back, but, here we are. Moving on, we can look at how these players have run the bases. They have, after all, reached base, sometimes. Baserunning Well that’s not good. By our measure, the Sox are already a dozen runs below average. Think about that: they’re a sixth of the way through the season. Last year, the worst baserunning team in baseball finished about 15 runs below average. The Sox could exceed that by Memorial Day. The Sox, last year, were also a bad baserunning team, so this was probably anticipated, but just not to such an extreme degree. Where has this been coming from? Just as we can break WAR down into components, we can break baserunning down into components. UBR UBR, basically, is baserunning without the stolen-base part. It’s supposed to measure the rest of the stuff, as best as it can. Where is this coming from? The Sox rank dead last in team rate of taking extra bases. The Sox do rank first in outs at home! But in that category, first place is last place. Sad. 🙁 Double-Play Runs It’s minor, but it’s something. The White Sox have hit into double plays in 14% of their opportunities. That’s second-worst in the league, where the average is roughly 11%. Abreu has hit into seven double plays. Cabrera, five. Stolen-Base Runs Again, it’s minor, but everything adds up. It’s not just that the Sox have an AL-low six stolen bases. Good teams don’t have to steal. It would be fine if the Sox were six out of six. Instead, though, they’re 6-for-16, which means they have more unsuccessful steals than they have successful steals, by four. That ranks the Sox second-worst in stolen-base percentage, even though they barely ever run so you’d figure they were seizing the prime opportunities. The Sox are two off the MLB low in steals, and they’re one off the MLB high in caught steals. Garcia himself is 1-for-4. All that’s left is defense. WAR, of course, includes UZR, but there are other things you can look at. Consider, say: BABIP Allowed UZR DRS If the White Sox have actually had a good defense, it’s impossible to see. We just about know they’ve been bad, and the disagreement is simply over just how bad. The Sox have a position-player WAR of -1.3, and yet the team DRS is 14 runs worse than the team UZR, so maybe that actual WAR should be more like -2 or -3 or thereabouts. The funny thing: the Sox pitching staff ranks third-best in hard-hit rate. According to the StatCast data we have, Sox pitchers lead baseball in lowest average exit velocity allowed. Relatively speaking, the opportunities have been easier, and yet the Sox haven’t made enough plays. The problem has been mostly in the outfield. You wouldn’t expect Cabrera to be good. You wouldn’t expect Garcia to be good. Eaton’s been more polarizing in the past, with one metric liking him more than the other, but this year everyone’s down on Eaton’s first month. Again, this could be a consequence of Eaton trying to play below 100% health. Maybe the numbers are just insane and incorrect. But, they’re pretty strong about it. Data says the Sox have had a lousy defense to this point. Assign responsibility however you like. Put it all together, and, yeah. The team hasn’t hit nearly well enough to make up for its bad baserunning and its bad defense. Put it all together and you get a below-replacement performance, and though on talent the White Sox position players are not collectively worse than replacement-level, this is the biggest reason why the Sox have started slowly, and this is the biggest reason why a gap has developed between the Sox and the Tigers and Royals. From this point forward, how do the Sox position players project? Well, it would be a step up. We figured the strength would be the rotation. It is, for the most part, an intriguing rotation.