The White Sox Suddenly Have a Plethora of Outfield Options

When Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert both went down with serious injuries earlier this season, the White Sox had to scramble to cover for two of their best outfielders. Andrew Vaughn, a corner infielder by trade, was thrown into the fire as their Opening Day left fielder, and when Robert went down a month later, the options were even thinner. To make matters even more complicated, the other member of their projected preseason outfield trio, Adam Eaton, was released by the club right before the All-Star break. Despite all this turnover and turmoil, White Sox outfielders have been worth a cumulative 7.1 WAR this year, the fifth highest mark in the majors. With both Jiménez and Robert back from the injured list much earlier than expected, Chicago suddenly has outfield options to spare.

Amazingly enough, Jiménez has already accounted for 0.8 WAR in just 13 games since being activated a few weeks ago. He’s been used as the designated hitter seven times, with three of his appearances in left field coming during an interleague series against the Cubs. With Robert taking his place as the everyday center fielder, the White Sox have four or five different options to deploy in their outfield corners. When Jiménez lines up in the field, Vaughn has been used as the designated hitter or shifted over to right field. Considering the difficult circumstances Vaughn was thrown into at the start of the season, his 2021 has to be seen as a huge success. The other day, Luke Hooper broke down the swing adjustment he made in late June that has led to a surge in production over the last month and a half. Even though he hasn’t contributed very much in the field, his bat is clearly good enough to stick in the lineup as the everyday starter in left.

That leaves three or four outfielders fighting over at-bats in right field. Here’s a quick glance at the team’s current options and how they’ve performed this season:

White Sox Outfield Options
Adam Engel 121 19.8% 8.3% 132 2 1.0
Brian Goodwin 175 21.7% 10.3% 110 -4 0.6
Leury García 342 23.1% 9.9% 85 2 1.1
Billy Hamilton* 112 33.9% 2.7% 72 4 0.5
*Hamilton is currently on the 10-day IL with an oblique strain

The Quiet Breakout

Entering this season, Adam Engel was known more for his speed and elite outfield defense than his offensive prowess. Across parts of four seasons and 1,140 plate appearances, he posted a .222/.276/.343 batting line, good for a 67 wRC+. Engel had spent parts of two seasons as the White Sox’s regular center fielder before Luis Robert made his debut in 2020. After that, he was relegated to a part-time role but actually had the best season of his career at the plate. In fact, his wRC+ has increased year-over-year in every season of his career; this year, it’s all the way up to 132.

Engel started off the season on the IL with a hamstring strain that took two months to heal. He returned in early June but strained his hamstring again a few weeks later. This second injury was much less severe and he was activated from the IL after just two weeks. Unfortunately, during the Field of Dreams game on Thursday night, he was removed from the game with a groin issue. There’s no indication of the severity of this latest injury, but these recurring soft tissue issues have limited him to just 121 plate appearances this season. Still, those 121 PAs have been the most productive of his career and have continued an upward trend from last year.

During his first three seasons in the majors, Engel struck out a little over 30% of the time. With so much swing-and-miss in his profile, his offensive ceiling was always going to be limited. Last year, something clicked and he started making far more contact than he ever had before.

After sitting around 70% from 2017-19, he had a huge jump up to 75% in 2020 and has pushed his contact rate above league average this year. He isn’t overly aggressive with his swing rate and he chases far too many pitches out of the zone, but simply putting the ball in play much more often has helped him cut his strikeout rate to just under 20%.

Along with all that additional contact, Engel has also started hitting the ball with increased authority. He had never really displayed much power in the minor leagues. On his last prospect report back in 2017, his in-game power had just a 30 FV on the 20-80 scouting scale. His .115 ISO during the first three years of his career line up with that scouting report, but he pushed his power output up to a .182 ISO last year and it’s nearly 100 points higher than that this year. He had never previously surpassed six home runs in any season, but hit his seventh home run of the year this week — accomplishing the feat in just a fraction of plate appearances, too. And all of his underlying batted ball metrics support this newfound power output:

Adam Engel, Batted Ball Peripherals
Years ISO Avg EV Max EV Hard Hit% Barrel%
2017-2019 0.115 85.8 113.4 28.8% 3.2%
2020 .182 87.2 111.0 31.9% 5.8%
2021 .262 88.0 109.8 40.0% 10.0%

Engel has set career highs in average exit velocity, hard hit rate and barrel rate this year. The rest of his batted ball profile is right in line with his established career norms; he’s not elevating the ball any more often and his batted ball distribution hasn’t swung towards his pull side either. He’s simply making more and higher quality contact than before. With his speed and elite outfield defense still intact, Engel has turned himself into a multifaceted threat who is valuable on both sides of the ball.

The Journeyman

The White Sox are Brian Goodwin’s sixth team in his six seasons in the majors. He originally signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates this offseason but didn’t make the major league roster out of spring training and ended up opting out of his contract in early May. He latched on with the White Sox soon after and got the call-up after Robert went down with his hip injury.

Throughout his career, Goodwin has been a solid run producer, posting a 101 wRC+ prior to this season. That makes his status as a journeyman all the more odd since he’s shown an ability to be a positive contributor at the plate in the past. He peaked in 2019 as a member of the Angels, accumulating 1.8 WAR backed by a 107 wRC+. Last year, he was even better in Los Angeles, pushing his wRC+ up to 113, but he was traded to Cincinnati at the August deadline and never really got things going with his new team.

In 45 games with the White Sox, Goodwin has been as productive as he was in Los Angeles, posting a 110 wRC+ and accumulating 0.6 WAR. He’s always had good pop and a decent approach at the plate that produced good walk rates, but he’s been held back by a strikeout rate that’s hovered around 30%. This year, he’s pushed his strikeout rate down to 21.7%. Unlike Engel, Goodwin’s improvements aren’t contact related; his contact rate and swinging strike rate are essentially unchanged from his career norms. Instead, he’s been increasingly aggressive on pitches thrown in the zone. The rest of his plate discipline metrics have stayed relatively stable too. Simply swinging at more pitches in the zone has helped him cut down on the number of called strikes against him. With two strikes, this new approach is even more pronounced. He’s swinging at over 90% of the in-zone pitches he sees when his back is against the wall.

With his strikeout rate down to an acceptable level, the rest of his offensive profile plays up. He’s not exactly a plus defender in the outfield, but his bat is useful enough to stick in a corner outfield spot.

The White Sox also used Leury García and Billy Hamilton in the outfield while Jiménez and Robert were sidelined. García is probably best utilized as a super utility player who can spell anyone in the infield or outfield. He enjoyed a small power spike last year before he injured his thumb in mid-August and was shut down for the season. His power has receded back to it’s previous levels this year, though his walk rate is up to a career-high 9.9%. He’s played every position on the field except for first base and catcher, and is an incredibly useful player to have on the bench.

Hamilton is currently on the IL with an oblique strain. He had covered center field for the majority of Robert’s absence, providing elite defense but little else. Once rosters expand in September, he would be perfectly cast as a fourth outfielder who could come in as a defensive replacement or pinch runner in late-game situations.

That leaves Engel and Goodwin to fight over regular playing time in right field. The two complement each other as two sides of a traditional platoon, but it might behoove the White Sox to see if Engel’s breakout will stick. Goodwin is only a year older than Engel, but the latter has three years of team control left and his defense is a huge positive. Looking at Chicago’s recent lineups, both outfielders are still getting regular-ish playing time despite the return of Jiménez and Robert. The benefit of having so many solid options is that the White Sox can mix and match their outfielders based on matchups while keeping them all fresh for the stretch run and the postseason. That’s a luxury very few teams have, and it’s something no one could have expected back in May when their two best outfielders were sidelined.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

The projections don’t buy into Engel’s increased contact rate with the projected 26% K-rate.. I don’t know how much this matters to the projections but he seems to have gotten much better hitting fastballs and is still not good on off-speed pitches. This seems like something that can be exploited in the postseason given the supposed increase in scouting.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I wouldn’t worry too much about the projections there— K% stabilizes much faster than pretty much anything else, at ~80 PA, so his 93 PA last year and 121 PA this year at about 20% K rate is a strong indication that’s his true strikeout talent level going forward.