|Sportsbook||Win AL Central||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 84.5 (BetOnline)|
How many times have we seen it in sports?
“If these 25 things go right for the Bills or Jets, they can challenge the Patriots in the AFC East!”
“If these 16 things happen, the Los Angeles Lakers will not win the Western Conference!”
“32 Ways the Seattle Mariners Can Win the AL West!”
It gets nauseating, to be totally honest. Writers, by and large, do an outstanding job covering the sports and teams that they follow, but the clickbait these days! The what if. Drinking the Kool-Aid. And, look, I understand it. Being a fan of a bad team is awful. Knowing that your team is rebuilding or playing for draft position makes for a long season. So does writing about them.
Some writers may have actually hurt themselves prior to the 2019 season straining to get the Chicago White Sox into the playoff race. Some serious mental gymnastics were taking place. It was like they were trying to huff and puff and blow the houses down of the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins. I never bought into any of it. The White Sox won 72 games.
This isn’t a victory lap. This isn’t to rub it in with White Sox fans. I have nothing against the White Sox. I have nothing against any MLB team. I may be an Indians fan, but my job doesn’t allow it. I just never understood the hype. I never understood the appeal. I never understood the mindset.
En route to going 72-89, the White Sox did actually have a winning record against my Indians. They were also 15 games under .500 after the All-Star Break and got beaten by five or more runs 30 times. That happens when you can’t pitch. That happens when your top pitching prospect misses the season with Tommy John surgery. That happens when you score just 4.4 runs per game.
The reason I bring up all of this isn’t to throw salt in old wounds. It isn’t to hurt myself with an awkward self-pat on the back. It is to bring up that the White Sox train is picking up steam again. The difference is that it is far more warranted this year than it was last year. Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, and Gio Gonzalez are all nice additions to pair with the guys that are already here. We’re also likely to see Michael Kopech, Nick Madrigal, and maybe even Dane Dunning and Luis Alexander Basabe at some point this season. Robert and Eloy Jimenez have already graduated to the big leagues.
As a general rule, hype like the White Sox got last season usually ends up being a year early. It is a big leap from the minor leagues to the big leagues and it is a process to build up a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2012.
I can tell you that this year’s White Sox team is much closer than last year’s. Now let’s see if that means we can look for a season win total over ticket.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-113 (4.38/5.09)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||66.3-94.7|
|Record in One-Run Games||14-18|
|Additions: Alex McRae, Drew Anderson, Jaycob Brugman, Adalberto Mejia, Bryan Mitchell, Andrew Romine, Steve Cishek, Edwin Encarnacion, Dallas Keuchel, Cheslor Cuthbert, Gio Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Nomar Mazara, Jonah McReynolds|
|Losses: Thyago Vieira, Yolmer Sanchez, Hector Santiago, Ivan Nova, Jon Jay, Ryan Cordell, Ryan Goins, Charlie Tilson, Steele Walker, Welington Castillo, Dylan Covey, Josh Osich|
A tradition as old as time is that the teams that win the offseason wind up getting overvalued in the preseason betting markets. The White Sox are one of the big winners of the winter. They signed MLB talent in Steve Cishek, Dallas Keuchel, and Gio Gonzalez to upgrade the pitching staff. They acquired Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal, and Nomar Mazara to upgrade the offense. Grandal will also have a huge impact defensively, particularly in the pitch framing game.
And the White Sox lost very little of consequence. Yolmer Sanchez was a nice player, but he is replaceable. All of the other guys are also very replaceable. And they’ve been replaced by guys that are much better or have much higher ceilings. Add these offseason moves to the sweet contract extension signed by Luis Robert, the return of Michael Kopech, and hopefully a healthier year for Eloy Jimenez and you have the makings of a team getting a lot of helium going into the 2020 season.
You also have a team that needs to make a 13-game leap to go over its season win total. Are they 13 games better based on the offseason transactions and the development of in-house talent?
If we consider all three alternate standings metrics, the White Sox were actually much worse than their 72-89 record. They lived off of BABIP. The White Sox led the Majors in batting average on balls in play at .329. Remember that home runs do not count towards BABIP, as they are not balls in play. The White Sox only hit 182 home runs. That was 15 more than the Giants, but 28 fewer than the Cardinals to finish 25th in that department.
They didn’t walk. They struck out a lot. You could make a case that they got really fortunate in the BABIP department and that is the sole reason why this wasn’t one of the worst offenses in baseball. The White Sox were 11th in average exit velocity, so they did hit the ball harder than average, but a big reason why they performed so well in BABIP is that they had the highest percentage of opposite field contact at 28.7% per FanGraphs. In the era of defensive shifts, you can carry a high BABIP by going oppo, even if the contact quality isn’t as great. The Rays did it in 2018 and led the league in BABIP. It is hardly a coincidence that the Marlins and Pirates were second and third in oppo contact and were 12th and fourth in BABIP, respectively.
Those teams didn’t hit for any power! Neither did the White Sox. The Marlins led baseball in GB% at 48.5%. The White Sox were second. The Pirates were third. It is not a coincidence that all of those offenses were bad. Ground balls are not good. Opposite field contact is generally not good, unless you can really drive the ball oppo. To their credit, the White Sox were ninth in wOBA on fly balls and line drives to the opposite field, so maybe they did drive it some, but in the current run environment, it helps to pull the ball when you make hard contact.
So, yeah, there are some promising players on the White Sox. But, I’d be surprised if Yoan Moncada runs a .406 BABIP this season. At least he hits for a little power and makes a ton of contact, but Moncada led all of baseball with that .406 BABIP. Teammate Tim Anderson was second en route to winning the batting average title with a .335 average and a .399 BABIP. Leury Garcia was sixth in BABIP among qualified hitters at .353.
To put this into perspective, Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds was third in BABIP at .387. Trevor Story was fourth at .361. There were nine players at .350 or higher. The highest BABIP in 2018 was JD Martinez at .375. Avisail Garcia was at .392 for the White Sox in 2017 to lead the league.
That isn’t to take away from Moncada or Anderson, who are very good hitters, but simply to say that Chicago cannot rely on the BABIP gods again. They’ll need to walk more to offset the BABIP and BA drops. Of their top 12 hitters in plate appearances from last season, Yonder Alonso is the only one that posted an above average walk rate. He slashed .178/.275/.301.
Yasmani Grandal will help the walk rate and so, too, will Edwin Encarnacion. Maybe this is the making of a good offense. I’m still skeptical. Moncada had a .344 BABIP in 2018 with a .235/.315/.400 slash. Surely he’s gotten better, but .379 wOBA and 141 wRC+ better? I’ll pass on that. Tim Anderson’s previous BABIPs? .289, .328, .375. I’ll pass on the .399 repeat. In fact, projection systems have him for a BABIP in the .330s with a .310 OBP and a big drop in SLG.
Remember how Eloy Jimenez hit 31 homers? He had a 27.2% HR/FB% because he hit the ball on the ground so much. That was the eighth-highest mark in baseball. Maybe he belongs with these names, but the guys above him were Christian Yelich, Nelson Cruz, Franmil Reyes, Peter Alonso, George Springer, Eugenio Suarez, and Jorge Soler. Jimenez’s GB% was at least 3.8% higher than any of those guys.
It is entirely possible that the White Sox just make enough hard contact to keep doing this. After all, Moncada was fifth in MLB in average exit velocity among qualified hitters. Jose Abreu was 10th. Jimenez was 24th. They’ve also added Grandal, who was 48th, and Encarnacion, who was 55th. They also add in promising prospect Luis Robert, who slashed .328/.376/.624 across three levels with 32 HR.
I think the White Sox can be very good. I also think the White Sox offense can fall well short of everybody’s expectations.
The White Sox had better hit a lot because the pitching staff doesn’t look great. Lucas Giolito’s breakout season was the best development of 2019 for the White Sox and we’ll see if he will be able to keep up that level. He posted a 3.41 ERA with a 3.43 FIP and a 3.66 xFIP. His 5.1 fWAR in 176.2 innings of work gave him 4.8 fWAR for his career. Giolito posted a 6.13/5.56/5.46 pitcher slash in 2018. If the light truly came on for him, the White Sox have a legitimate ace. He more than doubled his K% from 16.1% to 32.3% and lowered his BB% from 11.6% to 8.1%. His LOB% was 14.2% higher in 2019 compared to 2018. His velocity came back and his changeup was among the best in baseball.
We still have to assume something of a drop-off, no? It may not be as big as the projection systems are expecting, but I’m not sure I’d bank on a 15% swinging strike rate or 14.7% infield fly ball percentage. Those were a lot of easy outs with pop ups and strikeouts. Perhaps this is the new Giolito. I need more than one season to call this the new normal.
Reynaldo Lopez is better than the 5.38 ERA, 5.04 FIP, and 5.27 xFIP that he posted last season, but how much better? Well, that remains to be seen. He, like Giolito, tilted heavily towards the fly ball side last season. The biggest difference for him is that his command took a tumble with a 14% HR/FB%. With a career mark that now sits at 11.1%, Lopez is one of the guys that would benefit the most from a fixed baseball. I’d put him somewhere around a 4.50 ERA for this season with a FIP in the 4.75 range. He could do a bit better than that, but I don’t see a repeat of the 3.91 ERA he had in 2018.
Gio Gonzalez’s career has come full circle. He was originally drafted by the White Sox and is now back with the White Sox. He is back in the AL for the first time since 2011, when he posted a 3.12/3.64/3.73 pitcher slash. Gio is a fine addition, but he did only work 87.1 innings last season while trying to find a job early in the year. He had a fine 3.50 ERA with a 4.04 FIP and a 4.45 xFIP, but he goes from a Brewers team that was above average defensively to a White Sox team that was not. At least he gets to throw to Grandal again. Catcher ERA is not a reliable statistic, but he did throw to Grandal for 70 innings last season and had a .228/.310/.382 slash against with a 68/31 K/BB ratio.
The White Sox also picked up Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel is a reliable middle of the rotation type of guy. A different ball would help him lower his 23.9% HR/FB% and drop that 4.72 FIP by quite a bit. We all know what Keuchel is as a pitch-to-contact ground ball artist. His GB% last season in 112.2 innings was 60.1%.
The White Sox let their best infield defender go in Yolmer Sanchez. They do upgrade a ton with the difference from Welington Castillo to Grandal behind the plate, as Castillo was one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. Tim Anderson is a subpar defender. Moncada is below average by defensive runs saved, but average by UZR. All in all, we’ll call him “fair”. Jose Abreu is passable at first.
The White Sox aren’t going to get a lot of strikeouts from their rotation. Giolito is the primary swing-and-miss generator. The only big bullpen addition is Steve Cishek, who fits right in with a below average strikeout rate and a high walk rate. Cishek is also an extreme ground ball guy that ran a 2.95 ERA with a 4.54 FIP and a 4.95 xFIP last season.
The White Sox ranked 26th in reliever K% last season. They were also 26th in BB%. Projected closer Alex Colome had the second-highest wOBA-xwOBA difference in baseball at .063 (min 500 results), with his expected wOBA 63 points higher than he actual wOBA. I’m not a huge fan of this bullpen to begin with, but regression from Colome would really set it back even more. Cishek also had a 26-point difference on the bad side in wOBA-xwOBA.
For all of Chicago’s BABIP luck on offense, they had some on the pitching side, too. The bullpen was ninth at .285. The rotation was not good with the sixth-highest BABIP. Michael Kopech will increase the team’s K% when he takes over a rotation spot at some point, but it looks like the fortunes on balls in play will also dictate how the pitching staff does.
Positives & Negatives
The White Sox did make a concerted effort to get better this winter and they are better. They picked up a lot of upgrades on offense, defense, and on the pitching side with Gonzalez and Keuchel. That is definitely a positive.
According to the win total lines, the AL Central is no longer a two-team race between the Twins and the Indians. Of course, if you talk to certain people, it is the Twins division to lose. Maybe that is the case. The White Sox are improving. They were only 6-13 against the Twins and got outscored by 60 runs, but did take 11 of 19 from the Indians.
Do not underestimate what Yasmani Grandal means to this team. Outside of the enormous free agents like Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, this fit with Grandal may be the best of any. A lackluster pitching staff gets a huge boost with Grandal’s framing and a lineup lacking power and patience gets both. He may be the single most important newcomer to his team given the situation. The Yankees would be good without Cole and the Angels would still be okay without Rendon. Grandal adds several wins to the White Sox.
Pick: Under 84.5
To be totally honest, I went into this expecting to love the under so I could go against the hype again. You can probably guess that by the tone throughout the write-up. It felt like a lot of people were putting forth strenuous effort to get the White Sox into the AL Central title picture for the second year in a row. At least it makes more sense this season. The White Sox are very much improved at three key positions and guys like Moncada and Jimenez are steadily improving as players.
As a general rule, these are the win totals that I like to play. To me, the White Sox have a very wide range of outcomes, but a low ceiling. I think their win total line is pretty close to their ceiling. Far too many things have to go right for the White Sox to win 90 games and be in Wild Card and maybe even Central Division contention. I just can’t see that being the case under any circumstances.
I can’t get past this whole batting average on balls in play discussion. The White Sox could score a lot of runs of they keep up these high BABIP numbers and get some additional pop from guys like Robert, Encarnacion, and Grandal. On the other hand, regression is very possible across the board and this is a team that only scored 708 runs while running three of the 10 highest individual BABIPs in baseball and the highest team BABIP in baseball.
The pitching staff just isn’t that good. I have concerns about Giolito keeping up what he did last season. The league switch makes me think that Gonzalez will be more of a league average type of guy and the projection systems are far lower on him than that. Keuchel is fine, but BABIP-dependent. I’m done expecting anything from Carlos Rodon. Lopez is the hidden upside guy, but his upside isn’t all that high. The bullpen is unimpressive.
It has to be the under for me. The personnel is better. The kids are improving. The veteran free agent fill-ins will help the bottom line. I just don’t see 12 or 13 wins worth of improvement and even more than that relative to the alternate standings metrics. This will be a better team. This won’t be a team that gets outscored by 124 runs. I just don’t think it will be a team that flies past .500.
Keep in mind that last season, the White Sox were 42-44 at the All-Star Break. They were also -71 in run differential. They were never that good last season and the 72 wins that they eventually finished with was actually a pretty fortunate outcome. There is just too much growth and too much improvement that has to happen for the White Sox to get to the mid-80s.
This one is on the fringes of being a bet for me. I’ll take a couple positions early on win totals I think will move and wait and see how the Spring goes for others. This one is on my shortlist of one I’m pretty confident I will play as the season gets closer. Hopefully it gets bet up a little bit more.