Angi: For The White Sox, You’ve Gotta Walk Before You Can Win
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By Cee Angi-
(CBS) Two-hundred runs.
That number made me cringe when I sat down with a calculator earlier today and did the math. I knew the Sox were in a rough spot, but the fact that need to add, at minimum, 200 additional runs to compete next season seemed awfully harsh when I read it on the tiny pixelated screen.
Since the ribbon-cutting on the Sox rebuild following the Jake Peavy trade, there has been endless speculation about which players will go, which will stay, and which free-agent superstars will swoop in and save this ball club. It’s certainly fun to dream of a world where all of the youngsters reach their upside and veteran free agents flock to the South Side, but all of this discussion is not only premature, it’s as short-sighted as the decision-making that put the Sox in this position in the first place.
I don’t mean to rain on everyone’s parade here, but before the Sox can adequately make plans for the future, the front office has to take a huge step back and ask a really simple question:
How will they score runs if they can’t even get on base?
Sox offensive production has been hideous this season. Most of the outrage has focused on poor baserunning, unskillful hitting with runners in scoring position, and the team’s diminishing power. But their real kryptonite is more fundamental than these things—the Sox aren’t getting on base consistently and they aren’t walking, and those two things are absolutely essential.
There’s a basic relationship that exists between walks and on-base percentage, and both of them lead to increased run production. It’s a necessity for teams to have at least some players who possess plate discipline and a good eye, especially since strikeouts continue to rise and singles continue to disappear. Walking is a valuable component of a strong offense. It’s a skill that some of the best teams in baseball have embraced, but for some reason, it’s been a very low priority for the Sox for years.
When the Sox won the World Series in 2005, they had the second-least walks of any postseason team this century. That roster was built around good pitching, speed, and power, and although that combination worked it certainly wasn’t an easy path to the postseason. The 2005 season was a perfect storm of upsides for the Sox, and while the trophies all look the same no matter how you win them, it would certainly be easier for the Sox to seek players with better plate discipline going forward, rather than trying to catch lightning in a bottle like they did in ’05.
Players that take walks really aren’t that hard to find these days, but since 2000, the Sox have only had six players who have walked more than 90 times in a season; the Phillies have had 16, the Astros and Yankees have had 14, and the Cardinals have had 11 in that span. This season’s roster is one of the worst in the majors when it comes to plate discipline, and consequently, walks.
Collectively, the Sox have seen the fewest pitches per plate appearance of any team in the American League, and they’ve swung at the first pitch 26% of the time. Astros aside, the Sox have also been in the fewest 3-0 and 2-0 counts in the league, another side effect of their impatience. Hitters do most of their hitting when the count is in their favor. When the average 2013 hitter swings with the count in his favor, he averages .298. When he swings with the count in the pitcher’s favor, he hits .202. Thus selectivity is not just about taking ball four, it’s about putting oneself in a position to get good pitches to hit.
These numbers won’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s watched more than a few innings of the White Sox’ impatient, hacking batters, but when compared to the rest of the majors their problems become amplified. There have been 257 players who have 250 or more plate appearances this season. The White Sox have four players in the bottom 40 in terms of lowest percentage of walks: Alexei Ramirez (3rd), Jeff Keppinger (13th), Tyler Flowers (33rd) and Dayan Viciedo (40th). It took 48 plate appearances before Viciedo took his first walk of the season, 83 for rookie Josh Phegley, and a vomit-inducing 141 plate appearances before Keppinger drew his first walk in May. While there are several conclusions that can be drawn about why the team refuses to take bases on balls, at it’s core, the problem is that the organization has consistently placed a higher premium on power than patience.
One of the perks a rebuild affords is the opportunity to address fatal flaws from the major-league roster down through the minors, and while adding a couple of hundred walks a season won’t fix the offense alone; it’s one component of a balanced, diversified attack that includes power, speed, walks and good contact.
Regardless of what decisions the Sox make, the math is sobering on what it will take for them to compete in the AL Central going forward. Runs scored and runs allowed have a predictable relationship with a team’s Win-Loss record, something we’ve known since Bill James promulgated his original Pythagorean theorem. At their current pace, the Sox will score about 600 runs and allow around 700 this season. To get back to the 90-plus win mark that it would take to win the division next season? Assuming consistency from the pitching staff, they’d need to score 800 runs, which would mean increasing their run production by at least 25% or 200 runs. As if that weren’t daunting enough, if the pitchers take a turn for the worse, it means even more runs that the offense would have to score.
Rick Hahn has promised a multifaceted approach to fixing the roster, one which will include shifting some of the emphasis from free-agent signings to the draft, international signings, and developing talent through the farm system. Given that the Sox will enjoy a roughly $58-million payroll reduction entering the offseason, it seems likely that they could be a presence in the free agent market, though their spending will likely be tempered by an eye towards the future, because leaps of such magnitude in run production have rarely been realized from season-to-season.
Patience at the plate and patience with the rebuilding process will be the key toward building a more balanced roster for the future. In the meantime, there’s a mantra that will lead the organization in the right direction: You’ve gotta walk before you can win.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.