By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Rick Hahn prefers to use the 60-game mark of the season to begin to evaluate a team, and that day approaches for the 2014 White Sox.
The general manager sees a competitive squad at 28-27, holding second place in the AL Central despite already weathering injuries to both their ace pitcher and most powerful hitter and losing a multitalented corner outfielder for the year after just eight games.
Almost exactly one year ago, we looked at a team with a $122 million payroll that was at or near the very bottom of MLB in almost every offensive statistic, startlingly unable to score. Their run total was 29th of 30, as were their offensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) that adjusts for park and league factors.
Now 363 days later, it’s like a switch was flipped.
The White Sox have scored 258 runs, good for fourth-best in baseball. Their .322 wOBA is eighth, their wRC+ of 100 is 10th. With salaries on the books adding up to $91 million, they are spending less for so much more, due to a combination of addition, subtraction and remarkable improvement.
Jose Abreu was the winter’s big prize, and his bat has delivered. His .383 wOBA is 25th in MLB, and he looks to be every bit the middle-of-the-order mainstay, provided he can improve his frightening ratio of strikeouts to unintentional walks (50/7) that threatens to erode his value.
Last year at this time the top offseason acquisition in the lineup was Jeff Keppinger, who was nothing less than the single worst offensive player in the game, ranking 170th out of 170 qualified batters in wOBA at an anemic .217. He is still collecting the $8.5 million he is owed by the White Sox, but not to play for them. He was released on May 21, presumably banished to an unseen prison dimension so as to never haunt baseball again.
Keppinger wasn’t alone in the sewer a year ago, either: In wOBA, Alexei Ramirez ranked 142nd (.290 wOBA), Adam Dunn 149th (.278) and Tyler Flowers 154th (.269). Now, Ramirez is MLB’s second-best shortstop, with his 1.9 WAR trailing only that of Colorado’s Troy Tulowitski, whose ridiculous 4.1 makes him the runaway MVP to this point. Dunn is back to being the player he was when he signed in 2010, improving his wOBA nearly 100 points to an MLB 29th-best .373, which tracks to his career average of .369. Flowers has already compiled a WAR of 0.9, compared to the 1.6 WAR value he had previously aggregated in his entire time with the team since 2009.
And the notable resurgence of Dayan Viciedo has helped to mitigate the loss of Avsail Garcia to a shoulder injury on April 9. A less-than-replacement-level player in 2013 (-0.1 WAR), Viciedo is keeping his value above water by hitting over his defensive deficiencies, with a current wOBA of .347. Conor Gillaspie’s hitting deserves mention, too, as his 1.0 WAR places him in a tie as the eighth-most productive MLB third baseman this season. Meanwhile, Gordon Beckham has quietly been good for a 1.0 WAR as well, comparing favorably to both Robinson Cano (1.1) and Dustin Pedroia (1.2).
The pitching side of things is not quite so favorable, even with Chris Sale’s return. The peripheral numbers are ugly, frankly, with the White Sox dead last in MLB in Expected Fielder-Independent Pitching (xFIP) at 4.37. The defense is still a liability, too, ranking 26th in the total defensive metric of UZR/150.
But the story of this team is the confluence of circumstances that has turned a terrible offense into a very good one in a short amount of time. Assign credit as you may see fit, to roster construction, coaching, individual effort, statistical regression or merely good fortune, but recognize the unlikelihood of the achievement so far.
As he examines the 2014 White Sox and begins to make decisions for both the immediate and longer-term future, Rick Hahn is seeing things for which he may have hoped, but probably didn’t expect.