By Matt Spiegel–
(CBS) From September 2012 through the end of the 2015 season, the Chicago White Sox played a sloppy, ineffectual, maddening style of baseball. The defense was atrocious, base-running was sloppy, fundamentals were embarrassing, the clubhouse mood was downright depressing and losses were plentiful.
Through 22 games in 2016, this same franchise has the best record in the American League at 16-6, and that’s because they’re playing an entirely different brand of baseball. The White Sox are a smart, crisp, confident winning team.
Even for those of us who predicted the White Sox would be over .500 (I had them down for 85 wins), this April has been stunning. The offense is 19th in runs, 23rd in on-base percentage and 23rd in OPS. But the wins keep coming, thanks to pitching and defense.
The organization has been locked into an oft-discussed, usually frustrating roster building formula for decades. Compete every year, however you can. The White Sox have tried to win by getting down with OPP — other people’s prospects. Since taking over, general manager Rick Hahn has tried to build up the scouting departments, and the talent in the farm system is improving. Hahn also made a few trades for MLB-ready young players. Some haven’t worked out (Matt Davidson) and others have (Adam Eaton). In the offseason before 2015, the free-agent haul looked impressive. The play on the field then didn’t.
The seven veterans signed to one-year deals this past winter have been extremely well chosen. And the trade acquisition of power-hitting third baseman Todd Frazier from Cincinnati has been much more than just that, as he’s been a complete player.
Hahn deserves serious credit for identifying so many smart, strong professionals. Their collective offensive history led to a lot of us feeling underwhelmed as the signings trickled in, but the sum total is five everyday players who know what they’re doing in every facet.
Frazier, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, outfielder Austin Jackson and new catchers Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro are having a massive impact. They’re confident, vocal men who have been on good teams and know why their teams were good. They’ll tell you, and they’ll show you. They’ve definitely infected right fielder Adam Eaton. And second baseman Brett Lawrie, who came with a reputation for chaotic fielding and base-running, has been far more solid than anticipated.
Good baseball is contagious.
Through this point in the 2016 season, Eaton has the highest defensive Wins Above Replacement in the majors. Jackson — who led the AL in dWAR in 2011 — was correctly handed the job in center field. Moving Eaton 150 feet or so to right field has seemingly taken all the frustrating tendencies out of his game. Plus, he’s nailing runners at third with perfect one-hop throws. Eaton’s taking outstanding angles to limit extra bases. He’s diving into walls to take away doubles.
Right now, Eaton is the best right fielder in the American League. Read that again if you need to. I did.
Isn’t it’s amazing what can happen when you pick it and throw it cleanly?
Take an inning from Wednesday night’s win that finished a sweep of the Blue Jays. Reliever Nate Jones came on in the eighth with a 4-0 lead, facing the heart of the Toronto order.
Josh Donaldson hit a high chopper to Rollins that he fielded cleanly and quickly, getting the speedy MVP by a step. Jose Bautista popped one foul near the stands in left, and Frazier made a difficult play look easy by taking a really good route. Then Edwin Encarnacion grounded a ball deep into the hole, where Rollins backhanded it, made a long one-hop leaping throw for the out and punctuated it with a fist pump.
Three dangerous hitters were retried promptly. It was an afterthought in the box score but emblematic of the simplification that veteran good defenders can bring. Fewer out opportunities being bungled ends the game a heck of a lot quicker.
This White Sox start shouldn’t be considered a fluke, because the way these wins are coming is based on sustainable skills. Just look at the standard-bearer in the same division for proof of that. The Royals have made two World Series in a row while finishing outside the top 10 in OPS.
The dominant White Sox bullpen will give up some runs eventually. The late-game situational hitting that has led to an amazing 23 runs in the seventh inning alone in 22 games will fail at times. No. 5 starter John Danks will unfortunately still be handed the ball for a while. No. 4 starter Mat Latos will come back to earth a bit.
But fielding doesn’t slump. And the veteran confidence that has infused the entire team is unlikely to fade. Confidence matters.
These White Sox are for real.
Matt Spiegel is a host on the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on weekdays. Follow him on Twitter@MattSpiegel670.