If you had told me last winter that the Chicago White Sox would essentially be in first place in the AL Central (only a half game back) and 2.5 games ahead of the pre-season overwhelming favorite Detroit Tigers by late June, I would have considered hosting an intervention for you in which the possibility of sending you to an insane asylum would have been discussed. To think that the Sox would be this good halfway through the season was unfathomable, and I’d bet that most Sox fans would agree. Players who were seeing the baseball as a golf ball last year are seeing it as a beach ball this year. The runs are up, the bullpen ERA is down, and there’s many guys worthy of making the All-Star team. It’s an exciting time to be a Sox fan, and there’s a lot to look forward to over the next few months and beyond. That being said, let’s take a look at who those worthy players are:
Chris Sale, Starting Pitcher
Given the way he has pitched this season, one would have to think that Chris Sale has been pitching at the major league level for years. His path to stardom is well ahead of schedule, as he has looked nothing short of magnificent thus far this season. Sale ranks second in the American League in wins (tied at 8), third in ERA (2.47), fourth in WHIP (1.00), third in opponent’s batting average (.197) and fifth in K/9 (9.19, ranking him ahead of C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander AND Felix Hernandez). He has, without question, been one of the two or three best pitchers in the American League , and I don’t see him slowing down. Don’t be surprised if he not only makes the All-Star team but also starts for the AL come July 10. Clearly, most baseball fans would like to see Justin Verlander take the mound, but if he ends up making a start for Detroit less than five days before the game (or just decides he doesn’t want to pitch), Jim Leyland would have no problem telling him off. That would leave Sale, who deserves the starting nod as much as anyone.
Jake Peavy, Starting Pitcher
You can’t mention Chris Sale without mentioning Jake Peavy these days. The other half of this dynamic duo is in the middle of a coming of age season as he attempts to win the second Cy Young Award of his, what many would consider a very unlucky, and somewhat disappointing, career. After a number of shoulder injuries and a nearly career-ending experimental surgery in which the surgeon had to reattach a key tendon to the rear of his right shoulder, Peavy is finally back to old form. At 6-3, he ranks fourth in the American League in innings pitched (98.2), sixth in ERA (2.74), second in WHIP (0.97), fourth in opponent’s batting average (.198) and ninth in both strikeouts (83) and BB/9 (2.10). Of his 14 starts, 12 (repeat: 12) of them have been considered quality. Coincidentally, those other two are the only two starts in which he has given up more than three earned runs all season long. Amazing.
Peavy’s miracle season has been one of the best stories in baseball this year. After all he has been through over the past few years, making the All-Star team would really be something special.
A.J. Pierzynski, Catcher
I can’t remember the last time A.J. Pierzynski had a bad season in the majors, if ever, but it sure as hell wasn’t while wearing a White Sox uniform. Year after year, the dude just puts up solid offensive numbers across the board and continues to stay vastly underrated. It has been six years since Pierzynski’s made the All-Star team, but this might be the year he finally breaks that streak. He leads all AL catchers in RBIs (41), total bases (110) and runs scored (32 — tied with Minnesota’s Joe Mauer and Texas’ Mike Napoli), and he trails only Mauer in hits with 62 and Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia in home runs with 12. Who knew the 35-year-old backstop still had it in him? With Napoli undeservedly leading the way in voting so far, it’s going to be tough for A.J. to beat out two of three great catchers in Mauer, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Saltalamacchia, but stranger things have certainly happened.
Paul Konerko, First Baseman
Just another under-the-radar season for Paulie Konerko. Time and time again, Konerko seems to remind all baseball fans that, although he’s getting older, he has no intentions whatsoever of slowing down. If you sat here and told me that he will continue to hit like this until the age of 40, I’d probably agree. But regardless of how good we think he’ll be in four or five years, right now is all that really matters. Through the first half of the season, Konerko is leading the American League with an incredulous .354 batting average and .426 on-base percentage. He also ranks fourth in hits (81) and slugging percentage (.585), which are both good for first among first basemen. Konerko leads all first basemen in home runs with 13 (Adam Dunn and Billy Butler are designated hitters, so they don’t count in my mind) and total bases (134), and he’s fourth in RBIs (39). It never ceases to amaze me how great this guy continues to be. With Prince Fielder likely to get the starting nod at first base, Rangers’ manager Ron Washington will have slow-starting guys like Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Mark Teixeira to choose from in addition to Konerko. I’d like to think that the current AL batting leader will be at the very top of his list.
Adam Dunn, Designated Hitter
Everyone knows the Adam Dunn story by now – he batted .159 last season and sucked beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. But, 2011 proved to be a fluke, as Dunn has reverted back to old form, smashing baseballs out of any and every ballpark like it’s no one’s business. He leads the majors with 23 dingers and 55 walks. He’s also third in the AL in RBIs with 53 (first among DH), seventh in slugging percentage at .554 and tenth in total bases at 133 (both rank him third among DH). The only thing really holding Sox fans back from bowing down to this beast is his terrible .225 batting average and 109 strikeouts, which is 26 more than the next player. However, a low average, high strikeout totals and a boatload of home runs has been the story of Dunn’s 12-year career, so it just comes with the territory. He deserves to be considered for the All-Star team, that’s for sure, but there’s a lot of competition at DH this year. I smell a candidate for the Final Vote, but only time will tell.
Who I would pick: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzysnki
There should not even be a debate about Sale and Peavy — they’ve been two of the most consistent pitchers in all of baseball this year, and without them, the White Sox would arguably be a last place team right now. They’ve been that valuable.
If it was up to me, Paul Konerko would be starting at first base for the American League in a few weeks. But, seeing as how there are millions of other fans out there voting, my opinion pretty much means jack. Nevertheless, even when Prince Fielders wins the vote, Konerko should easily make the roster as the second or third first baseman. If he’s not, then Ron Washington is clearly still blowing lines during his free time and is only picking players based on name alone.
The most debatable guy on my list is Pierzynski. His stats alone should make him an All-Star, but because Mike Napoli is projected to win the starting gig, one spot gets taken from a guy who actually deserves to make the team. Both teams usually bring three catchers to the All-Star game though, so Pierzynski should still make it because of how valuable he has been to the Sox lineup.
I’m not picking Dunn because, assuming David Ortiz wins the vote for DH, there are still too many other guys at the position worthy of making the team. You have to remember that every team gets at least one All-Star. Coincidentally, the two best options along with Dunn (Kansas City’s Billy Butler and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion) have each been the best players for their respective teams this season, so there’s a good chance that one of them makes it instead. Even if Dunn doesn’t make the team, he still has a shot at making Robinson Cano’s Home Run Derby squad and, as I said before, there’s a possibility he makes it to the Final Vote, which would leave his fate in the hands of the fans.
Who will be picked: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski
Dunn won’t make it for the reasons I just stated. If Pierzynski doesn’t make it, it’s for reasons very similar to Dunn — there must be an All-Star from every team. Because of that, Joe Mauer who, as you know, plays for the horrific Minnesota Twins, should be a no-brainer for the American League staff as the backup catcher and lone Twin to make the team. But, assuming the AL goes with three catchers, Pierzynski should easily get selected over Wieters and Saltalamacchia. If he doesn’t, it’ll just go to show you how truly under-appreciated he is around the league.
Sitting at the ballpark, you are inevitably going to hear a conversation between two 50-something-year-old men who haven’t seen each other in months. Their interaction tends to include sweeping generalizations about the players on the field as well as asinine predictions. If you have happened to watch a game at US Cellular field this year (and if so, kudos to you), you may have heard one of these stadium archetypes about the pitcher Chris Sale. Eventually, the 23-year-old hurler may have even come up in the same sentence as Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez. While a seemingly outrageous comparison at this stage, there are Sox fans that nevertheless want to ask: can Chris Sale be the next Johnson or Martinez?
It’s obvious why any White Sox fan would covet such a comparison. How often do we get to see truly dominant starting pitchers on the south side? Every fan base likes to get over-zealous about their new, young arms, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that has lacked such a pitcher as long as we have. Mark Buehrle was probably the best we’ve had in the past 15 or so years, and “dominant” isn’t quite the word most would use to describe him. Any other young pitcher we have been excited about either busted or was traded.
There are primarily two reasons why the Sox’ pool of strikeout-aces has come up barren. First, White Sox culture has shied away from developing power arms all the way to the majors. Just ask Gio Gonzalez and Dan Hudson.
Second, and probably more important, the team resides in U.S. Cellular Field, which has an obscene record of destroying pitching statistics. The last time a White Sox full-time starter had a sub-3.00 ERA was Esteban Loaiza’s short-lived success in his magical season of 2003 with a 2.90. To find another, you’d have to travel back to the 1993 season when Wilson Alvarez threw his way to a 2.95 ERA. And that’s it. In the 21 years since The Cell’s inception in 1991, those are the only 2 full starting campaigns to see an ERA under 3. Right now Chris Sale sits at 2.05.
Needless to say, neither of the previous pitchers went for a repeat performance. If Chris Sale is to indeed encounter the success that some think he can have, not only this year but for years to come, he’s going to have to do it where no one else has done it before. He will have to defy the odds and the breezy summer days on Chicago’s south side.
It’s old news that the American league is a hitter’s league. Pitchers have worse stats in the AL, period. Sure, there are those that have encountered prolonged elite success like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver. But even these guys pale in comparison to some of the things that Pedro and Randy did in their heyday. Both of these future Hall of Famers came up as relievers, and neither had near to the success Chris Sale has had in their first rotation stints. They also went on to have periods of sheer dominance in their careers that may never be seen from any pitcher again.
Yes, Sale has an illustrious pedigree in addition to being impressive in the bigs, but if we are so eager to compare the kid to the Big Unit, why not compare him to Tim Lincecum? Another dominating pitcher who came up amidst worries about both his build and his mechanics giving way to injuries, Lincecum has proved all those naysayers wrong… for four seasons. This year, the two-time Cy Young award winner is a train wreck, standing at a 6.07 ERA. The Freak still could go back to being that dominant ace again, but there is also a very realistic chance he will never be the same. And we are talking about a guy on the giants, not someone who calls The Cell his home.
Achieving prolonged success in any environment is difficult for a pitcher these days. With the never-ending scrutiny of a pitcher’s velocity, many blow their arms out before they realize their full potential. It almost seems like a right of passage for a young pitcher to have to go through a season ending injury before they can advance in their career, as sad as that is. There is no doubt Sale’s slim frame and motion (especially the stress on his shoulder joint) put him at risk for injury, something the White Sox made undeniably clear in shuffling him between the bullpen and rotation earlier this year.
Despite all of the above barriers, the man is a major reason the Sox are in first place right now. It’s going to be extremely difficult to cap this guy in any way down the stretch when we’re in the midst of a pennant race. The win-now approach has been a Kenny Williams maxim for just about his entire tenure. Yet, there really is no doubt that the Sox will take some precautions with the lefty down the stretch, skipping starts and capping innings when they are able to do so.
On the south side, we are lucky to have the expertise of Herm Schneider, backed by a training staff with an impeccable pedigree as far as injuries are concerned. We also must hope that Ventura doesn’t show any Dusty Baker tendencies and doesn’t push the kid too hard in the stretch run.
The prevention of devastating injuries while, at the same time, allowing the kid to grow even more as a pitcher will be the key to Chris Sale becoming the star it seems he can become. Thus far, he has been able to tame the beast that is US Cellular to the tune of a 2.91 career ERA there (with an immaculate 1.69 this year). Even so, this is in comparison to a 2.12 career ERA on the road! However, it is worth noting that Sale has yet to face a top 13 offense this year. Regardless, if he can continue pitching this way (even with a little higher road ERA) and keep his home ERA consistent, the sky’s the limit for this kid. Inducing groundouts will no doubt be a major key for Sale to maintain that consistency at home.
Even with these considerations in mind, there are plenty of reasons why Sale won’t develop into the monster we think he can be. After all is said and done, five years from now he may very well be a back-end bullpen guy, as many scouts predicted he would be after coming out of college. But the fact is, all of us Sox fans have a gut feeling when watching him that we may never have felt before. “This is going to be our ace,” we think, and we believe it. So until there is something to discourage us from believing in the kid, I’ll be damned if I let anyone else tell me that we don’t, finally, have something really special.
As much as it pains me to say it, most of my friends are White Sox fans. They all enjoy making fun of me for being a Cubs fan to the point that it almost makes me feel worthless in life. I can’t help it, though. I was raised a Cubs fan right out of the womb, so that will never change. This season was supposed to be different for me. The White Sox were supposed to suck just as much as the Cubs, meaning that the Cubs, and Cubs only, would be responsible for my depression this summer. Before the 2012 season started, I didn’t find one White Sox fan that thought they would finish ahead of 4th in the worst division in all of baseball, and all of them even admitted they couldn’t care less about this season. That was great news for me. But boy, were they wrong. For the past two weeks, I was out of the country and had essentially no internet access whatsoever. The White Sox were 17-21 and really struggling to stay consistent and win a series. I come home yesterday and find that they are the hottest team in baseball, going 12-1 since I left. How convenient for me? Life’s about to get rough for yours truly, but I’ll take the heat like a man.
After being so out of the loop, I just assumed that starting pitching has been the reason for the White Sox recent success. False. Over the past month, Sox hitters have been absolutely tearing the cover off the ball, and their middle relief has been electric. Other than Chris Sale (who has been no less than phenomenal), Sox starting pitchers have been miserable to say the least, yet this team is still finding a way to get it done. Take a look at these numbers during the month of May:
Top 5 Hitters:
- Dayan Viciedo: .351/.371/.628, 33 H, 8 HR, 23 RBI, 18 R, 59 TB
- Paul Konerko: .391/.472/.630, 36 H, 6 HR, 17 RBI, 18 R, 58 TB
- Adam Dunn: .237/.385/.608, 23 H, 11 HR, 21 RBI, 19 R, 59 TB
- AJ Pierzynski: .293/.343/.467, 27 H, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 18 R, 43 TB
- Alejandro De Aza: .312/.385/.376, 34 H, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 17 R, 41 TB
- Chris Sale: 3-1, 25.2 IP, 1.75 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.22 K/9
- Jake Peavy: 3-0, 32.2 IP, 4.68 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.54 K/9
- John Danks: 1-1, 23.1 IP, 5.01 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 2.31 K/9
- Phil Humber: 1-1, 32.2 IP, 5.79 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 7.16 K/9
- Gavin Floyd: 2-2, 29.1 IP, 7.06 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 7.06 K/9
- **Jose Quintana with John Danks on the DL (1-0, 15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 5.28 K/9)
Top 3 Relief Pitchers:
- Nate Jones: 17 IP, 1.59 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.06 K/9
- Hector Santiago: 11.2 IP, 1.54 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.71 K/9
- Jesse Crain: 7.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.59 K/9
Quite frankly, the starting pitching has been a nightmare. However, it hasn’t seemed to matter much, if at all. Each of the Sox top five hitters over the past month drove in 15+ runs, and three of them slugged over .600. That’s unheard of. In addition, the relievers, most notably Jones, have been fantastic (forget about Addison Reed’s six-run outing). Even after a bad start, the Sox were able to score more than enough runs, and the bullpen gave Robin Ventura the confidence to pull his starters early instead of risk them getting even more shelled.
Sox fans have to be thrilled to see these numbers. If the starting pitching can improve, the bullpen won’t have to be overused and give out by September (think Atlanta Braves last season), which would be huge heading into the playoffs. Plus, pitching wins championships. You have to think that Danks was being affected by his shoulder injury prior to the DL stint, so he should get back to his old form once healthy. Gavin Floyd and Phil Humber have shown flashes of brilliance throughout their careers (Floyd’s no-hitter flirting and Humber’s perfect game), so it’s not outrageous to think they can get on a roll and help this team win more ballgames.
This poses the question that has been hanging over everyone’s head lately: is this the year? Obviously, it is way too early to make any guarantees, but I will say this: as long as the Sox get into the playoffs, anything can happen. That’s the glory of playing in October. Will they actually get into the playoffs, you ask? Lucky for you, I decided to predict the AL Central standings using baseball’s pythagorean theorem (ScoringRatio^2 / ScoringRatio^2 + 1) by estimating the winning percentage of each team. Here are the current standings and the projected standings:
Right now, the White Sox are far and away the best team in the AL Central. It would surprise me if they don’t end up winning the division (the Tigers pitching outside of Verlander is so atrocious that it’s embarrassing, but we still can’t count them out). However, one thing must be stated: people need to stop comparing this team to the 2005 World Series team. The Sox had incredible pitching that season (finished 2nd in the AL that season in both starter ERA and reliever ERA) and subar hitting (finished 12th in the AL in average, 9th in runs scored). This season, they have medicore pitching (7th in the AL in starter ERA, 6th in reliever ERA) and solid hitting (6th in the AL in average, 4th in runs scored). We can’t compare teams from different seasons because the game of baseball is constantly changing. All you can do as a Sox fan is remember that magical season forever and allow the current and future teams to create their own legacies.