The Chicago White Sox Are Not “Underachievers”

Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen, quite possibly bickering about whose idea it was to trade Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit

Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen, possibly bickering about whose idea it was to trade Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit

Yesterday, Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams offered his opinion about the state of his team:

“I’m not happy with the past road trip. We lost two games that we should’ve won. That [would’ve] put us a half game out of first place. We’ve thrown away a dozen games that way this year. We’ve deserved what we’ve got. I’m not happy. I’m not happy with a lot of what I see, we’re underachievers, period.”

Manager Ozzie Guillen shared Williams’ feelings:

“The way Kenny built this ballclub, there’s no doubt we’re better than .500. Look at our lineup, look at our pitching staff. Don’t look at our defense, please. Don’t look at that one, we’re horrible. But if you look at the team and say this is a .500 team, you have to be wrong.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t see any evidence to support their labeling of the White Sox as “underachieving.” The team is 61-58 this season, and has outscored opponents by 15 runs. Three games above .500 is just about what you’d expect for a team with a +15 run differential, so there’s no argument there. But maybe Williams and Guillen are referring to the individual performances that actually comprise a team’s runs scored and runs allowed. Maybe they see a roster full of players that simply haven’t done what was expected of them.

Let’s look at the offense first. 33-year-old Paul Konerko has improved his OPS from .782 to .819. Given that players in their 30s rarely make real improvements, this can’t been seen as disappointing. Alexei Ramirez‘s OPS has dropped from .792 to .749, but his OBP has increased and he’s on pace for the same number of home runs, so there’s not much to complain about there. 35-year-old Jermaine Dye is having basically the same season as last season, except for a decline in doubles. But… he’s 35. Somehow, 33-year-old Scott Podsednik has given the White Sox 418 plate appearances of .297/.349/.392 hitting, which currently stands as the second-best season of his career. That’s actually a huge bit of overachieving. 32-year-old A.J. Pierzynski has improved his OPS by nearly 100 points, which is both improbable and fortuitous. 38-year-old Jim Thome is having a marginally better season than last. Rookie Gordon Beckham has been incredible at third base. Second base and center field have been offensive black holes, but that’s what you get when you rely on Chris Getz, Jayson Nix, Brian Anderson, and Dewayne Wise for production. The only truly disappointing bat in the White Sox lineup has been Carlos Quentin, who simply hasn’t returned to form following his return from a foot injury. On the aggregate, however, you could make a pretty strong argument that the White Sox have actually overachieved offensively.

Maybe the pitching staff has regressed since last season. Mark Buehrle is pitching almost exactly as well as he did last season. Gavin Floyd‘s ERA has increased very slightly, but he’s walking fewer batters, striking out more, and keeping the ball in the ballpark. His ERA should drop to a sub-2008 level. John Danks‘ ERA has risen from 3.32 to 3.96, but relying on him for a repeat performance would be imprudent management. Jose Contreras has been much worse than last year, which is to be expected from a 37-year-old with one good season to his name. Clayton Richard was league-average before being traded to the San Diego Padres in the Jake Peavy deal. Bartolo Colon was the Scott Podsednik of the pitching staff, improbably giving the team 62 innings of 4.19 ERA ball before getting injured. The bullpen has basically repeated its very good 2008 performance. Last year, White Sox relievers posted a 4.06 ERA, .731 OPS against, and 2.49 K/BB. This season, those numbers are 3.85, .732, and 2.11. As you can see, White Sox pitching hasn’t underachieved either. The defense has been exactly as bad as it was last season, too.

It appears to me that the White Sox are truly and sustainably exactly what Ozzie Guillen denies they are – a .500 team. Offensively, the team has overachieved at every position except for second base and center field, positions Kenny Williams apparently chose to punt by relying on awful players for league-average production. The pitching staff has seen consistency from those in their primes (Buehrle, Floyd), growing pains from those approaching it (Danks), and ineptitude from the inept (Contreras). None of that should be surprising to Williams or Guillen.

In the end, Williams’ and Guillen’s shared assessment is a reminder of how managers of questionable quality think. Far too often, they look at previous season’s good individual performances and decide that they will hold constant. They decide that the player has sustainably improved his skills, and that his excellence will become his new norm. In other words, they see what they want to see instead of what a reasoned mix of statistics, scouting, and common sense suggests. This failure to evaluate personnel properly affects the perceived needs and ultimate construction of future teams. It also leads to quotes like the one above, which baffles me not because I agree with it, but because it’s so obviously wrong.

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