The White Sox haven't been a sexy story like the A's or the Orioles. But they've quietly put together a solid season and taken advantage of the Tigers' missteps to lead the American League Central. For now.
On Friday afternoon, with the election campaign in full swing, President Obama tweeted the following:
You see, the President's home is in Chicago and he's been a White Sox fan for some time. Now, of course, he spends most of his time in Washington, D.C., a city without postseason baseball for the last 79 years, until the Nationals clinched a playoff berth on Thursday. For the most part, the President's tweet elicited chuckles in the baseball world. Not so much at the part about the Nationals, but the White Sox? In the World Series?
On Friday afternoon, when I started thinking about this story, the White Sox had a two-game lead over the Tigers in the American League Central. Now that lead is down to half a game, after the White Sox lost to the Angels on Friday and Saturday, and the Tigers beat the Twins on Saturday after a Friday rainout. Still, the White Sox have been in first place, either tied or alone, since July 24.
And yet, the storylines out of the AL Central are all about the Tigers: the big off-season acquisition of Prince Fielder; Miguel Cabrera's race for the Triple Crown; whether Cabrera should be the American League MVP; who can challenge Justin Verlander for pitching supremacy; and how the Tigers' god-awful defense is keeping them from the division title. The Tigers made a big budget splash last winter, bringing in Fielder, and most analysts expected Detroit to run away with the Central. But the Tigers have struggled, and no other team in the Central has taken advantage, other than White Sox. It's not a flashy story; those belong to the A's and the Orioles. But it's been a story of consistent success -- at least up until now.
Through Saturday's action, the Sox have scored 701 runs, good for fifth-best in the American League, behind the Rangers, Yankees, Angels and Red Sox, and 17 more than the Tigers. For all its offensive prowess, Boston's had a lost season and Anaheim is close to one. Like the Yankees, who lead the American League with 224 home runs, the White Sox offense is power-centered, taking advantage of the hitter-friendly environment at U.S. Cellular Field. Chicago's 197 bombs are second only to New York. The White Sox team ISO is third-best in the league, and their slugging is fourth-best. Chicago's Achilles' heel on offense is a 19.7 percent strikeout rate (above the league average of 19.2 percent) and a 7.4 percent walk rate (below the league average of eight percent).
As Baseball Nation contributor Marc Normandin wrote several weeks ago, resurgent seasons from Adam Dunn and Alex Rios have energized the White Sox' offense. Add to that the performance of White Sox fan favorite Paul Konerko, who when healthy has been one of the most productive first basemen in the league, with a season nearly mirroring Albert Pujols'. And then there's 35-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski. He's posted career highs in slugging, wOBA and wRC+. Only the Twins' Joe Mauer has been a more productive catcher in the American League this season.
When you think of White Sox pitching, you think of 23-year-old Chris Sale, who was strictly a reliever in 2011 but turned out to be its best starter in 2012. And you think about how the White Sox have managed Sale's innings and kept him fresh to pitch down the stretch -- in contrast to the Nationals' handling of Stephen Strasburg. Through 181⅔ innings, Sale is 17-7 with a 3.19 FIP and a 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio. According to FanGraphs, Sale has accumulated 4.8 WAR, the fourth-highest among AL starters, after Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Yu Darvish. Despite a losing record, Jake Peavy's been almost as good as Sale, posting a 3.71 FIP, a 3.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 4.2 WAR.
Another 23-year-old, Jose Quintana, has been a pleasant surprise for the White Sox. Quintana made his major-league debut in May and pitched his way into the rotation after John Danks was injured and Philip Humber imploded after his April 21 perfect game. Gavin Floyd has battled elbow tightness and recently returned from the disabled list. Overall, Floyd has been moderately successful but far less valuable to the White Sox than in the previous three seasons. Francisco Liriano, acquired from the Twins in late July, has had some very good starts, and some not so good ones, pretty much what you'd expect from a fifth starter.
Two other youngsters have made a big impact from the Sox' bullpen. Manager Robin Ventura installed Addison Reed as the closer in May. After a rough start, Reed settled in nicely, holding batters to a sub-.300 wOBA through June and July. But September has not been kind to Reed; he's struggled with command and watched his walk rate shoot sky-high. Veteran lefty Matt Thornton, who Ventura typically uses in the eighth inning, has stepped in during Reed's struggles. And then there's 28-year-old Donnie Veal, another lefty reliever, who the White Sox called up in mid-July. Veal has faced 41 batters -- 27 lefties and 14 righties -- and allowed only two hits and two walks to the righties, and only one walk to the lefties.
Other than Sale, and maybe Peavy, White Sox pitching has been workman-like if not spectacular. And yet the White Sox sport one of the best run differentials in the American League. Overall, Chicago has allowed 634 runs, for a +67 run differential, or nearly 0.5 runs per game. Only the Yankees, Rangers and Rays have been better.
The White Sox control their own destiny. Win the AL Central and get into the postseason -- then anything can happen. Even to a team with no superstars.