During each day of the break we'll look at a different contender in the division -- sorry Royals, you're the only team left out. I'm taking them in order of standings. Yesterday was the Indians. Today the White Sox.
Chicago was a popular pick among people who didn't believe Minnesota had the tools necessary to win the division for the upteenth time in upteen years. On paper, the White Sox may have had the best pitching in the division, and definitely had some of the best hitting. It was easy to imagine the Sox and Tigers fighting it out in September.
So far it hasn't worked out that way. But that doesn't mean it still can't.
Chicago is hanging around, not quite at the top because of their inability to figure out the Twins, their stumbles in the rotation and their big season acquisition Adam Dunn failing to live up to potential. They entered the All-Star Break in third place, five games out of first.
What might we see in the second half? Let's explore.
A rotation of John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd should have been pretty good. Instead, Chicago is sitting in just the middle of the league in rotation's ERA (4.04) while Jake Peavy has spent more time on the disabled list than anticipated. But that's worked out fine, as Philip Humber has been all that could be hoped for and more. Acually, the White Sox fielding independent pitching (FIP) has sparkled at 3.36, the third best in the AL. So they appear primed for improvements all over the rotation.
When you look closer though, it's less certain. Danks -- currently on the DL with an oblique injury -- is striking out batters at the worst rate of his MLB career. His other indicator stats seem about normal. He should improve in the second half but it might be incrementally rather than a large gain. Buehrle seems to be having a pedestrian year, but his ERA is the lowest it's been since 2005, and it's slightly better than the FIP. So I don't see large gains there.
Peavy is a mystery. First off, where do they put him? Second off, his ERA is 2 points worse than his FIP indicates it should be. But he has battled injuries and his strikeout rate is down. He's not stranding runners at nearly the same rate. If he improves there, he'll be a better pitcher.
Humber has an ERA of 3.10 and an FIP of 3.49. So you could see him taking a step back. He doesn't strike out a lot, but he doesn't walk many. His BABIP is a pretty low .242 as well.
Jackson and Floyd may be key. Floyd's ERA of 4.59 is quite a bit higher than the 3.89 FIP. One key issue for Floyd is figuring out why he's lost almost a strikeout per nine innings from his average over the past two seasons. Jackson, as Tigers fans know, is a difficult one. He should be better than the results he gets, but his ERA is worse than his FIP almost every single year since he became a full-time player in 2007. In fact, 2009 in Detroit was the only season that trend didn't occur. (Credit that Tigers defense for making everyone look better I guess.)
So in summation: This rotation may actually be playing pretty close to what it should be.
Meanwhile the bullpen appears to be much the same. It's a pretty decent pen. You've got some of their pitchers like righthander Sergio Santos showing an ERA worse than his FIP. (Of course he also is striking out batters at 12 per nine innings, up a bit from last year's figure of about 10.) Then you've got Jesse Crain having the best season of his career thanks to keeping batters from getting solid contact. But BABIP and strand rates substantially better than his career norms make you think he might take a step back.
So me, I'll just say this is a good bullpen and should remain a fairly decent one after the break.
Overall, the pitching might improve a bit in the second half but I wouldn't look for leaps and bounds.
The White Sox offense might not be good, but thanks to four players it's not a lot worse.
Paul Konerko is good, obviously. But he's having a great season even compared to his pre-2010 norms. Compared to 2010, he's only slightly better. The 35-year-old's average is 37 points higher than his career norms, and his slugging is 62 points higher. ZiPS projections say he's primed for a correction. I'd like to say "He can't keep this up" but he did last year. So, maybe he can. We'll see.
Batting .250 but slugging .502, Carlos Quentin is almost exactly at his career averages. So I don't expect much change to be honest. It's amazing what a great addition he was to their team before the 2008 season.
A key turnaround for the White Sox is 27-year-old Brent Lillibridge. He hit 224 last year with .248 OBP and .378 slugging. Those were improvements over 2009. He cut down his strikeouts, improved his walk rate and has an incredible 16% home run per fl ball rate. That puts him between Quentin and Konerko, and at nearly twice his career average. So of this trio, he's the guy I'd most expect to return to earth.
Alexei Ramirez is the fourth key batter. He's doing about what you'd expect him to do, and actually is line drive rate is a bit lower than normal. I expect no real changes to his game. That goes for A.J. Pierzynski too.
So who might see some improvement in the second half? Gordon Beckham is a bit off expectations. Not greatly so. It wouldn't surprise me if he finished the season with around a .250 average and .375 slugging. ZiPS says he might even do better than that.
Then you've got Alex Rios and Dunn. You might recall Rios ended up a White Sox player when the Blue Jays waived him and Chicago just picked up his contract. At first it looked stupid. Then it looked like it wasn't too bad of an idea after all. Now he is batting poorly again: .213 with .309 slugging. Given that he has a BABIP of .213 and a normal line drive rate, I'd hazard the guess he's been getting unlucky and stands to improve by quite a bit in the second half.
And then we have Dunn. A number of people thought he'd be great with the Tigers. When he went to a left-handed sluggers dream of a home park, the thought of the kind of damage he could do was frightening. And then Dunn required an appendectomy early in the year and ran into the problem of being basically unable to buy a hit off a left-handed pitcher.
Fangraphs has an interesting story about him that was published yesterday titled "We don't know Jack." I generally don't like to quote too much from any story, but I don't want to break Mike Podhorzer's rhythm, so I hope he'll understand when I just grab this entire chunk of his story.
So why has Adam Dunn sucked?
Well to start, his K% is a career worst 43.2%. Okay, well why? I don’t know.
His IFFB% of 16% is above league average and at its worst mark since 2003. Okay, well what’s the reason for this? I don’t know.
He has just 2 hits in 63 at-bats (a hilarious .032 average) vs lefties. Why the sudden massive ineptitude vs lefties? I don’t know.
His power has gone missing, as his ISO and HR/FB ratios are at career worsts. Why has his power gone MIA? I don’t know.
He cannot hit the fastball, with a negative pitch type value for the first time in his career. Fantastic, but why did he suddenly lose his ability to crush fastballs? I don’t know.
We could speculate on explanations until we’re blue in the face, from his appendectomy, to the switch in leagues and learning new pitchers to becoming a full-time DH. But the bottom line is we just don’t know.
So, yeah. I expect Dunn would improve quite a bit in the second half. But he's just been such a totally different player in Chicago than he was in Washington. So I just don't know if he will.
Batting conclusion: I think the White Sox have a little room to improve in the second half. They're not going to suddenly become the Yankees or something. They probably can't match the Tigers either. But it's more likely they'll score runs at a higher rate after the break.
The White Sox are basically the Indians' opposites when it comes to the record to date. They started April in a big hole at 10-18. They're 34-30 (.531) since then. Interestingly, they also have a losing record at home but are .500 on the road.
Chicago actually has 37 out of its 70 remaining games against opponents currently over .500. They also have three games in Toronto against a Blue Jays team whose record is just under .500. The White Sox have10 games against the Twins -- who seem to have their number -- and 12 against the Tigers. They are 2-12 this year against those opponents. Actually, fully 48 of 70 games are in division. Unfortunately for the Sox, they're 8-16 against the Central so far. That should even out a bit, but by how much?
It's neither a schedule that makes for a cakewalk in the second half nor an automatic disqualifier.
This is an interesting club to project. Its record should be better in the second half. But if it takes 88 wins to take the Central Division, Chicago's going to need to go 44-26 (.628) to make it there. (I come up with 88 wins because the Tigers appeared to be an 87-89 win team before the season and I see no reason this year they won't be.) I just don't see Chicago being able to play that well. Even 86 wins means they have to play .600 ball the rest of the year.
And where do they make their improvements at the trade deadline? There are holes, to be certain. But most of those holes are occupied by players with track records and/or contracts that make filling them difficult. You don't jettison Dunn, you hope he improves. The same with Rios. And the rotation already has enough candidates, and the bullpen is already good. Plus the Sox might be tapped out financially.
I think they'll play above .500 in the second half, but they've dug a bit of a hole. I wouldn't be surprised if they go .550 the rest of the year. So I'll peg them at a record of 83-79 for the year. For Chicago to win this thing, Detroit has to fall hard, Cleveland has to play like its expected to, and Minnesota has to stop playing like its hair is on fire every second half.
Some numbers (rankings are AL only):
Record: 44-48, .478 (5 games out of first)
From Baseball Prospectus:
Playoff odds: 16.9%
Expected win % rest of the season: .499
Simulated wins: 81
From CoolStandings Remaining Strength of Schedule: .495 (3rd hardest in division)
From ESPN.com: Current Strength of Schedule: .492 (5th lowest in MLB, lowest in division)
Rotation ERA: 4.04 (8th)
FIP: 3.66 (3rd)
Bullpen ERA: 3.43 (5th)
FIP: 3.36 (3rd)
AVG: .252 (9th)
OBP: .318 (10th)
SLG: . .386 (11th)
wOBA: .311 (11th)
Baserunning: -0.4 (7th)
UZR: fielding: -6.1 (11th)
Defensive Runs Saved: -13 (9th)
Defensive efficiency: .706 (10th)