The Chicago White Sox defied the pundits and turned in a surprising campaign that saw them fall just short of a division title. This installment of our season review series comes as a guest post via Nick Schaefer, a staff writer at Southside Showdown.
Author: Nick Schaefer
In 2011 the White Sox had decided to go “All In” only to stagger to a 79-win season on the backs of hugely disappointing seasons from Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, and Jake Peavy. It would prove to be Ozzie Guillen’s last year managing the White Sox, as Kenny Williams would trade his manager (yes, you can do that) for a pair of minor leaguers. Williams would then spend an off-season in a strange limbo – not quite rebuilding, but trying to trim down payroll. This meant dealing their closer Sergio Santos and their starting right fielder Carlos Quentin away for prospects, watching longtime staff ace Mark Buehrle re-join Ozzie in Miami as a free agent, and also signing John Danks to a 5-year extension. The White Sox would enter 2012 with a rookie manager, and a roster riddled with question marks.
Predictions ran the gamut for this odd squad, but few were optimistic with Sports Illustrated predicting 95 losses and a last place finish. Instead, Chicago would win 85 games and improve from a -52 run differential in ’11 to a +72 mark in ’12. Most White Sox fans would have been pleasantly surprised if you had told them they would be rooting for an 85-win team in 2012 – and yet the way the White Sox did it still managed to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Here’s how it happened:
Robin Ventura entered the season having zero experience as a manager at any level of professional baseball, but was heralded as having a stoic, calm demeanor to which players would gravitate. In a way the results were about what you’d expect.
After Ozzie Guillen, Ventura seemed to remove a lot of anxiety that surrounded the team and got rid of the feuding between the clubhouse and the front office that had clouded the end of Ozzie’s tenure with the White Sox. Ventura conducted himself professionally throughout the year and maintained smooth relationships with the players, front office, and media alike. That’s a huge portion of the job and confirms what was said about his personality.
Ventura’s downside is that he is a poor tactical manager. Ventura had a tendency to bunt in either bad situations or with the wrong personnel. His hook was often too slow, leaving pitchers – particularly Jake Peavy – in games for far too long. Ventura also made very questionable moves with his bullpen, treating tie games and one-run deficits as mop up situations. There were weeks at a time where his best relievers would be used in the lowest leverage situations, and his worst relievers in crucial innings. An example of some of this odd management is that Matt Thornton was not used once in a huge series in September against Detroit, perplexingly turning to guys like Septimo and Omogrosso in close games instead.
The list goes on. However, he did show signs of improvement up until the expanded rosters in September, and the fact is that you can teach tactical management – you cannot teach personality. Ventura certainly has the temperament to be a good major league manager, and if the players like playing for him that’s already half the battle.
Adam Dunn and Alex Rios were ghastly in 2011, posting .159/.292/.277 and .227/.265/.348 lines respectively. Jake Peavy hadn’t thrown more than 112 innings since 2008, and despite good peripherals had managed ERAs in the high fours for two years running.
All three of them bounced back as much as could be realistically hoped, as would have to happen in order for this team to compete. Dunn would hit 41 home runs and lead the AL in walks and strikeouts – finishing only one short of Mark Reynolds’ all time record for single season Ks – in producing an odd, but helpful .204/.333/.468 line. Rios may have had the best year of his career, hitting .304/.334/.516 with 25 home runs and 23 bases stolen efficiently.
Jake Peavy’s misfortune (and some poor management as mentioned above) meant that he did not have a pretty win-loss record. That masked the fact that he pitched like the front end starting pitcher Kenny Williams thought he was getting when the White Sox acquired him in the first place. Peavy threw 219 innings with a 3.37 ERA and peripherals to match.
The most logical culprit for their renaissance would be improved health. Last year Adam Dunn had an appendectomy early in the season, rushed back after only a day or two, and it was clear that he could never get his swing right afterward. Rios apparently struggled with an arthritic big toe and hideous mechanics (perhaps as a result?) throughout 2011, and Jake Peavy finally had enough time to recover from surgery to repair a lat muscle that literally detached from his body.
They’re all on the wrong side of 30, Peavy may not return to the team next year, and Dunn and Rios each have big holes in their game even when in perfect health, but it makes a big difference to get even average production instead of what they did in 2011.
Chris Sale blitzed through the minor leagues and was excellent out of the bullpen in 2010 and 2011 at the major league level. Having thrown 71 innings last year the White Sox made the decision to move him back to the starting pitching role for which he was drafted.
There were some hiccups – in early May Sale mentioned that his elbow kind of hurt, and so the White Sox went into full-blown panic mode and announced that he would be moved to the bullpen for the rest of the season. Sale insisted on a meeting with Kenny Williams and expressed how badly he wanted to remain a starter. Fortunately for White Sox fans, Williams listened. The team took the approach of looking for extra rest for the lanky southpaw whenever they got the chance – pushing him back a day here, skipping a start there – to keep his velocity up and to stave off injury. While Sale didn’t have Tommy John surgery, it was still an interesting contrast in approach to the Nationals’ handling of Stephen Strasburg.
Sale was one of the best pitchers in the majors this year, pitching 192 innings of 3.05 ERA ball, and striking out 3.76 batters for every one he walked.
Kevin Youkilis was essentially acquired for free – the Red Sox picked up virtually all of his salary, and the White Sox gave up what can be generously described as “spare parts.” Boston would quickly release Lillibridge, and Zach Stewart’s appearances for the Red Sox were gruesome.
Youkilis gave the White Sox a tremendous boost, posting a .236/.346/.425 line with the White Sox. Not only was this a gigantic improvement on what they had been running out there previously – the two-headed monster of Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson who had hit .177/.225/.195 and .170/.247/.284 respectively prior to the trade– but Youkilis was specifically valuable to a White Sox lineup that generally did not take walks, force pitchers to throw a lot of pitches, or hit lefties well.
After his acquisition on June 24th, the White Sox would win 9 out of 12 games, even scoring 12, 14, and 19 runs in individual wins against the Twins, Yankees, and Rangers respectively.
The White Sox finally pulled the plug on the Juan Pierre Experiment. Putting Alejandro De Aza in center field meant moving Rios into right, where the latter is much more comfortable. De Aza also managed a solid .281/.349/.410 line out of the leadoff spot while seeing a good number of pitches and playing solid defense in center. He gets caught stealing more than you’d like, and has some durability concerns, but he represents something this team has struggled desperately to find in the past few years: a solid major league player who can get on base, field his position, and doesn’t cost a fortune.
Sometimes when you put together a roster as inefficiently as the White Sox have, you have to rely on cheap options for your bullpen – and who’s cheaper than rookies? The departure of Sergio Santos and the moving of Sale from the bullpen to the rotation meant that there were gaps that needed to be filled internally. Injuries to John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Phil Humber created even more openings for arms.
The White Sox tabbed rookies Hector Santiago, Nate Jones, Addison Reed, Jose Quintana, Dylan Axelrod, Brian Omogrosso, Leyson Septimo, Donnie Veal, and others to carry a lot of innings for the team this year to varying degrees of success. There were certainly games that the White Sox lost this year because of poor performance from these rookies, but they were an invaluable resource as fallback plans in innumerable situations throughout the year, and they definitely did a lot more good than harm.
Individual Game Highlights
This year was packed with fun games. Phil Humber’s perfect game, one dominant Chris Sale start after another – including a 15K gem against the Rays – Tyler Flowers’ rain-shortened walk off home run, Jordan Danks’ walk off against Oakland, and some very satisfying win streaks.
September’s collapse was painful. On September 17th the White Sox beat the Tigers in a make-up game to go up 3 in the division with 16 games to play. They would then go 5-11, at one point losing 10 out of 12, and wouldn’t even stay mathematically alive for the last day of the season. The offense was the most obvious culprit, as minor injuries to key hitters like Konerko, Youkilis and de Aza meant that over the final 13 games before elimination they would only score 34 runs (2.6 per game for those of you who don’t care to do the division).
There are lots of question marks coming into this offseason – Assistant GM Rick Hahn has been promoted into the General Manager seat, and it is hard to know what his plan will be. The White Sox possess options on Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Brett Myers, and Kevin Youkilis, and A.J. Pierzynski is becoming a free agent. They still occupy an odd middle ground between being a weak playoff competitor in a bad division and not really wanting to commit to a rebuild.
However, this season had something that last year didn’t: Fun. After a slow start the White Sox won games, were in first place for most of the season, and had their share of exciting individual performances and games.
In the end, there wasn’t quite enough luck or on base percentage, but at least the games were worth watching.
Nick Schaefer is a staff writer for South Side Showdown. You can find him on Twitter at @n_schaef. Other than studying and discussing baseball, Nick occupies himself as a third year law student in Manhattan and by performing stand up comedy.