At the very beginning of the year, many Sox On 35th editors and contributors, including yours truly, discussed our predictions for the upcoming season. After about a quarter of baseball has been played, we updated our predictions. One of the questions asked during these predictions was regarding the team’s “X-Factor”. Five of the six contributors during the updated post discussed the White Sox’s offensive approach or some version of that.
It’s very obvious that the White Sox offense has been struggling to begin the 2022 season. Out of the 30 teams in the league, the Chicago White Sox are 27th in Runs Scored (190), ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A’s, and Detroit Tigers. In terms of wRC+, the Sox are slightly better, they rank 23rd out of 30 at 92, but still not great by any stretch of the imagination.
This is obviously a major drop-off from their 2021 season. Last year, the Pale Hose were 7th in the majors in Runs Scored and 4th in wRC+. So, what gives? Why the drastic drop-off?
Struggling Against Righties
The rebuilt White Sox, since 2020, have been pretty good against lefties, and don’t perform as well against right-handed pitching. Below is a breakdown of the Sox wRC+ against righties and lefties over the past three seasons:
In 2020 and ’21, the White Sox were still, by definition, above average against right handed pitching. They were always better against lefties, but still could hit against righties. In 2022, they’ve well underperformed expectations. If a wRC+ of 100 is average, then a wRC+ of 82 is well below average. To put this number into context: the White Sox are the third-worst in terms of wRC+ against righties this year.
It’s also not helpful when most of the pitching across the league is right-handed. As of the writing of this post, the White Sox have faced 40 different starting pitchers. Of those 37 starters, 33 of them (82.5%) throw right-handed.
McGuire was acquired for his defensive skills, so his offensive struggles aren’t all that unexpected. However, for as much as Zack Collins – who McGuire replaced – struggled last season, his 2021 OPS+ of 86 (99 against RHP) was still significantly better than what McGuire (51 OPS+) brings to the plate. As a result, lineups that have Yasmani Grandal at DH and McGuire behind the plate make the offense worse due to Yaz’s offensive struggles.
Pollock has been better in May (67 wRC+) than he was in March and April (57 wRC+), but he still has an OPS+ of only 68 on the year. Furthermore, for a player who has been known to hit both righties and lefties throughout his career, Pollock has struggled against RHP in 2022. Pollock has a 131 wRC+ against LHP, but just a 46 wRC+ against RHP, which follows the trend that’s unfolded on the South Side.
Pollock’s plate approach displays a concern that isn’t unique to his plate appearances – much like many of the White Sox hitters, he’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone. For Pollock, that’s involved swinging at those pitches at the highest clip of his career (41.8%), and when he does make contact, it’s more likely to be soft contact and less likely to be hard contact. Pollock’s 2022 Soft Hit % (17.3%) is his highest since 2017 and his Hard Hit % (29.6%) is the lowest of his career since 2016.
Lastly, we arrive at Josh Harrison. While Harrison was acquired mainly for his glove, his offense, like almost everybody else on this team, has fallen well below historical expecations. Harrison has a career triple slash line of .271/.316/.398, and a career wRC+ of 95. Harrison’s wRC+ in 2020 and 2021, respectively, were 107 and 103. As of this writing, Harrison is slashing .181/.265/.276, with a wRC+ of 62.
Gavin Sheets is not technically a new addition to this White Sox offense; however, he was expected to play a larger role in 2022 compared to 2021. Given the team’s previous aspirations to acquire a left-handed power bat, after ultimately not acquiring one this offseason, it appears likely that the White Sox shared the fans’ thoughts on the future of Sheets. However – and, the trend is obvious here – Sheets hasn’t found his stride at the plate yet in 2022.
The lefty was pretty darn good last year, particularly against right-handed pitching. Sheets slashed .268/.344/.556, with 11 HRs, good for a wRC+ of 143 against RHP. This season, the 26-year-old is slashing .222/.289/.359, with 4 HRs, good for a wRC+ of 91. Given Sheets’ struggles, it’s no wonder that fans have begun to wonder if an extended opportunity in Charlotte that gives him more consistent playing time would be beneficial in the long run.
Once Eloy Jimenez comes back, the White Sox will have to balance playing time among Jimenez, Andrew Vaughn, Luis Robert, Adam Engel, and Pollock. On the surface, it’s hard to figure out where Gavin Sheets finds consistent playing time in that mix, which is why some time in Charlotte may be most beneficial.
It’s no secret that the struggles of Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal to begin the season are a key driver of some of the overall offensive struggled on the team. As two core players with previous on-field success, to see both of them struggling so mightily is shocking to even Mario Mendoza – for whom the famous “Mendoza Line” is named.
Moncada started the year on the IL, and hasn’t been much in the lineup thanks to nagging injuries and the rise of Jake Burger, so he hasn’t had as many at-bats to contribute to this offense as players like Pollock and Grandal. I wrote the game recap for Sox On 35th on May 14th, Moncada’s fourth game back from the IL. Based on Yo-Yo’s performance that game, he was one of my notable players where I stated, “The White Sox third baseman hit his second home run in his fifth game back with the ball club. Moncada is currently slashing .286/.348/.571 in his short season, but so far, he looks like he’s returning back to his 2019 form.” Since then, Moncada’s performance has been one he’d like to forget: he owns a .094/.094/.113 slash line in his previous 14 games (53 at-bats).
Yaz got off to a slow start in 2021 as well, but even as his bat struggled, he was drawing walks. For Grandal, his plate approach has resulted in more swings, but less hard contact. In 2022, compared to last season, Grandal is swinging at about the same number of pitches outside of the zone (18.5% vs. 16.5%) and more pitches inside of the zone (58.3% vs. 47.5%). In addition, the amount of contact Yaz is making is actually improved from last season (79.5% vs. 77%), yet he’s not as impactful when he makes contact. The amount of soft contact he’s making compared to last year has risen (18.3% vs. 14.8%) and the amount of hard hit balls has decreased drastically (25.0% vs. 42.4%). Further, Grandal isn’t walking as much. It would be unfair to expect him to reach the 23.2% walk rate he posted in 2021, but his current 13.4% walk rate is below average for his career and is the lowest since 2017.
In the first game against the Toronto Blue Jays this past week, the starting lineup did not include Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, AJ Pollock, and Yoán Moncada. That’s five of the nine expected everyday starters not in the lineup. However, have injuries played the same role in the 2022 White Sox season as they did in 2021?
Not only did the 2021 White Sox see their fair share of injuries, but the White Sox, on paper, have better depth this year. For example, the outfield in the Toronto game still consisted of Vaughn, Engel, and Sheets. While that may not be the ideal defensive configuration, the offensive output from those three (especially Vaughn) should still be solid. Yaz was still in the lineup at DH, the Sox starting second baseman (Josh Harrison) was playing, and while Danny Mendick starting (he started for TA at SS) added another backup, he still had two hits in the game. So, while injuries are absolutely still a factor, it doesn’t appear they have the same magnitude as the level of injuries from 2021. If players were performing at expected levels based upon the back of their baseball card (to quote Tony La Russa), then the injuries wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance.
Where I do think injuries have played a slight role are where players have nagging injuries to keep them off of the field, but they’re not so severe that the White Sox feel that they should go on the 10-day IL. Take the May 31st Toronto game for example. Robert, Moncada, and Pollock were all on the bench, yet really only available in an emergency situation. In these situations, we are left to wonder if there were little aspects of each of these players’ strengths that could have made a difference in a game the Sox only lost by one run.
Ultimately, injuries may be one of the factors contributing to the Pale Hose’s inability to score runs, but as compared to 2021, the White Sox should theoretically be much better insulated against the impact of injuries.
Overall Team Plate Approach
In 2003, a book entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game was published. In 2011, a movie entitled Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill was released. Both projects emphasized the strong correlation between walks/getting on base and winning baseball games.
As I previously mentioned, the Chicago White Sox are a bottom-five team in terms of runs scored. Given what Moneyball has taught us, it’s likely no surprise to readers that the team is last in terms of walk rate (6.2%). Some other concerning trends include:
- Fourth-lowest On Base Percentage in the league
- Second-highest, behind only the Detroit Tigers, percentage of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone
- Per Baseball Savant, White Sox batters have seen the third-fewest number of pitches and are bottom 10 in terms of the percentage of first-pitch swings – which alludes to a swing-first offensive approach
When the White Sox do make contact, they still have the same tendency to put on the ground as they did in 2021. They’re currently fourth in the league in GB%, which hasn’t improved that much over 2021 (third-highest GB%). In addition, the team’s approach has led them to not hit the ball as hard in 2022. In 2021, the team was top 10 in Hard-Hit Percentage. In 2022, the team has the 6th-lowest Hard-Hit Percentage.
What does all of this mean? It means that the White Sox have been overly aggressive at the plate. They too often swing at the first pitch, they’re swinging at too many pitches outside of the strike zone, and as a result, see fewer pitches and shorten the length of at-bats. This allows dominant starting pitchers to remain in games longer and prevents the White Sox from being able to mount scoring opportunities. When the White Sox do make contact, they’re more likely to hit ground balls and are less likely to make hard contact. All of this in turn is helping to contribute to the White Sox’ inability to score runs.
At its core, an offense in baseball is simple. For the most part, guys get on base, then their teammates behind them hit them in. That’s why walks are so important – it’s a free pass to get on base to allow a teammate to bring you in to score. Obviously, the White Sox having a low walk rate and a low on-base percentage means fewer RBI chances overall; to compound matters, the White Sox have also struggled with RISP.
Overall, the Sox have been below average when they have men in scoring position. Their sOPS+ (Situational OPS+) on the year is 83. To explain further, this means that the White Sox have an OPS+ of 83 with RISP this season. Breaking it down further doesn’t reveal many positives:
- When the White Sox have the bases loaded, their team sOPS+ is -11
- When the White Sox have a runner on third and no outs in the innings, their sOPS+ is -46
- When the White Sox have a runner at second and third and no outs, their sOPS+ is 12
On a positive note, the White Sox do succeed with runners on second and third and one out in the inning. The Sox’s sOPS+ rises to 208. The worst situation for the Chicago White Sox in 2022 has been with runners at the corners and no outs. In this situation, the Sox have a sOPS+ of -100.
Some of these scenarios are the result of extremely small sample sizes. In the few instances, the situation has presented itself, the Sox haven’t gotten the job done, which makes these sOPS+ values look worse than they are. But as the team struggled to score runs, it’s no surprise that the team has seen less-than-ideal results in these situations.
Given the above trends, it’s not all that surprising that the Chicago White Sox rank 25th in AB/RBI. The Sox are averaging an RBI per every 9.7 at-bats. Compare this to the Cleveland Guardians, who have the 10th best AB/RBI and are averaging an RBI every 7.8 at-bats.
On some level, you can’t control when the hits come. A player can have a 3-for-4 day, but get their three hits when the bases are empty, yet strike out when the bases are loaded. That’s just baseball. But the 2022 White Sox have consistently not capitalized with runners on base and in scoring position in a way many other teams have. I think we can all agree that, given the talent in the lineup, the White Sox should not be on par on a statistical basis with rebuilding teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals.
Ending on a Positive
I don’t want to end on a down note. Not everybody in the lineup is underperforming. Offensively, Tim Anderson is not only playing like an All-Star but playing like an MVP Candidate. While he’s on the IL as of the release of this post, his bat in 2022 has still helped the Sox stick around .500 through the struggles. And, while TA is on the IL, Andrew Vaughn has become the Sox best offensive weapon. I recently wrote about how well Andrew Vaughn has done this year at the plate and improved from his rookie season.
Next, there are players like Adam Engel and Jake Burger – guys who have gotten off to slow starts but are now starting to heat up. Not only has Jake Burger directly contributed to the Sox’s last four wins…
… but he keeps getting better offensively. After posting a wRC+ of 84 in March and April, he raised it to 104 in May and it sits at 216 for the first few days of June. Adam Engel is in a similar boat. After a difficult March and April where he earned a wRC+ of 58, he performed much better in May as shown by his wRC+ of 113.
Jose Abreu didn’t get off to a slow start per se (wRC+ of 95 in April and May) but still has gotten better. He leads the team in home runs (7) and has a more than respectable wRC+ of 128. His triple-slash line of .258/.357/.426 looks really good considering his age and overall decreased offensive output around baseball.
Lastly, there’s Luis Robert. While he may not have reached his MVP potential just yet, he’s still responsible for many of the Sox runs scored and wins in 2022. He’s been carrying the team so much that he was forced to go on the IL because his back hurt. (Or COVID symptoms, whatever). Robert has a wRC+ of 124 on the year and has helped the Sox offense through some dark times.
In breaking down the White Sox’s struggling offense, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the struggles and just assume the team will be unable to work out of its own rut. While there are some trends that are more difficult to fix than others, starting with a more refined plate approach (as previously alluded to by Frank Menechino) is a great place to start. In many ways, the White Sox did do that this weekend in Tampa Bay at times, and with the improved at-bats came much better results as well. In order to right the ship, the White Sox will have to make these improved at-bats the norm, and with it, see more production from veterans like Moncada, Grandal, and Pollock.
All is not lost for the White Sox, but if they are to hit the lofty ceiling that exists with this talented roster, the breakout from their slumps will have to come soon. The talent is there; the results will hopefully follow soon.
Featured Photo: © Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Follow us on social media @SoxOn35th for more!