The other day, I was watching the end of the Buffalo Bills/Tennessee Titans Monday night NFL game. The Bills were trailing 34-31 with about 20 seconds left in the game, and they faced a critical 4th & 1 inside the Titans’ 10-yard line. The Bills’ coaching staff needed to make a vital decision: one option was to kick a field goal, which (given the short distance) would give Buffalo a >90% chance to tie the game, which would head to overtime, where their odds to win the game would be essentially even. Considering the risk of a missed or blocked field goal, we can use rudimentary math to say that kicking a field goal would give Buffalo a ~45% chance to win the game.
The Bills’ other option was to go for it and run a traditional play on 4th & 1. If successful, a win would be likely, as the play itself would either result in a touchdown or a very advantageous 1st & goal. Buffalo would even have enough time to run another play or two after the 4th & 1, so worst case after a conversion, the game-tying field goal would still be an option. However, there is a ~40% chance that the 4th & 1 play itself would not result in a first down, effectively ending the game and sealing a loss. Between this risk and the chances of a conversion that only leads to a field goal and overtime, we can (again, in a very basic way) give going for it on 4th & 1 a ~55% chance at giving Buffalo a win.
For years, NFL coaches would take the “safe” route, kicking the field goal, only to lose the game more often than not. Even today, perhaps a dozen or so coaches would kick the field goal. The Bills did not, and the game’s commentators applauded the decision. The problem, however, was that their quarterback sneak play failed to gain a first down, and Tennessee got the ball back and won the game.
While I watched, as a Bears fan with no rooting interest, I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel as a Bills fan. Sure, the team lost, but the coaching staff made the decision — even if it failed — that gave the team the highest probability of winning the game. This cannot always be said in sports, so if I were a Bills fan, I would actually be a bit encouraged by the loss, because if that same situation arises in the playoffs, I would want the coaching staff to again go for the first down.
This long and White Sox-nonadjacent analogy is my way of saying that, as a fan, losses can be easy to stomach when you feel that the team was put in the best situation to win. Football and baseball are very different, as football coaching staffs’ decision-making has far greater impacts on the outcomes of games, but organizations with philosophies that revolve around openness to all relevant information are much easier to root for, at least for me.
As much as this sentence might come off as facetious, the White Sox actually have made tremendous analytical strides over the last ten or so years. An organization that was once decades behind the league’s most forward-thinking clubs is now perhaps only five years behind. While this is encouraging, even the slightest of innovative gaps can and will be exploited in the playoffs.
I am not going to waste your time giving you statistics about the White Sox and their ground ball problem. By now, we all know of it very well — the White Sox don’t hit the ball in the air, and teams that hit the ball in the air perform better on offense. This is even true in the playoffs, where home run-reliant teams were at a perceived disadvantage as recently as five years ago.
The other problem you will often hear about is the White Sox’ handedness issue. The lineup is predominantly right-handed, and as such, right-handed pitchers have easier times shutting the team’s offense down. In my opinion, however, the White Sox do not actually have a handedness “problem,” but rather, the team’s high ground ball rate exacerbates the relatively homogenous lineup. I don’t see it as a “chicken or the egg” issue — to me, if the team pulled the ball in the air more consistently, right-handed pitchers would have a much harder time working through the lineup.
To quote Brad Pitt’s rendition of Billy Beane in Moneyball, “I don’t care about righty/lefty.” This is an oversimplified but oft-forgotten tidbit from the movie and the analytics revolution as a whole. Yes, playing matchups based on handedness is often smart, but it is not everything. A lineup with “too many” right-handed hitters can work, assuming the hitters are more talented than the available lefty or switch-hitters.
The White Sox have those hitters, and I would hate to see them trade Andrew Vaughn or Eloy Jimenez just for the sake of “lineup balance.” If you get a terrific return, like Ketel Marte, then sure, but I have a hard time seeing that happen. A rough end to the season should not overshadow the fact that the White Sox have a very talented and productive lineup. The production just could be slightly better, to the point where it matches the talent.
As stated, I think the team’s main problem is that its right-handed hitters seldom pull the ball in the air against right-handed pitchers and that all of the balance issues stem from this deficiency. I am not a hitting coach, and I understand that making changes to players’ swings and/or approaches is easier said than done, but I would like to imagine that the White Sox will spend the winter determining how such changes can be achieved rather than trading cornerstone players at their lowest values. This is especially salient when many of the players whose swings/approaches would need tweaking have, at several points in their MLB careers, gone through significant stretches where they lifted the ball enough to hit for consistent power.
The idea of exploring a trade of Vaughn or Jimenez makes sense in theory, but it quickly went from “this is an interesting idea,” to “no, maybe we shouldn’t trade one of the team’s best young hitters for a mediocre outfielder just because he’s left-handed.” Of course, most White Sox fans understand how valuable and talented these two players are, and therefore are not all guilty of the latter. However, I have seen a lot of comments that imply a trade of Vaughn or Jimenez would be acceptable due to the presence of Gavin Sheets.
Gavin Sheets had a remarkable season, and I agree that he is exactly what the White Sox need going forward. My issue is that it is far from a guarantee that he will replicate his production going forward. Sheets hit .250/.324/.506 with 11 home runs, a .830 OPS, and a 125 wRC+ across 179 MLB plate appearances in 2021. That is fantastic production — especially for a rookie — but it’s still 179 plate appearances.
I hate to do this, but in 2017, [rookie left-handed power-hitting prospect, one year younger than Sheets] hit .262/.373/.482 with 9 home runs, a .856 OPS, and a 133 wRC+ across 166 plate appearances — nearly identical production over a nearly identical sample.
That player was Nicky Delmonico, who followed up with two well-below-average years.
No, I do not think Sheets is the next Nicky Delmonico. He has less swing-and-miss, more raw power, and a similarly solid approach at the plate. I am simply bringing up the comparison as a reminder that we should not pencil Sheets in as the designated hitter of the future based on his limited audition in 2021. Pitchers will adjust to his new swing and approach in 2022, and while Sheets will ideally be able to counter-adjust, the White Sox need to prepare for a world where he does not. In other words, Sheets should be commended for his performance in 2021, but he will still need to earn his future plate appearances, and the White Sox should not trade other promising young pieces with the intent to hand Sheets 600 plate appearances.
While I am sure the White Sox will at least listen to offers for Vaughn, Jimenez, or really any young right-handed hitter on the roster, I’ll believe that trade will actually happen when I see it. The team values these players very highly, obviously, and would probably need to receive an extremely tempting offer in order to make a deal.
With this being said, I truly hope the team spends the winter formulating a plan to regularly unlock the power of its right-handed hitters by avoiding the excessive ground balls because I believe it is the root of all of the team’s ancillary offensive issues. As difficult as it may be, I think it’s the team’s best chance to win in 2022, as big free-agency spending or splashy, fair value trades are unlikely. Therefore, I would like to see one more year of this offensive core before any major shake-ups.
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