I write this post out of anger and frustration. Generally speaking, this is not a wise decision. However, I am hoping this will satiate my exasperation. I feel like this needs to be said. The Chicago White Sox will not win a World Series unless they embrace the modern way baseball is now played.
Seeing how the 2021 MLB playoffs shook out, I find it hard to believe the Sox made an early exit based on talent alone. Drawing the Houston Astros in the first round was certainly a bad beat, but there is no reason the Sox should have embarrassed themselves the way they did either.
I saw arguments that the White Sox lacked the talent to defeat the Houston Astros and that’s why they lost. However, looking at the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, that argument does not hold water. The reason the Sox lost in shameful fashion is that they refuse to embrace little things like shifting and pulling the ball. The 2021 Houston Astros were most certainly very talented, but they also embrace modern baseball. The Red Sox were able to go toe-to-toe with them and the Atlanta Braves were able to defeat them, despite both arguably having a less talented lineup, because they also understand how the modern game is played.
Ball in the Air!
In 2021, the Chicago White Sox were one of the worst teams in the league in terms of putting the ball on the ground. Out of the top 10 teams that loved to hit grounders, the Pale Hose were the only team that went dancing in October.
Further, teams that tended to avoid hitting grounders did very well. Six out of the top seven “worst” teams in terms of GB% made the playoffs, and the seventh, the Toronto Blue Jays, still had a fearful offense.
Additionally, teams that hit fly balls ended up doing very well. Out of the top 10 teams that put the ball in the air, 6 made the playoffs. The 11th and 12th place teams, the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, respectively, also made the playoffs.
A large reason for the Sox’s seemingly pathological necessity to hit ground balls stems from their inability to pull the ball on fly balls hit. My colleague Nik Guar wrote an excellent in-depth article for Sox On 35th all about this, but for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd:
Personally, I find it difficult to blame anyone other than Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino for this. Earlier this year, Menechino admitted to “F**k the home run. Let’s hit .300”. Technically, this was in reference to Andrew Vaughn’s approach at the plate, but it’s hard not to see this philosophy play out on the field for the team as a whole. Additionally, it’s a bad philosophy to teach any young baseball player. There is a strong correlation between a team hitting home runs and winning ball games.
And the 2021 Chicago White Sox did very well when they hit home runs and scored runs.
Further, there’s evidence to suggest that the reason for the Sox high GB% is in large part due to Menechino:
In a shortened series like the playoffs provide, random events can occur. I do think it’s possible for teams to “flip a switch.” However, that’s not what happened to the 2021 Chicago White Sox. The Sox didn’t get an extra-base hit until Game 3. The Sox actually outhit the Astros by one in the series (41-40) but were outscored 31-18. The Pale Hose’s propensity to hit ground balls bled into the playoffs and contributed to their downfall.
The basic fundamental of playing baseball is to score more runs than your opponent, and that’s harder to do when you’re not frequently scoring runs yourself. By consistently hitting ground balls and not hitting home runs, the Sox are giving themselves an unnecessary handicap. Playing baseball is hard, and it’s even harder with one hand tied behind your back. Part of this handicap is derived from the fundamentals of their hitting coach, Frank Menechino.
Despite your personal opinion on The Shift, and the curmudgeon MLB announcers sure gave their fair share of it during the playoffs, shifting works. When you’re on defense, part of your goal is to turn balls in play into outs. If a player has a strong tendency to routinely put a ball in a particular spot, make sure your defense is in that spot. Put yourself in the best position to create outs.
Since July 1, 2021, the top three teams that shifted the most were, in order, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves, and the Houston Astros. The Houston Astros have shifted more than any other team since 2015 when Statcast started keeping a record of this. The Braves quickly realized the importance of shifting earlier this year, and they just won the World Series.
On the other hand, the 2021 Chicago White Sox rarely shifted. Per Statcast, they ranked 28th out of 30 teams. We witnessed firsthand the Sox getting burned against the Astros by their failure to shift when necessary.
Shifting Against the Astros
The White Sox starters certainly did not help themselves in the playoffs, but I still believe that the team’s failure to shift contributed to their early post-season exit. The Astros scored at least 6 runs against the White Sox in all four playoffs games and scored double-digits runs thrice. Meanwhile, here’s how many runs the Astros scored against the Red Sox in the ALCS: 5, 5, 3, 9, 9, 5. The Red Sox managed to hold the Astros to under 6 runs four times, and in Game 4, the score was tied 2-2 heading into the 9th and arguably there was some bad umpiring which contributed to the Astros scoring 7 runs in the 9th inning.
Moreover, here’s how many runs the Astros scored against the Braves in the World Series: 2, 7, 0, 2, 9, 0. The Braves shut out the Astros twice and held them to 2 runs twice. Even with a slightly injured Carlos Rodón, the Red Sox and Braves did not have significantly better pitchers than the White Sox. However, the advantage that the Red Sox and Braves had over the White Sox was their consistent and successful ability to shift.
There are other little details that I think the White Sox could do better if they embraced analytics more and played the game the winners are playing it. The Dodgers found success in the playoffs using Openers and not being stringent on when to use their closer.
Further, the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Braves all had unconventional lead-off hitters. Kyle Schwarber usually led off for the Red Sox. He would often bat 3rd or lower for the Washington Nationals. Jorge Soler would often bat first or second for the Braves. He hit in the heart of the order for the Royals. Both Schwarber and Soler are sluggers who led off games for teams that went to the Championship Series, but in the heart of the order for losing teams. Mookie Betts is one of the best players in baseball and he leads off for the Dodgers who at least made it to the NLCS.
In the playoffs, all teams are good and talented. Having the best players is not always enough. When your opponent also has excellent players, you need to distinguish yourself in order to succeed. No matter how talented this core is for the White Sox, they will never win a World Series thanks to managerial limitations. The organization needs to maximize the talent of their players and right now are seemingly unwilling to do so.
If you don’t have a team that embraces the way modern baseball is played, then you will be defeated by the teams that do. The 2021 Red Sox and Braves were not more talented than the White Sox, yet they each managed to find success in the playoffs in a way the Pale Hose could not. Unless drastic managerial choices are made, the Sox are always going to be sitting at home at the end of October.
I am frustrated because I want to see the White Sox win another World Series. They have the talent to do so. However, that talent is getting wasted because the organization refuses to do so many little things. Almost all of the changes brought up above are changes that can be implemented for this White Sox team right now. The fact that these changes won’t be embraced is infuriating.
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