Since 1995, the first season played with a wild card series, six out of 242 playoff teams have had a negative run differential. The lowest mark sits at -42. Since 2012, the first season with a wild card play-in game, three out of 106 playoff teams have had a negative run differential, but all of those teams belonged to the shortened, expanded-postseason 2020 campaign. The White Sox currently sport a -52 run differential 53 games into the season. Ouch.
Many view this statistic and believe the White Sox are doomed. Negative regression seems bound to come, and the South Siders’ record will slowly fall to where it belongs—well under .500. However, I’ve also seen many Sox fans who don’t appear worried about run differential or the team’s record and are confident Chicago will turn things around.
So which is it? Does the run differential spell doom, or should it be totally ignored? In my opinion, the answer lies somewhere in between.
I’m an optimistic person, so we’ll save the good news for last. But unfortunately there is a lot of bad to dive into first. Here is where things stood five days ago, and they haven’t changed much since then:
As mentioned above, the historical precedent tells a very compelling story. The White Sox have no shot at making the playoffs if their run differential continues to trend downward, as they are already 15 runs below the historical lower bound for playoff teams. A decreasing number moves them from “anomaly” territory to “impossible” territory. In addition, they probably also stand no chance if they hover around -50 where they are now. Even with the extra playoff spot, not even the most hopeful fan could expect their team to make their playoffs as the record-breaking anomaly.
Furthermore, Chicago has currently played the 16th-hardest schedule in all of baseball. So not only are they struggling to be competitive, but they can’t use a tough schedule as an excuse. Their log includes 4-run losses to the Cubs, Royals, and Mariners, as well as a 6-run defeat to the Royals and an 8-run loss to the Guardians. While every team has the occasional ugly game to a bad team, five losses in such fashion at this point in the season is worrisome.
Looking at expected stats, the White Sox can expect some positive regression on the hitting side. Their team .292 wOBA is over 30 points lower than their xwOBA, meaning they’ve been very unlucky as a whole offensively. However, that .325 xwOBA is still four points lower than league average, so even if they start hitting as they deserve, their offense would merely be average. Moreover, the Sox’s pitching xwOBA is 14 points greater than pitching wOBA, so the pitchers appear to be getting a little bit lucky. That xwOBA is again a few points worse than league average, so the pitching is essentially average as well.
Of course, “average” seems like a huge improvement over whatever judgment a -52 run differential dictates. But even if Chicago plays perfectly average ball from now on, it won’t be enough to make the playoffs, barring something miraculous. Outside certain events of that special 2005 season, this franchise has traditionally ran short on miracles.
A fully healthy roster would have mitigated much of the damage spelled out above, admittedly. But there is little reason to simply assume the White Sox will stay healthy moving forward. Further injuries will hinder much of the positive trends needed for this team to reverse course.
As crazy as it might seem after reading the above section, I do think the good outweighs the bad.
Let’s start by identifying the main culprits of the White Sox’s run differential. Look no further than Dallas Keuchel and Vince Velasquez. These two pitchers have started a combined 15 games for the South Siders this year. The team has managed a 7-8 record in these starts, but the run differential is an ugly -33 runs in these contests. Without these two starting games moving forward, the rotation will be miles better.
More specifically, let’s analyze the team’s performance in games started by the rotation moving forward (Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, Lance Lynn, Johnny Cueto). This subset of games has resulted in a 18-15 record and a -14 run differential. That run differential is not very encouraging at face value. However, if you remove Dylan Cease‘s two blowup starts to the Yankees and Red Sox, the number moves to +7.
Now, the Yankees are the best offense in baseball, and the Red Sox entered that 16-3 game as the hottest offense in baseball. In addition, Cease has been wonderful outside of those two outings. All of that considered, I think the -14 number is pretty misleading. It’s even more misleading when adding in the fact that the Sox offense has generally given better run support to Keuchel/Velasquez than the core rotation pitchers.
Injuries have bogged down offensive performance too. The absences of Eloy Jimenez, Andrew Vaughn, Tim Anderson, and Yoan Moncada have meant significantly more playing time for Leury Garcia, Josh Harrison, and Gavin Sheets, who are sporting wRC+s of 29, 62, and 77, respectively. Obviously, Moncada has struggled in his 19 games back, but his career stats indicate that he will heat up at any moment.
Consider the lineup in a couple weeks if rehabs go well and smart decisions are made. Jake Burger and TA7 can man the middle infield, eliminating any Harrison and Garcia plate appearances. A.J. Pollock, Vaughn, and Jimenez can span LF, RF, and DH in some form, removing Sheets from the equation. The lineup will still struggle to produce runs if Moncada, Grandal, Pollock, and Jimenez hit like they have to date this season, but that amount of regression across the board is simply unsustainable.
Recent events should give the South Siders confidence as well. Since the beginning of May, they have played 17 games against teams well above .500, seven games against teams right at .500, and nine games against teams well below .500. They are 18-15 in these contests. That’s a respectable record amidst a tough stretch of opposition.
Finally, the schedule offers major hope to Chicago. Thus far, the Minnesota Twins have faced the weakest schedule in all of baseball, and every other AL Central team’s SOS (strength of schedule) is easier than the White Sox SOS too. In the second half of the season, the Twins will play a significantly harder schedule than the Sox, and the Guardians will have it rougher as well. Barring major injuries, the White Sox would be in great shape if they can enter the All-Star Break within 5 games of Minnesota.
All in all, it’s clear that the White Sox’ run differential is misleading and likely to improve over the rest of the season. As things currently stand, the White Sox are in good position to sneak into the playoffs.
However, the run differential can’t be totally ignored, as it still says a lot about the team’s ceiling. Even if we give the Sox the benefit of the doubt on injuries, positive regression, and incoming schedule, the fact remains that World Series teams weather their issues much better than the 2022 White Sox have so far. As constructed, the current roster needs some internal improvements in order to make a deep playoff run.
So yes, better days are ahead for our beloved boys in black and white. But changes in the roster and internal approach will be the only way the White Sox head home in 2022 happier than they did in 2021.
Featured Photo: © Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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