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Why Were The 2015 White Sox So Bad?

by Adam Kaplan

I would love nothing more than to talk about the 2022 White Sox. However, as the owner’s lock out of the players has dragged on so long that games have officially been cancelled, I will continue my trend of writing posts in which I look back on past teams.

For some reason, I still remember a question posed to me on one of my AP History tests when I was in high school: Was the the Articles of Confederation a failure? We were presented with a handful of documents, and needed to use those documents to justify our answer. On it’s own, the Articles were an unmitigated disaster. However, the argument that they were a success was because it led to the Constitution (plus the Bill of Rights) America now uses today. That’s how I feel about the 2015 White Sox.

On their own, the 2015 White Sox were an unmitigated disaster. After Rick Hahn went on a decently expensive spending spree in the off season prior, the 2015 White Sox won 76 games- a whopping 3 more games than the 2014 White Sox. In both seasons, the Pale Hose finished 4th in the AL Central. However, the failure of the 2015 White Sox is the reason the team now is so good. The combination of spending in free agency and still failing, plus seeing our North Side rivals find success with tanking (I don’t know if this truly had anything to do with it, but it probably didn’t hurt), Rick Hahn was able to convince owner Jerry Reinsdorf that the best way to move forward was to have a fire sale, tank, and build up a core of young players to have success years down the line. The failure of the 2015 White Sox led to the success of that is this current White Sox team.

But why did the 2015 White Sox fail? The moves Rick Hahn made coming into the 2015 season seemed so smart and good. At the time, the now defunct Grantland wrote a glowing piece about how Rick Hahn was able to turn around the franchise so quickly. So what happened? Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, let’s explore.

2014 Offseason Moves

Here are some of the major moves made by Rick Hahn to seemingly make the 2015 Sox a contender:

  • Acquired Cuban slugger José Abreu before the 2014 season
  • Traded (basically) SP Hector Santiago for OF Adam Eaton before the 2014 season
  • Signed 1B Adam LaRoche to a 2 year/$25MM contract before the 2015 season
  • Signed OF Melky Cabrera to a 3 year/$42MM contract before the 2015 season
  • Signed CL David Robertson to a 4 year/$46MM contract before the 2015 season
  • Signed RP Zach Duke to a 3 year/$15MM contract before 2015 season
  • Traded (basically) INF Marcus Semien and SP Chris Bassitt for SP Jeff Samardzija before the 2015 season

In theory, the White Sox bolstered every aspect of their team. They added a third pitcher to pair with budding Aces Chris Sale and José Quintana, the back end of their bullpen was now secured, and they added both power and speed to their line up.

So, again I ask, what happened?

That Awful Jeff Samardzija Trade

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the Elephant in the Room up top. Earlier this offseason, I wrote a piece ranking every trade Rick Hahn has ever made as White Sox GM. You can read the article in full here. Unsurprisingly, the Samardzija trade was very low on the list, and you can make the argument I should have had it even lower.

Though at the time the trade was made, it looked pretty good. Since becoming a starter in 2012 (Samardzija started off his career as a reliever), the former Notre Dame wide out was very good. He posted an ERA+ above 100 in two of his three seasons, and was coming off of his best season to date in 2014. Further, as mentioned earlier, Samardzija only needed to be solid as the Sox had a lethal top of the rotation with Sale and Quintana.

As we all know now, Samardzija wasn’t even “solid”. He was downright bad. While he did manage to pitch over 200 innings, he did so with an ERA+ of 79 thanks to an actual ERA of 4.96 and a FIP of 5.44. He also saw a drastic downswing in his K/9 from 8.28 in 2014 to 6.86 in 2015. Basically, no matter what statistic you look at, Jeff Samardzija was atrocious in 2015.

But he was not the reason alone the 2015 White Sox as a whole were bad. He certainly didn’t help, but if he had pitched like we all expected him to, the Pale Hose would have probably only won 3-4 more games, at best. It would be one thing if the Sox almost made the playoffs or almost won the division but came a few games short. That you could possibly blame on Jeff Samardzija. But you can’t put the entire downer of a season just on his shoulders.

Most 2015 Offseason Acquisitions Didn’t Pan Out

Jeff Samardzija was emblematic of a larger trend of the White Sox “winning the offseason” but failing to win regular season games. The White Sox brought in Adam LaRoche to be a centerpiece in the middle of their line up, and he turned out to be a complete dud by slashing .207/.293/.340 with only 12 home runs, good for a wRC+ of 77. It maybe wasn’t the best idea to trust an over 30 slugger to still maintain his same level of productivity (a trend we still see with the Sox, one as recently as 2020 with Edwin Encarnacion), but there’s no reason LaRoche should have fallen as far off of the cliff as he did either.

Melky Cabrera, my personal favorite offseason acquisition at the time, had one of his worst single seasons of his career by slashing .273/.314/.394, good for a wRC+ of 94 in 2015. I’m still not sure the reason the reason for Melky’s down season. In 2016, he returned back to form by slashing .296/.345/.455, good for a wRC+ of 116. But there was a lot of bad karma in 2015, and Melky seemed to have gotten sucked into it.

Zach Duke was another veteran player who had one of his worst seasons of his career for the Sox in 2015. Duke’s problem was that he started walking everybody in sight. His BB/9 was slowly rising to the mid 2.00’s before the White Sox acquired him, but it spiked to 4.75 in 2015, leaving him with a negative fWAR on the year of -0.5.

David Robertson ended up having a pretty good year, but when you’re going on a free agency spending spree, you can’t only hit one out of four times and expect to succeed

Rotten Core

I’m being hyperbolic when I say the Sox’s core that they added onto with free agency and trade acquisitions was “rotten”, but it wasn’t very good to begin with either, mainly the line up. José Abreu and Adam Eaton lived up their reputation, but they alone could not carry the offense.

Alexei Ramírez was the team’s shortstop at the time, and while he was worth positive fWAR, it was largely in part due to his defense. Though even still, 2015 saw Ramírez’s wRC+ drop from the high 90’s earlier in his career (it was 100 in 2014) all the way down to 74 in 2015. Ramírez would soon retire after the 2016 season.

Along with Ramírez were players like Avisaíl García and Tyler Flowers. García would later break out, but not until 2017, and to rely on Tyler Flowers to be anything besides a body to squat in front the umpire is just negligence.

The rotation ended up being the strength of the 2015 Pale Hose. Chris Sale and José Quintana did their job effectively, and I still contend Sale should have won the AL Cy Young this year. Youngster Carlos Rodón also had a solid season, posting an ERA+ of 104 in 139.1 innings pitched. The arms of these three men are probably the reason the Sox didn’t finish dead last in the division, but they alone can only do so much.

Team Still Had Holes

I’ve quoted this line from the aforementioned Grantland article in other blog posts of mine, so forgive me if you’ve heard this before. The article ends by stating:

Despite the biggest and best offseason haul in the 114-year history of the franchise, the roster still has holes, especially at second base where Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez, Emilio Bonifacio, and Gordon Beckham offer numerous less-than-ideal possibilities.

Outside of the core players Rick Hahn had assembled for the 2015 White Sox, he still had unknowns. The Grantland article specifically called out second base, but third base was an issue as well. So even with all of the off season spending, the White Sox still didn’t have a great plan for half of their infield. And to no one’s surprise, second base and third base remained black holes for the Sox throughout the season.

Conor Gillaspie started the year as the Pale Hose’s third baseman, and he had an OPS+ of 78 before being shipped off to the Angels at the trade deadline. Tyler Saladino ended up receiving the most at-bats at third on the year, and his OPS+ was a stellar 68. Not to be outdone, Yolmer Sanchez, who received the majority of the team’s at-bats at second, ended the 2015 season with an OPS+ of 66.

Almost everyone is to blame for why the 2015 White Sox were an awful team. I’m almost always of the mindset that players are responsible for their own actions on the field, and outside of a handful of players like José Abreu and Chris Sale, hardly anyone played well. Both veterans and young players alike failed to perform in 2015.

However, management isn’t off of the hook either. Robin Ventura was an awful hire from the get-go and he and his coaching staff failed so many players. Further, the front office didn’t do Ventura any favors, and hiring him knowing he was unqualified and setting him up to fail also didn’t help. Even if most, if not all, of Rick Hahn’s off season acquisitions hit, the Sox would at best be just an above average team. Maybe they would have been good enough to compete for the Wild Card spot, but it also seems arrogant to believe the Sox were World Series contenders with as many holes as the team still had on Opening Day in 2015.

Though, all of that being said, the failed 2015 experiment did lead to the core the White Sox currently have as of this writing. After years and decades of trying to cheaply spend and swiftly trade (admittedly it did work once in 2005, and that was awesome), the Sox made the smart move and tanked. I understand MLB players aren’t a fan of this approach (that is a sticking point during the current lock out negotiations), but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t work. The Chicago Cubs recently won a World Series using this approach and the White Sox have had their most sustained success as a franchise in at least 100 years because of this approach.

When I was in high school, for that AP History exam, I argued that the Articles of Confederation were actually a success because it led to the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s also how I feel about the 2015 White Sox. While it was a bummer living through that train wreck at the time, I’m glad its failure helped create this glorious White Sox team we have today (Albeit, it would have been nice if Marcus Semien and Chris Bassitt were still on the South Side, but oh well). Hopefully, we’ll get to see this current core play some baseball in 2022.

Featured Image: White Sox / Twitter

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