Five Games is Still Just Five Games

Isn’t it glorious to feel this kind of pain again? As I paced across my living room throughout the 7 hours of bad baseball yesterday with a smirk on my face that would make The Joker envious, I was oddly pleased with the disdain I felt for bad White Sox baseball; oh how I had missed thee. As Dylan Cease struggled to find the strike zone, and Nicky Delmonico showed me what it would be like had I made the big leagues, the White Sox found a way to make a double header of error-less baseball look like the first day of practice with Coach Buttermaker in charge. As the Twins and Indians reminded the White Sox that winning doesn’t come easy when you aren’t playing yourself, my wife sat in the background mumbling “losing again, huh?” She doesn’t even understand innings or runs, but even she was disgusted by what she was watching. Before you could blink yesterday, the White Sox were losing; which has been a common theme in the short season to date. The White Sox, through five games, have given up 2.6 runs per game in the first inning. That’s not a recipe for success for any team, unless you’re playing Cricket – I think?

Having seen what we’ve seen, and knowing what we now know, were we all wrong about this team? This season? The good news is that the answer is no. Five games still don’t tell the story, or even a chapter, of a baseball season. The reason a baseball season is 162 games long is because you need to weed out all the small sample noise to better determine the true talent of a team. This five game stretch is no more meaningful or telling than a five game stretch that may occur in August or April; it has merely been magnified due to it being the first stretch of the season after a long layoff. If anything, this stretch might be less meaningful than your standard mid-season run because players – both pitchers and hitters – are not as ready and prepared as they would be after a typical Spring Training.

Steve Stone has been harping on pitcher injuries being a big concern to start this season, and while there is no evidence yet that they have been more frequent than years past, they certainly have been magnified and noticeable. Kershaw was shut down with a back injury just hours before his start; Verlander is out at least a month with a foreman injury; the White Sox saw Reynaldo Lopez lose 4 MPH off his fastball only to be placed on the DL; the Braves designated Mike Foltynewicz following a similar loss of velocity, and the Houston Astros have 11 pitchers on the DL! With less than three full weeks to get up to speed after an extended layoff, pitchers were given half the time they would usually have in a full spring training and the effects could show now or later, but the belief is that pitching depth is going to be an issue throughout baseball; which may not bode well for the White Sox, despite many fans believing they had too many starters just 6 weeks ago. Following Kopech opting out, and Lopez’s injury, the White Sox are now forced to use Gio Gonzalez – whose peripherals don’t exactly jump off the page as an AL quality starter – or one of Jimmy Lambert or Dane Dunning. While I am a fan of their arm talent, they (being Lambert and Dunning) are both coming off Tommy John surgery and neither one has thrown 100 innings at AA. Lambert’s repertoire plays really well in the modern MLB game – he lives up in the zone with a + fastball that doesn’t have elite spin (2205 RPM) but has enough deception and velocity to get swinging strikes (17% Whiff Rate), and pairs it with an average to average+ curve ball that he keeps down, mostly away, in the zone and a change up that he has done a nice job keeping away from righties. Dunning is likely the most polished younger pitcher in the White Sox organization, with four MLB ready pitches that he can locate in any count. Dunning’s velocity saw a slight uptick in Summer Camp - hitting 94-95 in his appearances – but he didn’t maintain the velocity throughout the start; dropping down to 91-92 later in the game. I would attribute much of that to arm strength and recovery, but even Dunning has no experience getting big leaguers out.

The good news is that the White Sox will have plenty of chances to beat teams they have more talent than, which is not something we could say the prior five years. Hello Luis Robert!

Robert has looked like a polished veteran at the plate; frequently passing on enticing sliders low-and-away, and taking what the pitchers give him by attacking all parts of the field. Robert's speed was on full display yesterday legging out an infield single due to a small bobble by one of the games best short stops, Francisco Lindor, and catching a ball that was hit to straight away right field in front of Leury Garcia. Robert has been every bit as good as advertised, and when you pair him with Anderson, Moncada, Eloy, Grandal and the rest of the offense, it’s safe to say fans optimism should remain high.

As the weekend fast approaches, I believe Sox fans are going to be in for a much different lineup for the rest of the season; one in which Ricky can't put a player with a 1 wRC+ in the cleanup spot. The pains of watching Nicky Delmonico and Leury Garcia masquerade as MLB starters on a contending team is near over, as many expect Madrigal to be called up now that the Sox have gained their extra year of control and Mazara will return from his DL stint from COVID-19. While it’s easy to blame the manager for lineup decisions, and it’s even easier to ask why Nicky Delmonico has played in every game while Yasmani Grandal has only played in 3, I feel the need to remind everyone that lineups don’t really matter and managers are working with the players they are given. According to many analysis done on lineup optimization, setting an optimal lineup everyday of the season is only worth about 8-10 runs over 162 games - or 1.5 wins - and logically it's not possible given aches and pains, and personal issues, players deal with year to year. In a 60 game season, lineup optimization is worth less than .5 wins - effectively meaningless. That said, Grandal played 153 games last year without a DH in the NL, and while he is a catcher who is over 30 and needs to be handled with more care, he is also the White Sox best OBP presence and should be in the lineup daily. Jose Abreu has been an integral part of this team’s personality and rebuild for years, but as his bat slows it’s his job as a leader to step up and sacrifice some of his playing time so that better players can play more often; don’t be Derek Jeter, be an actual leader and good teammate like Yoan Moncada. Grandal doesn’t need to catch every day, but at the very least he should be DH’ing. While lineup order may not matter, the guys you start and sit actually does. While fans enjoy being able to relate to their favorite athletes, they want to relate on a personal level, not a talent level.

At the end of the day, this frustration I feel with Rick Renteria and this anxiety I feel about this season in general is wonderful. It’s an emotion I missed; a pain I never thought I’d envy. White Sox baseball is back, and nothing reminds us of that more than fan overreactions, and the misallocation of blame onto coaching staffs in a game in which coaching means so little. Don Cooper isn’t throwing balls, and Ricky Renteria isn’t rolling over fastballs with men on base – OK, since he’s an extension of Delmonico batting fourth, he kind of is, but you get the point

The moral of this story is that five games doesn't change anything; it hasn’t changed the narrative surrounding this team and this season. All the questions and concerns existed before and will exist going forward. This is a talented team that needs to mature together and expecting them to be world beaters for the entire season was never reasonable. Through 7 games last year, the Houston Astros were 2-5. When the season ended, they were the best team in the American League. It wasn’t the only bad stretch for the Astros; between June 16th and June 27th, they lost 9 of 11 games playing 3 of 4 series against non-playoff teams. While that may have been the result of a faulty trash can, it still didn't mean much.

While I pace across my living room this evening, hoping for a Giolito bounce back, I’ll be enjoying the best part of baseball; the uncertainty. There are no paper champions in baseball, because talent alone is not the deciding factor in success. The Sox have more talent now than they had in a decade, but will sequencing in a small sample season derail the joy and expectations that fans and players have? I certainly hope not, because much of this game is about enjoying the little things that become big and the big things that became huge. If all else fails I take onus in the fact that if there is a fly ball hit to my living room, I’ll get to meet Luis Robert.

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© 2020 by Erik Johnson