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White Sox Wed Aug 27 2014
Though they are a small market, down-on-their-luck team, the Kansas City Royals are atop the American League Central division at the moment and appear to be on their way to a playoff spot. The Royals haven't gotten much offense this year, but they've ridden the defense and pitching they have for all that it's been worth.
The White Sox have been the anti-Royals this year.
Of course, these are teams in different phases. The Royals are built around competing for a postseason spot this year after winning 86 games in 2013; the Sox are retooling on the fly and improving on a 63-win season last year. But it is notable that defense and pitching have been such difference makers for these two teams this year -- in the negative sense for the Sox.
They have a minus-72 run differential this year, compared to the Royals' plus-28, and are a game out of last place in the AL Central with a 59-71 record. Both Kansas City and Chicago have adequate overall offenses (and the Sox are a little better, scoring more runs and having a higher team OPS), but the Sox defense and pitching have doomed them this year.
Defense has been pretty bad on the South Side. The Sox are the fourth-worst fielding team in baseball, 33.4 runs below average on defense (the Royals are on the high end with plus-51.9). Breaking it down by regular position players, only Tyler Flowers and Alexei Ramirez have been positive defenders.
Dayan Viciedo has been almost 10 runs below average in 641 inning in right field, the low mark on the team. He's shared a lot of time in the outfield with Adam Eaton (-3.2, 796 innings) and Alejandro De Aza (-1.3, 825 innings). The corners of the infield have been sieves according to the metrics. Jose Abreu and Conor Gillaspie have each played more than 800 innings at first and third, respectively, and Abreu is 6.5 runs below average while Gillaspie is 5.4 worse than average.
Bad defense isn't automatically a death sentence. Last year, for instance, the Cardinals were 37 runs below average out in the field and they came within two games of winning the World Series. The Cardinals, though, were great with offense and pitching, with strong hitters up and down the lineup, a loaded rotation and a fire-throwing bullpen. They made up for the issues with defense.
The Sox don't have the offense to make up for the defense and they haven't had the pitching, either. The pitching staff's ERA is 4.43, which is third-worst in the AL. Surprisingly, their allowed slugging percentage of .402 isn't that far off of what successful teams like Detroit (.405) and Baltimore (.389) have yielded. Batters aren't hitting Sox pitchers or taking Sox pitchers deep more often than normal. And really, their patchwork rotation hasn't been abysmal.
It's the free passes that have led to extra baserunners and more runs.
The Sox lead the entire league in walks with 458, and they lead the American League by a fairly wide margin (Toronto is second with 425). While the starters walk a lot of batters (second in the AL with 266), the bullpen is the wildest group in the league. Relievers have walked 192 batters, 18 more than second-place Toronto.
There is a correlation between the walks and losses for the Sox. The team's pitchers have walked four batters or more 57 times this year, and they are 21-36 with a 5.30 ERA in those game. In situations where they walked three batters or less? They're 38-35 with a 3.69 ERA. That's quite a split.
Like defense, walks aren't automatically a killer, either. Last year, Cleveland was second in walks and they reached the one-game playoff. The Indians were second in strikeouts last year and that's part of the trade off. A lot of walks are fine, and sometimes even necessary, to a good pitching staff because pitches out of the zone keep opposing batters honest. Other than Chris Sale, though, no one on the Sox roster could be considered a strikeout pitcher this year. The team gets the worst of both worlds: a lot of walks and moderate-to-low amounts of strikeouts.
This all goes back to the pitching staff. In the rotation, Sale is great and Jose Quintana is very good but everyone else is just average enough to hurt them. Regular starters John Danks, Hector Noesi and Scott Carroll each have walk rates between 8.3 and 8.7, which isn't too bad but doesn't help. All have below average strikeout rates and ERA-plusses under the neutral line of 100. The bullpen is even worse. Almost every regular Sox reliever listed on Fangraphs has a walk rate that qualifies as "poor" or "awful."
A big part of why the defense and walk rates have been bad is because of injuries. Before the season, Noesi wasn't projected to throw as many innings as he has, and Viciedo wasn't slated to play as much outfield as he has. This is also a young, improving team, and some guys are worth the trade off (Abreu could have two left hands in the field and be considered okay if he still has 40-homer power at the plate).
But when nearly the whole team is below average on defense, and nearly the entire pitching staff is allowing a ton of walks? That's a problem they can't compensate for. Those demons might not matter much for a rebuilding Sox team in 2014. But when it's time for the club to make a Royals-esque push for the postseason, those issues will have to be solved.