How the White Sox win the 2015 AL Central

This might be my favorite thing to think about and write each year. How the Chicago White Sox can win the AL Central.

Last year, they didn’t have a chance to win the division. But this year? It could happen. You might need to put on glasses, or squint really hard, but you can see it if you’ve got the prescription right.

Where We Ended: 2014
The Tigers won the Central last year with 90 wins. The Sox won 73. That’s a huge gap to make up in one winter. And more bad news, the Sox were out scored by 98 runs, second worst in the AL.

But as any Sox fan knows, not all was bad last year. The team was somewhat enjoyable to watch unlike 2013. They played the Tigers tough (9-10 last year). They had a winning record in interleague. The Sox were sort of competitive in the first half, playing .460 baseball, not good, but not horrible. However, they fell apart in the second half where they went 28-38 and were outscored by 75 runs.

To figure out how the Sox can win the division, we need to set some parameters. First things first, let’s assume that 90 wins is going to win the division again. The Tigers probably aren’t ‘better’ heading into 2015. The Royals won 89 games last year and needed luck to do so,  then used some sort of super-duper-magic-dust to get to Game 7 of the World Series. Regression is likely. The Twins are a few years away.

The Indians… well, they’re the wild card in all this. The Tribe won 85 games last year, and while they didn’t add too much (i.e. anything), they also didn’t lose too much. While I don’t think Michael Brantley will be as good as he was last year, I also doubt Jason Kipnis will be as bad. The Indians offense might be relying too much on Nick Swisher bouncing back, but considering his age, he might be done and the Tribe might very well be looking at a sunk cost. Meanwhile, the Indians starting pitching appears to be strong. BUT they’re counting on a few young arms stepping up and being decent. Always a big risk. Could the Indians win 90? Easily. Could they be stuck on 85? Just as easily.

Considering that the Central is stronger this year, let’s set 89 wins is our goal. The Sox won 73. Where can we find 16 wins?

First, Short, Center: For starters, Abreu and Alexei have to be as good as they were last year. Eaton too, but he’s got to play more on top of it. If those three stay healthy and play well, the Sox are off to a good start.

Second Base: Micah Johnson appears not only to have won the starting nod, but also will get a chance to fail. I kind of doubt the Sox will sit him prior to Memorial Day unless he’s booting balls left and right. Johnson doesn’t need to hit a ton, he’s going to be 9th in the order after all, but he does need to play decent defense.

The Sox got negative 0.4 WAR last year out of second base, that’s not good. Guys didn’t hit and the fielding was just so-so (mostly Gordon Beckham’s doing). There’s a lot of room for improvement and if Johnson (and Sanchez) can just be around league average, I’ll gladly take it as it will turn a loser position into one that doesn’t hurt the team.

Third Base: Next, Conor Gillaspie needs to continue to do what he did last year and that’s hit righties. He could also stand to be better with the glove, which ain’t gonna happen. The Sox do need to figure out what to do when they’re facing a lefty since Gillaspie can’t touch ‘em. I’m not sure I know Gordon Beckham is not the answer, but he was decent against lefties last year. Unfortunately, Bonifacio’s record against lefties isn’t the best either. Thus, third might be that position where the Sox just have to hope pray for a cummulative 2 WAR from these three, there’s very limited upside here, so it’s kind of doubtful. UNLESS, Matt Davidson figures out what’s gone wrong down in Charlotte during April/May. I’m not going to count on it however. Third base is what it is…

...Which means it’s the most obvious upgrade in season. If third base turns out to be as blah as I think it will be and the Sox are within shouting distance of the wild card/division; then this should be where Hahn swings a deal to make the team better.

Left Field: Our first clear upgrade! Mekly is going to be better than Viciedo. De Aza was passable in left, but not very good. Viciedo continued to be an outright disaster. Melky isn’t very good with the glove in left, but he’s actually an upgrade from Viciedo; and Cabrera’s bat is going to play in left. This is a 3 or 4 win up grade for the Sox.

Right Field: Sox fans are bullish on Garcia. Non-Sox fans are bearish. I see both cases. Pros: Avisail looks like a ball player. He can run, he can hit, he’s got pop, he’s only 23… he’s someone that can put it together. If he cuts down on the Ks a bit, is a tad more patient at the plate, and if he stays healthy, he can easily be a better than average right fielder. But the Cons have a solid argument too: he isn’t a very good fielder, he hasn’t shown a ton of pop, and he’s had trouble getting on base in the majors.

But there were signs, especially in September, that Garcia might be putting it together. He walked a bit and there is pop in his bat. He’s never going to win a gold glove, but he should be serviceable in right. And Avisail was unlucky last year, a BABIP of .285 is pretty low for someone who can run a bit.

For Garcia to be a positive for the Sox, there are a number of things that needs to happen. First, he needs to make better contact: a 10.8% infield fly ball ain’t gonna cut it. Also of concern, Garcia’s line drive percentage was 15% last year (for comparison, Melky’s was 21%). And while Avisail swings at strikes, he’s still too much of a hacker as seen in his swing percentage outside of the zone of 42%. If that doesn’t fall a bit, he’s going to see more and more pitches outside of the strike zone, which probably will lead to more weak ground balls and infield flys.

I can go either way on Avisail. In many ways he holds the key to the Sox 2015 season. If he’s a 3 WAR player, the Sox should be around the 89 win mark if everything else goes according to plan. If he’s putting up a negative WAR? The Sox are in trouble because there is no easy fix.

Catcher: I’m not going to pretend for a second that Tyler Flowers is going to be as good as he was last year. His .355 BABIP was insane and odds are he’s going to regress to the mean there. I doubt his power drops much and Flowers has proven to be decent behind the plate, but Tyler doesn’t walk and he strikes out a near Baez like rate…

However, the Sox actually have a backup catcher this year in Soto. Sure he’ll get hurt at some point, but Soto will slow down a running game (see the A’s/Royals Wild Card game if you don’t believe me) and has a decent enough bat. I could see a near 50/50 split occurring with these two as the season progresses (if Soto stays healthy). I could actually see the Sox being a little better behind the plate this year because, you know, they actually have two major league catchers unlike last year.

DH: While I wasn’t crazy about the LaRoche signing at the time, considering everything else that Hahn did over the winter, the moves seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. And honestly, I like it more today than I did when first announced. A lefty bat who can hit… I’ll take it. LaRoche is going to play some first too, where his glove, which might not be great, is better than Abreu’s. Considering how bad Konerko was last year, and how Adam Dunn, Adam Dunn was… it’s an upgrade. Not a huge one, but an upgrade.

Starting pitching: Assuming Sale only misses a start, maybe two, to start the year; the Sox just need him, Samardzija, and Quintana to do their thing, which is be really good starting pitchers. Meanwhile, Noesi and Danks aren’t so good. But if the Sox can get Noesi to be average for two months or so, Carlos Rodon will probably be about ready to be called up in June. He could be the difference maker in July and August—even if he’s on an innings limit this year—by giving the Sox four good to great starters.

The Sox starters, compared to the rest of baseball, weren’t bad last year considering it was pretty much Sale and Quintana and pray for rain. Samardzija is a four or five win upgrade, probably putting the rotation into the top third in baseball. They’re going to have the Danks problem until his contract ends next year. But Danks in the 5th spot isn’t the end of the world. Sure it could be better, but if he gives you 180+ innings… you deal with it.

Relievers: Somehow, someway, this wasn’t the worst bullpen in baseball in 2014 by WAR. But it was darn close. The pen did lead the league in walks per 9 and had the second lowest K/9. So it was really bad.

The pen was the easiest area to upgrade over the winter just because it was so bad. There’s no doubt it’s better today with Robertson and Duke. If the Sox can get someone else to take a step forward, the pen should be fine.

There is one thing that has me worried about the pen… the Sox were 28-24 in one run games last year. That’s not bad. The issue with the Sox last year was they weren’t very good in the 8th and 9th inning in particular. The Sox allowed a run in the 8th inning 50 times, and in the 9th it occurred 47 times. The Yankees, by contrast, allowed a run 34 and 33 times in the 8th and 9th respectively. Of course, not all those innings were games where the Sox had the lead, but, if say the Sox were down a run going into the 8th, allowing another run makes the comeback all the more difficult. When you’re down, you want to stop the bleeding; the Sox weren’t very good at that last year.

So the upgrades in the pen, and assuming someone can come along and be pretty good, be it Zach Putnam or Javy Guerra (or even Daniel Webb if he stops walking everyone), then the Sox should be okay out of the bullpen.

Defense: The Sox D wasn’t very good last year if you go by the defensive metrics (fangraphs and baseball reference). The eye test would tell you about the same. The Sox weren’t very good at any of the corner positions, Alexei might be slipping with age at short, and whoever was at second last year wasn’t very good. Fangraphs didn’t think Eaton was very good in center, but baseball reference did; while it was the reverse for Flowers.

All in all the Sox defense probably won’t be much better this year. Sure, Melky’s probably a little better than Vicideo, but I’m not going to see him as a difference maker. There’s a chance Garcia, after dropping some weight, can get to a few more balls. Maybe the metrics agree that Flowers and Eaton are both good defenders. And it turns out that Johnson is an upgrade at second, while the late inning defensive replacements at third and maybe one of the corner spots saves a game or two over the course of the season. Who knows. But if there is one reason to be down on the Sox in ‘15, it’s that the defense doesn’t appear to be much better.

So, what does this all mean? One of the Sox problems last year is that it didn’t really have an average player. Alexei probably comes closest, but the ‘14 Sox were either stars or bums. 2015 looks much the same, only with more stars. That’s a good thing.

The good news is the Sox upgraded in left field, at DH, the 3rd starter roll, and the bullpen. But they also need second, third, catcher, and the 4th starter to be average; and assuming they’ll be ‘average’ is a bit of a leap of faith in all positions. I can see it happening at second and maybe catcher. But I doubt the Sox are going to get the production needed at third base for it to be considered average. And assuming anything other than below average with the backend of the rotation is optimistic.

In the bigger picture, the Sox should score more runs this year. 1-4 in the batting order is very good, and if Garcia starts to mature as a hitter, that’s a really good 1-5 in the order. With Alexei and Gillaspie at 6 and 7 in some order, really isn’t too shabby either. Flowers/Soto batting 8th is a bit of a black hole, and we’ll see on Johnson. All in all, this is a line up that should score around 700 runs. It’s not great, but it’s enough if the pitching is there.

And that’s where I have trouble with the Sox. They allowed 758 runs last year, 13th most in the AL. There’s a clear upgrade in a few of those pitching spots that were filled by below average pitchers last season, but even if the Sox cut 50 runs, we’re still only looking at an 81 win team. It’s unlikely that the defense is going to save any more runs too (if anything the defense is going to continue to cost the Sox runs).   

But the point of this 2,500 word analysis is to convince myself that the Sox are going to win the AL Central. So let’s bump the offensive output to 710 runs, a 50 run improvement.

And remember how bad I said the Sox were in the 8th and 9th inning? Well here’s the graph:
No Runs Allowed
Any Runs Allowed
% Inn w/ Run Allowed

The Sox were horrendous late in games, opponents were most likely to score in the 8th and 9th inning. If the pen were able to cut the number of runs allowed by 30% in each of the 8th and 9th, that’s 53 runs. And if at a 40% reduction, it’s 70 runs prevented.

Runs Allowed with 30% improvement
Runs Allowed with 40% improvement
Runs "Saved" from 2014

Things start to get interesting if the late inning pen is able to reduce the number of runs allowed by 40%. Factoring in the upgrade Samardzija brings and a huge, though not entirely impossible, improvement from the bullpen, you’re looking at reducing the number of runs allowed to somewhere around 85 to 95. Suddenly the Sox are scoring 710 runs while allowing 660. That’s an 86 win baseball team, and with a little luck...

The 2015 AL Central title goes to the Sox.

So there you go, that’s how the Sox win the division: continued improvement from Abreu and Eaton along with the addition of LaRoche and Melky and a nice season from Garcia improves the offense by 50 runs; a deal around midseason for a third baseman improves the team by a win or two the rest of the way; Robertson and Duke along with another arm solve the bullpen issues which takes a huge leap forward creating a top 10 bullpen; Samardzija (and eventually Rodon) present upgrades over Carroll and Noesi giving the Sox a top 10 rotation. All injuries are to players that are easily replaced (i.e. Danks, Johnson, Flowers, most of the bullpen).

And if the Sox make it to the dance, they’re going to roll out Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana. No one else in the AL can roll like that save maybe the Tigers. The hard part is getting there.

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