On Thursday afternoon against Baltimore, Tyler Flowers threw out both baserunners who tried to steal on him, which means White Sox catchers are 6-for-7 in cutting down would-be thieves. Their sudden proficiency is becoming insane, because Flowers gunned down the first runner even after Gavin Floyd threw a curveball that bounced.
That's a completely out-of-nowhere development for a team that was consistently awful at stopping the running game under Ozzie Guillen. It's also a major boon, but since we're looking at a .500 team, it's accompanied by a major step backward in another area -- an inability to make contact.
After striking out 16 times in the finale against the Orioles, the Sox are now tied with their Baltimore brethren for the MLB lead in whiffs with 111. This is quite the reversal from last year, when the Sox were one of three teams to strike out fewer than 1,000 times, even while Adam Dunn set the franchise record with 175 strikeouts. Guillen hated strikeouts, and Kenny Williams obliged him by getting guys who could put the ball in play.
That the Sox have struck out more often isn't surprising by itself. They were due for an uptick if only because Alejandro De Aza took Juan Pierre's place, and he's bound to strike out at least twice as much as Pierre did (the increase in extra-base hits is more than a fair exchange). Plus, the strikeout rate is historically high this season across baseball, so there may be factors at play that are independent of any particular team.
But the Sox are rocketing from one extreme to the other, and every other team isn't doing that, obviously. They're hampered by a massive jump in bad takes and swings and misses beyond the customary contributions from Dunn, and it will be interesting to see how soon three particular abnormalities can be corrected.
It's not all their fault. For one, Leon's getting laaaaaaaaaarger, and the strike zone's getting wiiiiiiiiiiiiider.
Home plate umpire Jerry Meals must have been late for one, because his zone expanded as Thursday's game went on. He was so generous towards pitchers that, by the end of the game, Jim Palmer expressed disbelief over the size of the zone, particularly when De Aza was rung up in the ninth inning. It's noteworthy coming from Palmer, because 1) pitchers usually won't complain about getting a call, especially when 2) he's the analyst for the other team.
Unfortunately, the zone called by Meals on Thursday:
Isn't far off from the trend of wider strike zones against the Sox all season long:
From watching other games, it seems like I've seen more batters than usual befuddled by wide strikes. Hopefully a baseball generalist will take up this study, because it would certainly help somewhat explain the sportwide increase in strikeouts.
And then there's Brent "What the Hell?" Morel, and no fancy maps are needed to explain his problems (although Rhubarb was nice enough to provide one a couple days ago). He just can't anticipate a breaking pitch to save his life.
Morel is seeing sliders more frequently than everybody but Baltimore's Robert Andino and Mark Reynolds, and that's because he can't recognize them at the moment. He's swinging and missing at more pitches in the zone, and he's especially bad at whiffing on pitches outside the zone. Last year, he made contact on 65 percent of non-strikes he swung at. This year? 22 percent. He's just not putting up a fight in any regard.
That's how a strikeout rate goes from 13 percent to 41 percent overnight.
But the one I'm most puzzled by is Dayan Viciedo, who struck out three times on Thursday and grounded into a double play in his other at-bat. When I first saw him, I thought he'd be a guy who could make good contact on all kinds of strikes. In his current form (starting from last August), his hitting zone is dramatically smaller than it was back in 2010:
He's swinging underneath pitches he would have squared up his first time, and it's been that way since he came back to the majors last September. He's flashed the old form on a few occasions, but it's going to be difficult for the offense to find another gear on a consistent basis if he can't make good contact when the opportunity presents itself.