It's been a long time since the 2005 version of Scott Podsednik has been leading off games for the Chicago White Sox. You know, the guy who was sorta good and had all the traditionalists thinking he was SUPER GOOD but, due to a high excitement:talent ratio, caused all the stat guys to call the traditionalists dumb guys? Man, it's really been awhile. How long? Pablo Ozuna. The bad 2006-2007 version of Scott Podsednik. Jerry Owens. Ryan Sweeney. Darin Erstad. Andy Gonzalez. Rob Mackowiak. Nick Swisher. Orlando Cabrera. DeWayne Wise. Chris Getz. Jayson Nix. Podsednik again. Brent Lillibridge. Juan Pierre. Omar Vizquel.
Sorry if that was painful to read. All those guys started multiple games in the leadoff spot before Alejandro De Aza emerged this year to provide some stability with 105 games of high quality play out of the team's first 115. The list of center fielders since The Legend of Aaron Rowand might even be worse: Brian Anderson. Mackowiak. Sweeney. Owens. Erstad. Luis Terrero. Gonzalez. Podsednik. Swisher. Wise. An ancient Ken Griffey Jr. An out-of-place Alexei Ramirez. Good Alex Rios. Bad Alex Rios. Andruw Jones. Brent Lillibridge.
The positive impact of having a guy like De Aza affects everything from upper management down to the people in the seats. I'd like to take an in-depth look at the different ways Alejandro De Aza has been a major boon to the franchise.
1. The Lineup Card and the Holy Position of Leadoff Hitter
As listed off above, a lot of guys have been cycled through the leadoff spot since the World Series victory. A few of them were intermittently good, but none of them presented a long-term solution to the problem. With regards to the offense, Ozzie Guillen was an old-school manager. He had a strong preference for a fast singles hitter who could bunt and steal bases, regardless of other secondary skills. Assigning the lineup slot that gets the most at-bats to unproductive players is a problem. The problem got compounded as the front office was corrupted by this manager-perpetuated stereotype, causing us to have to put up with the non-creative "solution" of Juan Pierre for two years.
Robin Ventura is not Ozzie Guillen, to be sure, but his decision of who to slot in the first spot of the batting order has been made easy through the emergence of Alejandro De Aza. Thanks to De Aza, gone is the pressure to find a guy on the roster to fit the traditional Leadoff Hitter mold. Gone is the pressure for the front office to overpay to acquire a guy with an overrated skillset. De Aza has made decisions easier on and off the field, and when decisions are easy, there is far lower potential for mistakes that cost wins.
2. The Fans
I can't estimate for sure the impact that a role player like De Aza has on fan behavior and how that behavior tangibly affects the team. What I know for sure is that he is a fan-pleasing ballplayer. There are always going to be guys that complain that Adam Dunn strikes out too much, regardless of how productive his season may be. There's people who will complain that Rios doesn't care or that Konerko is too slow. No, this kind of talk isn't intelligent, but these fans exist, and their ticket money is as important as yours.
De Aza brings to the table a little something for everyone, be it the statistically minded or the traditionalists. He has good plate discipline! (He goes out there and gives you good at-bats!) His command and aggressiveness in the outfield improves our defensive efficiency! (He plays the game The Way It Was Meant to be Played!) He gets on base a lot! (He has a good batting average!) He's added about half a win with good baserunning! (He distracts the pitcher and scores lots of runs!) He has pretty good pop for a leadoff hitter! (He's a fast leadoff hitter who steals bases!) He's not Juan Pierre! (He's not Juan Pierre!)
3. The Budget
The greatest problem with the White Sox franchise in the post-'05 era has been an inability of the farm system to produce cheap, cost-controlled position-player talent that contributes to a winning effort on the field. Don Cooper has been integral to keeping the team competitive through his magic powers of turning trash into treasure, but there's been no such saving grace on the other side of the ball.
I took a little look into the salaries and the WAR of every significant Sox position player since 2007. For the 2012 guys, I just extrapolated their WAR to 162 games. Which I know is a little bit unfair to do given how healthy everyone has been this year (knock on wood), but it was more reasonable than anything else I could think of. Let's take a look at how De Aza stacks up.
(All data from baseballreference.com as of August 14th, 2012)
De Aza is the red diamond. Looking at guys making less than $5M (min 300 PAs), only three players the Sox have had in the last 6 years surpass him. Carlos Quentin's immaculate 2008 sticks out in the top left, as does Alexei Ramirez's very underrated 2010 season when his defense was superb. The other blurb at [$2.75M, 3.3 WAR] is Ramirez's 2011. Other than those three, De Aza is having the best season of any cheap player the Sox have had since Rowand in '05.
This next one shows the 2012 White Sox (min 100 at-bats).
Again, the red one is De Aza. Pretty much anyone besides him contributing significantly to the winning effort is costing plenty of payroll dollars (that triangle at 1.7 WAR near him is Kevin Youkilis, who arguably should be excluded from this, anyway)
Kenny Williams was under a lot of pressure to make the team cheaper this season. Giving De Aza the keys to a starting role was a necessity because the budget wouldn't allow for a more "proven" option. The White Sox were forced to roll the dice on a worthwhile enough chunk of De Aza's excellent 2011 being for real, and Alejandro has delivered in a big way. The 2.6-ish wins that he's projected to achieve on a WAR scale is even more valuable to the Sox than it would be for most teams. Why? Because our bench has done an excellent job this season of showing just how lofty a standard "replacement level" really is.
There are bigger reasons the White Sox are where they are right now (Rios, Sale, Peavy.....and let's not forget the guy who stretched out the lower boundary of that first chart). But if it wasn't for De Aza turning center field from a sinkhole into a success, we'd be struggling to keep pace with the Tigers instead of them looking up at us.
4. The Future
You may have looked at that first chart I posted and said, "What's the big deal? De Aza isn't that far in front of that clump of diamonds directly below him." Well, it's a little misleading (and obviously it had to be, because there was no good way to label every dot). A couple of those dots are the pre-awesome Alexei Ramirez. One of them is the pre-disappointing Gordon Beckham. The others are cheap bench guys like Andruw Jones, Jayson Nix, and Brent Lillibridge who happened to produce in small samples and roles designed for them to exceed what would happen if they played every day.
Ramirez is already getting expensive and Beckham's star is all but faded. This leaves De Aza as the best real hope for a reasonably priced, productive fixture in the White Sox lineup for the next several years (free agency in 2016). He'll be arbitration eligible next year, but his is the sort of skillset that won't get expensive fast during the arb years. Think Alberto Callaspo. With the dearth of budding young stars in the organization, and depending on how you value guys in the low minors, there is a chance Alejandro De Aza is the Sox's biggest asset (contract-wise) under their control south of Chris Sale. There's no guarantee he'll stay healthy, but in Herm we trust. For what it's worth, I'd put my money on him continuing to produce like this (his fWAR this season has been better than his Baseball Reference WAR, and my method would put him over 3.0 for the season had I used that instead).
Alejandro De Aza has always been a reasonably talented ballplayer that had his early career derailed due to unfortunate injuries. It's a welcome sight to see him get a second chance in his late twenties. One thing's for sure. The White Sox and their fans are glad it's happening in the black pinstripes.