Ruminations on a White Sox tailspin

Brian Kersey - Getty Images

The White Sox are fading out of contention, and no witnesses are spared.

According to Baseball Prospectus' run expectancy matrix, when a team loads the bases with nobody out, the average team gets 2.27 runs out of it.

After opening Wednesday's game with such a situation, the White Sox posted three first-inning runs against Justin Masterson. That's pretty good, especially considering recent history. The Sox only had one three-run frame to their credit over their previous 84 innings, so you would think that a 3-1 lead would put a little pep in Hawk Harrelson's step, right?

Not quite. We got to hear Happy Hawk for about a couple of minutes. Then Alexei Ramirez and Dewayne Wise grounded out to strand a potential fourth run on third base, and the dour version of Harrelson returned to take the game into commercial, and occupied the booth the rest of the game.

Harrelson wasn't around to see the Sox legitimately mishandle two bases-loaded, nobody-out situations against Tampa Bay on Thursday. It was announced before the game that he came down with flu-like symptoms, and Mike Huff took his spot. It's the third time over the last two months where Harrelson's absence was noticeable.

On Aug. 8, he left a game early due to what was described as a "family matter." On Sept. 4, he also left Steve Stone to finish the game solo due to "feeling under the weather."

Maybe it's coincidence, but both early exits were during lifeless losses. The former featured eight shutout innings by Jeremy Guthrie; the latter was the 18-9 trouncing at the hands of the Twins. Now, he's come down with flu-like symptoms the day after a brutal, three-hour, 44-minute, 12-walk affair that sent the Sox stumbling downstairs into second place.

I'm not connecting dots to be glib or clever. I'm concerned. We know how much he hangs on the swings of any given game, so it's natural to wonder if this season is taking a toll on him. I've never seen a season turn so dark so quickly, and I've never heard Harrelson this drained, this despondent.

I'm not alone. It's readily apparent to people who just showed up.

Star-divide

Joe Posnanski is in town for the Ryder Cup, so he's inadvertently turned into this topic's Alexis de Tocqueville. He caught Wednesday night's White Sox game, and this was his impression:

I’ll just say it: I cannot remember watching a more dead baseball game that actually mattered.

He elaborates:

And the broadcasters barely talked the last three innings. I mean, they hardly said a word. Every so often, sure, they would try to catch up on the action, but for the most part the television was silence, the game was terrible, the fans who showed up were on their hands, and the White Sox looked absolutely done for the 2012 season.

And ends with:

It was perfunctory and it was dispirited, and even though I know that momentum in baseball is at best a vague concept, the White Sox looked absolutely and thoroughly beaten. You could hear it in Hawk Harrelson’s voice. At the end, he pleaded for the game-tying home run, of course. But his heart just didn’t seem in it.

Star-divide

It's showing elsewhere in the park. With eight games left and a dead heat in the AL Central, the White Sox drew just over 20,000 fans for the finale with the Indians. For the opener against the Rays? 18,630.

ChicagoSide's Jonathan Eig used this as an opportunity to rehash the attendance debate.

I could understand this sentiment perfectly if he were reading the box score at a diner in Oklahoma and saw "A-20,166" at the bottom. But as somebody who lives in the city and probably follows the Sox relatively closely, it's a bizarre time to sneer at fans who aren't parting with their money.

A number of SSSers went to Wednesday night's game, and here are the reviews:

  • ScottyPods Ver2.0: "That was the longest, most painful game I've been to this season."
  • gibby32: "I was at it. Left in the sixth. Dead team walking."
  • Brush Back: "So many pitchers ... All I know was it was long and difficult to sit through"

And then you see an outsider like Posnanski pick up on the vibe of 10 days in one night. And then the Sox went and outdid themselves with a flatter, groin-punchinger performance the next night.

Attendance should be an afterthought with the Sox losing eight of 10 and posting these numbers in September:

  • hitting .194 with runners in scoring position.
  • 2-for-30 with the bases loaded (with two double plays)
  • 0-for-14 with runners on second and third.
  • 6-for-42 with runners in scoring position.

Or, if you want to look at those numbers since the make-up victory over Detroit:

  • 9-for-73 with runners in scoring position (.123)
  • 0-for-10 with the bases loaded (one double play).
  • 0-for-6 with runners on second and third.
  • 1-for-14 with a runner on third and fewer than two outs.

Under normal circumstances, Eig's jab would be more pointed. This is a cascade failure nobody can explain. Why would you expect people to pay money to cover their eyes?

Star-divide

I've seen the term"fan-murdering" thrown around here on a number of occasions this season, and it's misapplied almost every time. Isolated stunners -- blown saves, complete absence of clutch, brain farts on the bases -- aren't fan-murdering. Even a cluster of occurrences resulting in something like a sweep isn't enough to qualify. Those are just unfortunate byproducts of ballplayers being human. The Sox were swept a few times this season, and until the Angels series, they were able to restore their dignity in short order. Such are the rhythms of a season.

"Fan-murdering" is something greater. It involves repetitive trauma that basically erodes expectations of competence, much less success. For instance, when the Sox load the bases with nobody out against James Shields for the second time in as many innings, it's not so much a rally as an escalator to nowhere until the Sox prove otherwise. They didn't, again. They lost, again. Even the Sox are out of answers, with Paul Konerko saying, "These games look the same."

That's "fan-murdering." When in doubt, just use Harrelson as a barometer. He's the biggest fan of them all, and even he can't stomach it.

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