Can the White Sox count on Conor Gillaspie?

Everybody wants a piece. - Brian Kersey

Regression will likely humble the team's leading hitter ... but what if it doesn't?

The White Sox offense is off a confusing, disorienting start, and Conor Gillaspie is the only guy baffling us in the fun way.

Gillaspie leads the White Sox in hitting with a .326 average, and it's a .326 you can take home to Mom. The only problem is that .326 hasn't been put to good use. Gillaspie only has three plate appearances with runners in scoring position, which is what happens when hitting behind guys like Adam Dunn and Dayan Viciedo.

That problem can be easily solved by having Gillaspie and Dunn trade places in the order, but that change requires some confidence that Gillaspie won't barf from the pressure. Also, that Gillaspie isn't due to regress into the ground.

Hefty caveat: That I'm writing about this automatically qualifies him for a dose of reality. When the subject of a piece is "Unproven Q. Player Is Overachieving, How Delightful," it's often followed in the coming weeks by "Unproven Q. Player Is Slumping, Saddening Children." If I were a general baseball writer with only a passing familiarity of the situation, I could sum up a Gillaspie angle in a sentence of a larger roundup entry, like:

MORE LIKE GONNA COLLAPSIE: Conor Gillaspie has a .394 BABIP, [insert snark line].

And that's correct to some degree, of course. Because we're close to the situation, and because Gillaspie isn't a typical player, we're armed with enough information (especially anecdotal) to trick ourselves into talking past Occam's Razor.

But the simple-sauce answer is boring and prematurely dreadful, and we've been exposed to too much boring and real-time dreadful already. So let's acknowledge the obvious, and then dare to dream. The Sox are five games under .500 and they didn't play yesterday. There's no time like the present.

Gillaspie's near future could follow one of two paths:

Flash in the pan

In this scenario, Conor Gillaspie's spirit animals are Craig Wilson and Chris Snopek -- guys who emerged from relative obscurity to wow fans in their first stints, then faded out of the picture as their true talent levels caught up to them.

This option leaves nothing to the imagination, but hey -- MLB players aren't proven until they are.

Gillaspie's minor-league track record doesn't scream "sure bet." He hit .289/.368/.447 in Triple-A, and while that would be a fine line for the International League, it doesn't stand out in the hitter-friendly environs of the Pacific Coast League.

On top of that, his defense wasn't supposed to be this sound. While John Sickels said he improved his D to an adequate level, he wasn't supposed to provide the steady glovework he's shown thus far. As Grant Brisbee put it:

Gillaspie kind of wins out now that he has a shot to make the White Sox bench, and the American League is probably better for him, considering his fielding is pretty rough. And by "rough", I think the phrase that we settled on was "he throws like Johnny Damon wearing boxing gloves", and it's not like he showed off soft hands in his brief appearances.

Without a breakout bat and a defined set of defensive skills, he slid down the organizational rankings. Even though he was just 24, he wasn't even one of John Sickels' top 20 Giants prospects (contrast that with where Jared Mitchell stood on the Sox lists; that'll give you an idea of depth).

Robin Ventura has protected Gillaspie by limiting his exposure to lefties (0-for-3). He was a little vulnerable to southpaws in the minors, and that could drag him down if he has to face them in majors on even a semi-regular basis.

If he continues to exclusively face righties, Gillaspie's hitting style doesn't suggest that he'll be exploitable via strikeouts in bulk, but once the league builds a book on him, he could suffer death by a thousand rollers to the right side. Which is sometimes more dangerous, because it's hard to tell when to start taking away his at-bats.

Plus, he's a White Sox third baseman, which means he's one good month away from a jealous Joe Crede taking a 2x4 to his back, just like he did to Brent Morel (nobody can prove he didn't!).

Here to stay

You can flip those last two points in his favor. With that short lefty stroke, he can be harder to figure out if he doesn't show pitchers he's trying to do "too much," as they say. And since Jeff Keppinger is around and right-handed, Ventura has the makings of a pretty effective platoon if Gillaspie can maintain effectiveness until Gordon Beckham returns.

He's thriving even while striking out more than he did in the minors -- nine times in 45 plate appearances, which is roughly twice his rate. This contributes to the unsustainable BABIP mentioned earlier, but he could offset some of that regression by putting more balls in play.

Gillaspie is off to an encouraging start in terms of recognizing pitches. Per FanGraphs, here are the White Sox leaders in lowest out-of-zone swing rates:

  1. Alex Rios: 21.4 percent
  2. Gillaspie: 22.6
  3. Paul Konerko: 24.3
  4. Dunn: 26.1

(Dayan Viciedo is at 42.9 percent, but Alexei Ramirez leads everybody at 45.6 percent, which seems high this year, even for him.)

Going through the Baseball America archives to try to find applicable scouting reports, I came across this in the chat accompanying the 2010 top prospects list:

Andy Baggarly: Gillaspie has a razor-sharp knowledge of the strike zone that might have worked against him in the Cal League. His manager, Andy Skeels, said Gillaspie knew the zone better than most umps and often got rung up on borderline pitches. Skeels honestly feels that Gillaspie will shine the closer he gets to the major leagues. I expected more from him in the Cal League, too, but hat’s off to a Giants prospect who believes in waiting for his pitch. There ain’t many of those — in the minors or on the big league roster.

When Gillaspie strikes out, I don't get the impression that he's overmatched. Out of his nine K's, three have been backwards, which would certainly fall into Gillaspie trying to determine how discriminating he can be.

Another three strikeouts were on three pitches. One was a welcome-to-the-show job, as Toronto's Steve Delabar doubled him up with two nasty changeups after getting ahead 0-1. Against Tyler Clippard in Washington, Gillaspie just lost a challenge (called strike, foul ball, foul tip).

Since he doesn't have noteworthy power, pitchers should be coming at him until they learn not to. If Gillaspie can turn around 0-1 fastballs like this one from Justin Masterson ...

... he might get to flaunt his mad taking skillz sooner rather than later. Gillaspie's reputation certainly suggests he can turn these strikeouts into teachable moments as part of figuring out how major-league stuff fits into major-league zones.

And according to this trade write-up from BA, some people are way more certain than I am:

The first player from the 2008 draft to reach the majors, Gillaspie received a September callup that same year as mandated by contract terms. He hit a career-best 14 homers last season, though his isolated slugging percentage remained virtually unchanged from the 2011 season (about .160), which he also spent with Triple-A Fresno. Gillaspie drives the ball to the alleys with a quick lefty stroke, and few scouts doubt that he can hit for at least a modest average in the big leagues. He batted .289/.368/.447 in 968 plate appearances for the Grizzlies, and he actually managed to reduce his strikeout rate significantly, dropping from about 16 percent of PAs in 2011 to about 12 last year. Gillaspie offers playable defense and arm strength for third base, though his lefty bat, feel for hitting and lack of minor league options could give him a long leash with Chicago.

As far as evaluation language goes, this is a really high floor -- and Gillaspie had a couple unimpressive cups of coffee that could've changed some minds.

Star-divide

That just makes Gillaspie's story even more perplexing. You can sum it up in five points, and they don't fit together neatly:

  1. Gillaspie's scouting reports agreed on a good eye, short swing, and passable glove.
  2. Gillaspie was not one of the Giants' top 20 prospects.
  3. Gillaspie was considered to have a high floor.
  4. Gillaspie was acquired for a low-floor relief project.
  5. Gillaspie is leading the White Sox in hitting three weeks in, and he's making more plays than advertised.

It can all be solved by a humbling dose of regression, and I'll have written 1,500 words for nothing like a real dunce. But the repeated references to his advanced understanding of the strike zone allows for the possibility that his return to Earth will be gentle and productive.

Perhaps this is where Gillaspie's awkward introduction to pro ball comes into play. He got off the wrong foot with the Giants due his signing situation, and by the time he deserved another September call-up, he was buried on the depth chart. The clock ran out on him, and given the lack of buzz despite a solid minor-league performance, maybe everybody around San Francisco got bored with him.

That's one advantage of the Sox lacking prospects -- when you don't have a lot to play with, secondhand toys are just as exciting as ones still in the box.

Star-divide

Additional reading: Over at Minor League Ball, Gillaspie was John Sickels' Prospect of the Day on Wednesday.

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