In an attempt to reverse recent history against their fiercest rivals, the Chicago White Sox have long pursued the notion of playing Minnesota Twins baseball. The problem was, this desire manifested itself into strange forms -- most of it involving offensive self-loathing. The Sox willingly downgraded their best asset (power) for a quality they've never known how to use effectively (speed), and needless to say, more "grinders" never resulted in replicating that secret Minnesota sauce.
But while watching Mark Buehrle go to work against Oakland on Thursday night, I realized that the Sox had finally figured out one of the most crucial components to any performance gap:
The starters aren't walking anybody.
OK, it might not be at the same level as figuring out the Desert Fox's Panzer formations, but it's a pretty big deal in its own realm.
Over the last eight seasons, 2007 was the only time the Twins' rotation failed to finish with the best walk numbers -- they had to settle for second behind the Cleveland Indians. They've topped the leaderboard in every other year, and by a significant margin most of the time.
This year, the White Sox own that distinction, and Buehrle improved the numbers across the board by allowing just one walk over his seven innings.
In the control categories, Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber, Edwin Jackson and Jake Peavy have combined their forces toward impressive showings:
- BB%: 6.59 percent (1st)
- BB/9IP: 2.48 (1st)
- K/BB: 2.43 (3rd - one walk or strikeout behind the Tampa Bay Rays)
That last stat may not seem that impressive -- until you look at the strikeout numbers. The White Sox are one walk or strikeout away from ranking second in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio, even though they rank 10th in the league in strikeout rate (6.03 per nine innings).
Better yet, three out of the five starters are well ahead of the average -- Humber (2.03 walks per nine innings), Buehrle (2.18) and Floyd (2.22). And when including part-time starters, Peavy (1.24) was better than them all -- even though a groin problem caused him to walk three batters in his final inning before hitting the DL.
Overall, the starters' ERA is an unremarkable 3.96 (sixth in the AL) so this may not seem like a big deal. But on an individual level, it's made a massive difference. Improved control is the primary reason why Humber has come out of nowhere to give the Sox 75 1/3 excellent innings. It helps explain why Gavin Floyd finally stopped sucking in April and May.
It also underscores the difference a healthy Peavy can make. Right now, the league is only hitting .253. That's down from .260 the year before, and .268 the year before that. If there's truly a reason why offense continues to slumber even while the temperatures warm up, then this becomes a much bigger deal. Cutting walks requires more hits to score runs, and if the hits just aren't there this year, the logic suggests the runs will be lacking as well.
Peavy, in the short time he was able to pitch, walked just one batters over his first 28 innings. If that's any indication of Peavy's newfound comfort in this environment, that would take the rotation's artistry to a whole new level. Or, more realistically, it would provide insurance for if and when Humber can no longer outrun his past.
Whichever is the case, this start certainly bodes well for the rotation. It would bode even better if the Sox would finally get serious about protecting Peavy from himself, because there's no reason to push him. They don't need him to be a stopper, they just need him to be a buffer.