Alejandro De Aza entered the season as one of the White Sox's calculated risks. He certainly looked like he could be an upgrade over Juan Pierre on paper, but he had never proven it over the course of a full season. Injuries thwarted his two everyday chances before, so that was the first hurdle. The second would be in-season fatigue, increased exposure to American League pitching, and the other smaller factors that make sustaining major-league success so difficult.
The Sox needed to pare down their payroll somehow, and plugging De Aza into the leadoff spot was an obvious corner to cut. Pierre inadvertently helped the transition when his low ceiling caved in, yet spent the entire year batting first anyway. We knew Pierre's limitations all too well, but De Aza's potential had yet to be realized, and it set imaginations relatively aflame.
He had his doubters. The most notable was Doug Padilla, who, before ESPN switched him to that red-hot Cubs beat, repeatedly insisted the Sox needed "a prototypical leadoff man" even after the De Aza succession plan became clear. Kenny Williams never entertained another option (at least outwardly), and the organization's faith proved well-founded.
De Aza filled a couple of longstanding voids -- he gave the Sox a nice year from a position player making the minimum, and in terms of getting on base, he was their best designated leadoff hitter in quite some time.
You have to go back to 2004 -- yes, before both rises of Scott Podsednik -- to find more production from the top of the order:
Judging from the context of this chart alone, 2004 was a sneaky good offensive season. If you can't immediately think of the Sox's leadoff man from that year, there's a reason -- the Sox never really had one. They cobbled together a quality sparkplug from the following parts:
- Willie Harris: .264/.343/.318 over 389 PA
- Aaron Rowand: .319/.369/.607(!) over 181 PA
- Juan Uribe: .289/.361/.515(!) over 109 PA
- Timo Perez: .271/.348/.322 over 67 PA
(When even Timo reached base at a respectable clip, you know some magic was involved.)
In terms of raw numbers, the performance led by De Aza in 2012 doesn't quite stand up to the 2004 crew's accomplishments. But once you factor in the league context, De Aza's influence becomes more promiment.
In 2004, White Sox leadoff men posted a .349 OBP that beat the league average (.338), but it was a bit below the league average by leadoff hitters (.353).
Since then, the league game has tilted toward pitchers, which ends up amplifying this season's leadoff numbers. While De Aza and friends didn't match the OBP by the 2004 crew, that .344 OBP was good enough to handily top both the overall league average (.320) and that of all No. 1 hitters (.329).
To find a White Sox leadoff man that outpaced the league by that much when it came to avoiding outs, you have to go all the way back to 1996, when Tony Phillips drew an AL-best 125 walks on his way to a .404 OBP, which was well above the league average of .362.
I'd also take Ray Durham's performance out of the top spot in 2000 -- .280/.361/.450 with 61 extra-base hits and 121 runs scored -- over De Aza's season, and these aren't insults. Durham was a near-Hall of Famer, and Phillips possessed an elite skill.
That De Aza is up against these kinds of seasons is a victory. He expanded the role of the White Sox leadoff hitter by piling 44 extra-base hits on top of his .349 OBP, and playing a reliable center field, which opened up the corner spots for power. He might be looking up at the Durhams, but the Pierres are beneath him, and that's progress.
He's not perfect, lockdown solution. Herm Schneider had to talk him out of walking toward the light a couple times, and his late, hard dives into bases expose him to further injury. The longer season may have worn him down, as his performance dropped off shortly after the All-Star break.
Still, he finished the season strong before "flu-like symptoms" kept him out of the lineup over the last few days. A trip to the DL helped him rediscover his stroke, as did a two-day break toward the end of the season when he got out of sync. He hit .278/.367/.481 in September. Unfortunately, the guys behind him couldn't keep up.
Now the Sox know he can both last a full season, and he can re-adjust himself after the break. Those are big steps for any career. When talking about Chris Sale, Don Cooper said they wanted to keep him on schedule as much as possible because the first year is a mountain:
"We wanted him to get the full experience, get it out of the way," Cooper said. "Go start to finish. Pitch nine innings. All of those things. It's not novel. We knew it was going to be a challenge with his first year starting. I don't care who you are. I don't care how talented you are. It's tough."
The same can be said for De Aza, especially considering the way injuries derailed him in the past. He took his fair share of punishment -- throws to the ribs, knees to the head, collisions with the wall -- and got back to his feet. Sometimes he needed a standing eight count, but there are no extra points for style.
That's a big help to a front office and roster that will apparently undergo separate transitions. De Aza played well enough -- and he was resilient enough -- to allow the current and/or future GM to focus his attention and energy elsewhere.