Projections systems have never been a fan of the White Sox, and this year is no different.
The baseball-watching world -- fans, media, analysts, front-office types -- all agree that Rick Hahn's array of moves improved the White Sox, and significantly. The question is whether it was enough, and that's when the metrics faction jumps off the bandwagon.
For instance, FanGraphs' projected standings hand the Sox a 78-84 record, good for a tie for third place behind the Indians and Tigers. So does PECOTA, although it says the gap between first and third is a mere four games.
It's a little dispiriting, because projections almost always have valid reasons for handing out the numbers they do, and FanGraphs' preseason position-player power rankings do a good job to illustrate why the White Sox are still lagging behind the top tier of the league.
Out of the nine positions, the Sox only rank in the top half at first base, DH and shortstop -- and the last one barely qualifies at 15th. That sounds terrible, especially since one of those positions isn't on the field for most of the game.
The good news? You can find reason for optimism at most places without squinting terribly hard. Let's go through ti position by position (click on the header for the full article).
FanGraphs reasoning: Flowers' 34.8 percent strikeout rate is the highest of any non-pitcher with 1,000 plate appearances over the last 100 years of baseball., and a .355 BABIP is unlikely to happen again. Geovany Soto isn't enough to move the needle further.
My interpretation: That's a fair reaction to a sizable pitfall. However, in Flowers' favor, the math doesn't take the Magic Glasses theory into account. And while Soto isn't a guy who can take on a ton of the duties if Flowers falters, he's a level or two above the backup pool of recent vintage (Hector Gimenez, Josh Phegley and Adrian Nieto).
- White Sox: 3.7 WAR
- Median: 2.3 WAR
- High: Diamondbacks (5.0 WAR)
- Low: Phillies (0.0 WAR)
FanGraphs' reasoning: There's only a season's worth of data, and Abreu continues to confound the system with some hard-to-peg trends, like leading baseball in home runs per flyball, and slugging .513 even while his power dropped off in the second half. His defense is a negative, but Adam LaRoche should cut into it.
Moreover, it only projects Abreu for 2.6 WAR because it assigned 350 of his plate appearances to first base. The DH spot accounts for the rest of his (and LaRoche's) value.
My interpretation: My initial reaction was to consider this a pretty extreme lowball until seeing Abreu and LaRoche also jointly listed as a DH tandem. This one could still be an undersell if Abreu gets better in his second year.
FanGraphs' reasoning: It's all a bunch of unproven rookies (Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez) and proven underwhelmers (Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, Leury Garcia), and their production is further diminished by sample sizes too small to amass anything notable.
My interpretation: The Sox stand a good chance of surpassing this one due to the sheer amount of options, figuring one of the four possibilities could find a groove. It will require some tricky supervision, balancing between careful (for rookie development) and aggressive (not committing to underwater performance).
- White Sox: 1.8 WAR
- Median: 2.9 WAR
- High: Giants (5.8 WAR)
- Low: Diamondbacks (0.5 WAR)
FanGraphs' reasoning: Conor Gillaspie lacks a standout hitting quality, which makes it difficult to break away from his below-average defense. Beckham doesn't add much to the depth chart. Matt Davidson would have a year ago, but he has to restore his stock in Charlotte.
My interpretation: Probably correct. Gillaspie still has a little room for growth offensively, especially if the nosedive over the last two months could be attributed partially to stamina, rather than entirely to regression. But it's hard to give the added bulk much weight, as the plantar fasciitis nullifies it. But hey -- I don't know if I'd want to blog about a Gillaspie who inspires confidence in himself and others.
FanGraphs' reasoning: No qualms with Alexei Ramirez as a starter, since only four shortstops are separated from him by more than 1 WAR. There's just no part-time boost from his backups due to his durability, unlike some of the other teams.
My interpretation: Ramirez's individual estimate seems fine, but he's surrounded by what seem like bullish projections. Like Marcus Semien being just a half-win short of Ramirez, or Elvis Andrus reversing his decline (1.1 WAR to 2.6), or Xander Bogaerts making the leap (0.4 WAR to 2.5 WAR).
FanGraphs' reasoning: Melky Cabrera's 2013, season, which was ruined by a tumor on his spine, skews the math against him. J.B. Shuck's projection is replacement-level quality.
My interpretation: He's averaged 3.5 WAR in the other three of his last four seasons, so there's room for overachieving here ... but not too much, because his defense is pretty rough. Generous doses of Shuck in the late innings could spare the Sox some of the negative effects.
FanGraphs' reasoning: The projections don't think Adam Eaton is particularly special. They expect him to take a small step back offensively, and UZR disses his defense. The result: "roughly an average player."
(FanGraphs isn't alone, either. Baseball Tonight left Eaton off its list of top 10 center fielders, putting guys like Billy Hamilton and Wil Myers ahead of him.)
My interpretation: This is bulletin-board material, but pessimism was necessary in order to maintain internal institutional consistency. His defense created a skirmish between the WARs, with FanGraphs saying he was more than two wins worse than Baseball-Reference.com's estimate (2.9 to 5.3).
If this exercise used B-Ref's numbers, the Sox might rank in the top six or so, even if he just holds the line. Eaton seems like the type who can improve in his second season, but his tendency to hurt himself is a natural buffer against overenthusiasm.
- White Sox: 0.8 WAR
- Median: 2.1 WAR
- High: Marlins (6.0 WAR)
- Low: Phillies (-0.2 WAR)
FanGraphs' reasoning: More bulletin-board material, but we've seen this coming. Neil Weinberg, who wrote up the right field rankings, also wrote up the disagreement that Garcia inspires back in January. He knows the score, and like everybody else, he's looking forward to seeing whether the eye test or the statistical track record wins out.
My interpretation: This is the reason why we call him the fulcrum of the 2015 White Sox lineup.
- White Sox: 2.5 WAR
- Median: 1.0 WAR (out of 15 teams)
- High: Blue Jays (2.9 WAR)
- Low: Rangers (0.0 WAR)
FanGraphs' reasoning: Here's the other chunk of Abreu's performance (1.8 WAR over 252 plate appearances), which is more than double LaRoche's position-specific projection (0.7 WAR) despite receiving 28 fewer PAs.
My interpretation: With less than a half-win separating the Sox from the league's best, it's not unreasonable to think the Sox could get the most production out of this position. It's just a little much to assume, especially with LaRoche adjusting to both the American League and the DH duties.
Setting aside the usual caveats -- that spit happens, that the injury bug can lay waste to a team Rangers-style -- the projections seem to overstate the concern on the whole.
I see three positions -- the entire outfield, actually -- where the starting White Sox would be disappointed in themselves if they failed to blow by their estimates. There are three other positions serving as contrary actors, because the Sox have no safety net at catcher and third base, and they're counting on Ramirez to manage his decline. (Second base might be mess, too, but there's no rug to pull out from underneath it.)
Maybe it's the spring optimism talking, or maybe it's relative to the piss-poor rosters the Sox fielded the last two seasons, but I like the potential gains more than I'm afraid of the potential flops. The numbers-oriented part of my brain would like it better if the projections stopped being a wet shower/cold blanket, but this time, they're down on the Sox because they're dealing with the uncertainty of youth. If Abreu, Eaton, Avisail Garcia and maybe even Micah Johnson deliver on their promise, the projections should be a lot kinder in 2016.