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White Sox can't get defensive over breakdowns in field

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The offense is bad, the defense is bad, and now the answers are joining them

Jon Durr/Getty Images

As the losing streak hits seven, cracks in the White Sox are starting to show.

It can't quite be seen in Robin Ventura, although his responses are growing terser by the day:

"That’s just bad," Ventura said. "I’m tired of talking about it. They know it. We work it all of spring training — you’ve probably seen it a few hundred times that we work on it. I’m getting tired of talking about it because that’s just bad." [...]

"They need to catch it — that’s what they need to do," Ventura said.

Adam Eaton, on the other hand ... well, let's make sure we provide as much context as we can for what he said after, because it's probably the roughest response of the season. Here's the play from Thursday's game that he was asked about, which is also the play that drew Ventura's ire:

With one out in the seventh inning, Corey Hart hit a pop-up to very shallow center. Alexei Ramirez looked like he called it early, but he drifted with the ball toward center field as Eaton came in. Ramirez then pulled up late as Eaton arrived. The problem was that Eaton also pulled up, and the ball plopped between them.

It hasn't been a great stretch for Ramirez when it comes for calling for balls -- more on plays with Carlos Sanchez than others -- but this is one where Eaton should have called him off. It's his jurisdiction, plus the ball landed closer to him. He could've taken charge of the play, or he could've given Ramirez ample room to operate, but he did neither.

So now the attention turns from Ramirez to Eaton, who has faced his share of criticism as of late. Mark Parent benched him last Saturday, reportedly because the coaching staff didn't like how deep he played (and perhaps it's no coincidence that this misplay happened on a shallow fly). Eaton objected loudly enough that it became its own story.

Whatever the specifics, something is rotten in the field. This report from Baseball Info Solutions' John Dewan says that defense has cost the White Sox five whole wins according to the Defensive Runs Saved metric:

In this hypothetical world of average defenses, the White Sox would leapfrog the Indians and Tigers while falling short of the Royals by mere percentage points. The White Sox have myriad defensive problems. Avisail Garcia, Adam Eaton, Alexei Ramirez, and Micah Johnson have each cost the team eight or more runs this season, and the pitching staff has been the worst defensively at the position in the AL.

It's key that DRS is the stat being used here, because DRS was on Eaton's side last year. It said he saved 12 runs in center field last season, while UZR read his defensive as slightly below average (-3.8 runs). He was the biggest single battleground between the two systems, and so it seemed like splitting the difference and calling him slightly above average was a fair compromise.

This time, there is no such disagreement. Before Thursday's game, DRS had him at -9, and UZR had him at -8.4. And perhaps we'll see those move further in the wrong direction with this most recent miscue.

Knowing the state of the White Sox defense and Eaton's significant role in it, his assessment of said miscue is difficult to read:

"You guys ask the questions when it’s not going well," Eaton said. "Like I said, it didn’t hurt. It was a tough play, but it was glaring because it’s, like I said, we’re not playing well. But if we would have won the game 5-2 it probably wouldn’t even have been a blip on your radar. Like I said, kind of a tough play but it’s probably somewhere where I need to take charge as a center field and call him off, but it’s a good thing it didn’t hurt us in the end."

Colleen Kane provided video of how he said it, and it's not much easier to listen to.

The frustration is understandable. Eaton's been fighting a two-front war with his offense and defense all season. He's back on track at the plate (.331 OBP since May 1, and .365 this month), but a 5-11 June, a seven-game losing streak and the defense's role in the losses blot out any silver lining.

This is his first summer as the go-to guy for the media in this post-Konerko era, and he probably didn't expect so much self-flagellation involved. Guys get criticized if they duck the media instead of owning their play publicly, but facing up to the media doesn't guarantee better reception in and of itself. When the answers sound like Eaton's did after Thursday's game, it's easier to understand the merits of waiting 18 hours.

That kind of mistake can't be waved away as a "blip" when it's emblematic of a major reason why the White Sox are playing severely losing baseball, especially when it puts stress on other teammates. It didn't hurt the Sox, but only because Jeff Samardzija survived throwing his 109th through 114th pitches to the top of Pittsburgh's order with a runner in scoring position. "Somebody else cleaned up the mess" isn't exactly a great leadership platform.

If Eaton's words can be taken at face value, it's easy to understand why the quality of play has degenerated in plain view, and why they're no closer to succeeding, especially in a low-scoring environment. I'm willing to believe it's not quite an honest evaluation, but more the result of a combination of wounded pride and an audience that expects answers. It better be something like that, or else the number of ugly questions are going to multiply for everybody involved.