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White Sox lag behind league in solving second spot

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Robin Ventura's insistence on batting Tyler Saladino after Adam Eaton didn't do his team any favors

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

We spent plenty of time and electronic ink griping about the White Sox' problems at the second spot in 2015. When it comes to that specific issue, we're one of the last fan bases that has the right to bemoan it.

Over at FanGraphs, Neil Weinberg dove deep into the league-wide improvement by No. 2 hitters across the league. With the way the information is presented, it's like Weinberg is trying to embarrass the Sox, even if he doesn't specifically mention them at all.

For one, the post is titled "The End of the Terrible Number-Two Hitter," which might be a little bit of an overstatement considering it's only one year of data. But it might be a little bit exaggerated in order to highlight how much of a jump MLB managers made before the season, which was such an issue that it prompted Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight to refer to the two-hole as "The Spot in MLB Lineups Where Managers Are Still Ignoring Sabermetrics" the year before. If managers received too little credit before the season, now they might be receiving a little too much.

Weinberg acknowledges this a few times, but he still has confidence that managers are wising up. There were signs of it entering the season, and the results bear that out:

The big driver of the overall trend seems to be that teams are learning not to put terrible hitters in the two hole. In 2014, six teams got less than 80 wRC+ from the second spot in their lineup, but only two were that bad in 2015. There were 11 teams with less than 90 wRC+ in 2014, but just four such teams produced that little from the two slot in 2015.

(... including the White Sox.)

Embedded in the post is a chart listing the teams in order of the biggest jumps in second-spot production. If you only glance for the Sox in terms of ranking, it doesn't look that awful, as they're toward the top of the bottom half.

But then you notice that they had the worst wRC+ of any team in that neighborhood in 2014 with 76 ... and they somehow slid to an unfathomably impotent 67 in 2015, by far the worst of any team (Oakland is second-worst with a 79 wRC+).

Meanwhile, the four teams that were worse than the White Sox with No. 2 production in 2014 all benefited from huge jumps, crowding the top of the list:

That's not an accident, either. The Mariners used Kyle Seager instead of Dustin Ackley, the Rangers went to Shin-Soo Choo over Elvis Andrus, Royals leaned on Mike Moustakas and Ben Zobrist instead of Omar Infante, and the Padres used a mix of three entirely new players. Teams aren't totally abiding by The Book's endorsement of batting their best hitters second, but the macro of it is more important:

There does appear to be a clear shift away from low-production, contact guys who can bunt in the two hole. Teams aren’t necessarily embracing the specific advice from The Book as much as they are learning its broader lesson: good hitters at the top, bad hitters at the bottom.

(... except the White Sox.)

See what I mean?

What sucks is that the White Sox did take measures to improve it while winning the winter. Melky Cabrera was supposed to solve the problem, but he came out of the gate with the inability to buy a hit. You could pin some of it on bad luck, but even his best contact was lacking oomph, and he compounded the issues by showing bunt when nobody called for it. That last one is especially baffling considering Cabrera batted second for the Blue Jays in 2014, and he had no problem resisting that urge. After 54 games, Cabrera was only hitting .228/.261/.263, and the Sox had to look elsewhere.

Jose Abreu was the only obvious answer, as he was the only other above-average hitter in the lineup besides Adam Eaton. Ventura took his sweet time getting to it, flirting with Alexei Ramirez and Avisail Garcia before "giving 'em what they want" on June 28.

With Abreu batting second the next 10 games, the White Sox went 7-3 against a tough slate of opponents (the Tigers, Cardinals, Orioles and Blue Jays).

Then Tyler Saladino showed up, and love blinded Ventura over the next month. You can't even say it was because Saladino made a strong first impression because Ventura batted the rookie second in his debut, and continued to do so well after regression to the mean set in.

The numbers tell the story: Ventura dragged his feet to find a solution, then when he finally found one, he abandoned it for somebody who really wasn't cut out for the role:

Baseball kept telling Ventura that he was making a mistake, too, as Saladino went hitless in his first 22 high-leverage situations. Ventura wasn't swayed until Saladino faltered in the late innings in three consecutive games. Abreu returned to the No. 2 spot for a spell afterward, but the Sox were already trapped in their season-killing tailspin.

Lest it sound like I'm making sweeping conclusions, the White Sox didn't have the league's worst offense primarily because Ventura avoided batting Abreu second for most of the season. He might've had his reasons, like Abreu feeling more comfortable in a traditional power role. It's never been said, and the difference in Abreu's splits isn't distinct enough to make a compelling case, but it's possible.

But the Sox did have the league's worst offense, and Ventura didn't show nearly enough creativity -- especially of the logical kind -- in shaking the Sox out of it at the top of the order. Nor did he explain the situation well enough at any point to make subsequent zingers about sabermetrics during SoxFest feel earned.

The hope is that this is one of the tactical shortcomings that Rick Hahn referred to when he decided to keep Ventura but fire Mark Parent.  Abreu did bat second in his last 10 starts, and Todd Frazier is around to give the Sox a third first-inning bat. We can only hope there's progress, because as the FanGraphs article shows, the Sox are behind the rest of the league in multiple senses of the word, and there's really only one person at which we can point fingers.