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Debunking Myths: The White Sox offense and weak opposing pitchers

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The White Sox bats sometimes get stumped by pitchers that an offense should be able to handle, but has this been a significant issue?

See you tomorrow, buddy.
See you tomorrow, buddy.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

We've all felt that sinking feeling when the White Sox are about to face a starting pitcher that a major league offense should typically feast upon. There's been plenty of games we can point to in which the White Sox bats have gone limp in an aggravating affair against an underwhelming hurler. You know the types:

  • Soft-tossing lefties with underwhelming stuff and peripherals, like Bruce Chen and Tommy Milone
  • Random call-ups and rookies from the minor leagues without an impressive pedigree that the White Sox have never faced before
  • Jeremy Guthrie
But are our fears really justified? Do the White Sox actually tend to struggle against these types, or are we getting worked up over nothing?

I wanted to study this, and doing so required quite a bit of brute force. As far as I'm aware, there's no great way to get team splits by opposing pitcher within a season. Instead, I went through the splits of every starting pitcher that the Sox have faced in 2016 and logged how each has fared against the Sox this year. Next, I separated starting pitchers into categories based on the average of their 2016 FIP and ERA. This is far from a perfect representation of pitcher quality, but I felt that all I needed to do was group guys into rough categories and this would be sufficient for that purpose. The following are what I believed to be the two biggest limitations of my "metric", but there are others:
  • Guys with longer track records might be placed in a different category than that implied by their career-long body of work (Sonny Gray is an example). However, to the extent that there's something particularly "wrong" or "right" with the way they happen to be pitching this year, we want to reflect that.
  • This method leaves open the possibility of fringe guys with short major league stints being categorized somewhat improperly based on a "hot" few games. I don't think that this applies to any pitcher in the study.
Here's how pitchers were categorized based on my metric, which I'll call "FIPRA" for simplicity:
  • "Good": FIPRA less than 3.50
  • "Above-Average": FIPRA between 3.50 and 4.25
  • "Below-Average": FIPRA between 4.25 and 5.00
  • "Disaster": FIPRA greater than 5.00
For some context, John Danks wouldn't have met the "Disaster" criterion in any year from 2013-2015. So that category is made up of veterans who are really having a rough time this year along with some guys who really shouldn't be starting in the major leagues.

Here's how the pitchers break down into the four categories. There may be anomalies, but by and large, it looks like what you'd expect:

Good Above-Average Below-Average Disaster
Rich Hill Ervin Santana Sonny Gray Chris Bassitt
Danny Salazar Matt Shoemaker Kendall Graveman Cody Anderson
Garrett Richards Colby Lewis Kyle Gibson Phil Hughes
Steven Wright Marco Estrada Jake Odorizzi Jered Weaver
Masahiro Tanaka Kevin Gausman Erasmo Ramirez Derek Holland
Danny Duffy Cole Hamels Matt Moore Tyler Wilson
Corey Kluber Doug Fister Hector Santiago Mike Wright
Steven Matz Collin McHugh Martin Perez Ubaldo Jimenez
Jacob DeGrom Josh Tomlin Marcus Stroman Clay Buchholz
Max Scherzer Matt Harvey R.A. Dickey Henry Owens
Trevor Bauer Jordan Zimmermann Ricky Nolasco Luis Severino
Carlos Carrasco Justin Verlander Tyler Duffey Ivan Nova
Aaron Sanchez Joe Ross Dallas Keuchel Yordano Ventura
Julio Teheran Rick Porcello Dillon Gee Michael Clevinger
CC Sabathia Edinson Volquez Eduardo Rodriguez
Mike Pelfrey Tommy Milone
Gio Gonzalez Matt Boyd
Mike Fiers
Michael Pineda
Matt Wisler
Mike Foltynewicz

Here's how the White Sox have fared against pitchers from each category and for fun, a comparable 2016 hitter in parentheses:
  • Good: .222/.291/.349 (Avisail Garcia)
  • Above-Average: .260/.315/.435 (Asdrubal Cabrera)
  • Below-Average: .238/.309/.380 (Logan Morrison)
  • Disaster: .270/.338/.479 (Jason Kipnis)

Jason Kipnis is a good hitter! It seems we can conclude that the White Sox don't have any significant problems hitting the worst starting pitchers in the league.

....Or can we?

How does the rest of the league fare against pitchers from that group? If we take the "Disaster" pitchers' triple-slash lines allowed against the league as a whole and weight them based on at-bats (or plate appearances, for OBP) against the White Sox, what sort of result would we expect? I looked up the numbers for each pitcher in that category and the weighted-average line allowed is...

  • .290/.354/.492 (Ian Kinsler)
That's a little better than the White Sox' performance against this group. Maybe they do have a slight problem when it comes to taking advantage of struggling and/or inexperienced arms.

....Or do they?

What we have to remember here is that the White Sox offense itself is below-average. They have a wRC+ of 89 and slash .251/.316/.401.  The American League average is .260/.324/.427. That right there accounts for the bulk of the discrepancy and the rest is a relatively small amount of variance for slash lines against the most volatile pitchers in the major leagues. Of course the White Sox hit bad pitchers a little worse than league average; they're worse at hitting than league average.

It's extremely frustrating to watch your offense look helpless against Cody Anderson, or fail to pounce while Jered Weaver just sort of lobs it in there, or seem like a oasis in the desert to guys like Guthrie or Chen for years. Fans look back on games like these and imagine they occur with disproportionate frequency because the frustration makes them memorable. When the White Sox jump all over Matt Boyd or blast Luis Severino back to Triple-A Scranton or obliterate former nemesis Tommy Milone, it goes forgotten because these pitchers are bad and the result doesn't stick out as remarkable.

Therefore, there's some cognitive bias at work when our minds get the impression that the White Sox struggle more than usual against weak or unknown pitchers. Sometimes a pitcher that isn't very good will have a strong outing against your team, particularly when your offense is below-average. Maybe he'll have better movement on his pitches, maybe his command will be randomly on point that game, or maybe poor BABIP luck will combine with a few hitters having an off day to keep the offense quiet. That sort of stuff will happen over a 162-game season.

Many have tried to assign a reason that the White Sox occasionally fail to hit pitchers that should trigger chop-licking rather than dread. Some blame the hitting coach, others get mad at Robin Ventura for not having the team in the right mindset, and others suggest bad advance scouting (my personal least-favorite narrative). The real culprit is the randomness of baseball, and other teams have to deal with it too. Just think back on how Mat Latos tortured four opposing teams before reality caught up to him.

Therefore, White Sox fans can comfortably go into a matchup against a Weaver, a Milone, or Joe Minor Leaguer expecting better-than-usual results. While success is never a guarantee, we shouldn't invent a cause for past failures and let it guide our feelings towards the next game. There's nothing concrete to point to, and any reason for concern about facing these pitchers is just in our heads.