When Jose Abreu said the Royals out-wanted the White Sox when it came to winning, I didn’t think much of it. There is an intangible-based argument, but when it comes to something like The Will to Win, I expect it to be incompletely and inconsistently applied.
When #TWTW isn’t being used to discredit sabermetrics, it’s used to dismiss the talent gap on the field. Hawk Harrelson will go on and on about how losing Austin Jackson and Jake Petricka were devastating while the White Sox are getting pantsed by a team playing without Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, two superior players. The Royals made it to two consecutive World Series, and are going to be comfortably over .500 this year, while the White Sox are comfortably under for a fourth consecutive season. That seems like a major difference in talent, and if it isn’t, then their management is far better equipped, whether with a system or resourcefulness, to weather huge losses.
This underbelly of #TWTW is the more compelling part of it: If an opposing team has superior will and desire, what does that say about the White Sox, or the people running them?
Abreu might have hit a sensitive spot here by saying the unsaid. If so, it’s not surprising, that Abreu and Robin Ventura sought to minimize the comments the following day.
Perhaps trying to protect Abreu from looking as if he was pointing fingers, Ventura suggested the message was misinterpreted. He thinks Abreu is disappointed, frustrated and tired at the end of a trying season.
"What’s lost in it is he probably used the wrong word for describing what he’s feeling," Ventura said. "That’s part of the challenge for him is he has to be translated what he’s feeling. He’s talking about himself. He’s not talking about his other teammates.
"We’re getting close to the end, and he’s grinding through it. I think that’s more of it than anything else."
The translation part is valid, as much as it’d be fun to roll eyes at his comment. Abreu kept his comments brief, saying he was pointing the finger at himself more than anybody.
Perhaps there was unnamed acrimony Abreu sought to ease, but neither of the two players cited by the beat writers — Alex Avila or Adam Eaton -- disagreed with Abreu’s larger message.
"I think [desire]'s something that should always come up on a team that doesn't perform to expectations," Avila said. "If you're a team like we are, where we've had spurts where it seems like things could come together but over the course of the whole season, we haven't played to that type of expectation. If everything doesn't look right as far as execution and preparation before a game, but also talent and desire. All those have to be looked at on a team expected to win but doesn't."
The funny thing is the White Sox tried to do that this past offseason. The White Sox didn’t need to overhaul the catching position, and they made it worse in terms of projections, but Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila were considered upgrades in the team-building department. Todd Frazier brought media savvy, Brett Lawrie wouldn’t let the clubhouse get flat, and Jimmy Rollins was all business.
This assembly of more defined identities wasn’t a complete failure, because Adam LaRoche retired. But even with one fewer ego to appease and a hot start to cauterize any open wounds, the Sox ended up in the same place.
They tried a massive talent transplant last year. They tried a veteran transplant this year. The body rejected the organs both times. So at this point, you have to either say the body is beyond saving, or the doctors are just the worst at Operation.
These are very uncomfortable questions, but these tend to rise when a team stumbles into its fourth consecutive losing season. Moreover, the Sox courted these questions by bringing back Ventura in the first place when there was really no reason to. If you want to openly invite speculation about intangibles, an unpopular manager with no track record and resonance among the fan base is a great place to start, and that was before a couple of nationally captivating clubhouse clashes undermined his last selling point.
Revisiting that post from last September, this question may never be resolved:
I really hope it's not the latter, because that shouldn't be that hard. Poor hires happen. Ventura gave the Sox some sorely needed peace and quiet for five months, and then September of 2012 happened and things haven't been the same since. I couldn't support the hiring, but I won't say it was devoid of reason. He and/or the organization didn't develop enough in order to make it work. Take some lessons from it and move along.
That's not happening, and so I can't shake the sense that Ventura is the White Sox version of Alan Trammell, and this is the time they should be calling for a Jim Leyland. Instead, the Sox are loath to pull the plug when all parties would ultimately benefit from letting go.
It’d be a shame if the White Sox blew up everything before swapping out managers, because if nothing else, it would have been easier to have a sense of the talent/preparation gap.
Going back to Harrelson, he routinely hails the job Jeff Banister is doing with the Rangers. On Tuesday, they became the first American League team to win 90 games. Their magic number for taking the AL West is now 2.
The Rangers have only outscored their opponents by 10 runs this season. They have allowed the second-most runs of any AL team, mostly because three-fifths of their rotation was injured for a good chunk of the season. Yet despite their own costly DL stints, there they are, 28 games over .500, in large part because they are an unfathomable 36-10 in one-run games.
There’s luck involved for sure. The Orioles famously went 29-9 in one-run games during their breakout 93-win season in 2012, Buck Showalter’s second full season in Baltimore. Showalter did not have the key to one-run games in his pocket, because they went 20-31 in such situations the following season, and they missed the postseason. Even still, they finished with 85 wins. In fact, the Orioles haven’t had a losing season since, despite some underwhelming offseasons and poor projections.
Nobody can identify how much managers are responsible for the ebb and flow of a given season, but both the Orioles and Rangers spared themselves the easiest of critiques by having a process. Showalter had a rich history of building up teams, and Banister spent two decades in various managerial and coach roles in the Pirates’ system. It’s not like the Orioles and Rangers could predict they struck gold, but both teams could say they gave reasonable consideration to the rigors of the job.
Five years and four consecutive losing seasons into Ventura’s career, we can’t say the same about the White Sox, which is a big problem. The speculation about want and will and desire might not be fruitful, but the fact that we can speculate so easily makes all speculation worthwhile.