By going 0-for-3 in Yankee Stadium on Monday, Jacob May is now within striking distance of a franchise record nobody wants to have.
He’s now hitless in 27 plate appearances; 0-for-24 with a walk, HBP and sacrifice bunt. He already owns a smaller slice of White Sox history, as Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index says he has the longest single-season hitless streak to start a career, at least since 1913. He surpassed Cy Wright, who started his career 0-for-18 over 22 plate appearances in 1916, and never played again.
The overall record belongs to Randy Moore. The corner outfielder for the Sox went hitless in his first 32 plate appearances, but they were split over two seasons. He went 0-for-15 in 15 trips in 1927, then started the 1928 season with a similar rut, except he also added two sac bunts.
May is within one blowout of Moore’s record, which is part of the reason I’m writing this (acknowledgements of extreme performances are often followed by a move to the mean, or a “jinx”). It’d sure be nice to see him get a hit, and not only because it’s nice to see every White Sox rookie collect his first.
Specific to this case, he was thrust into an unfortunate position by Charlie Tilson’s injury. The White Sox needed a second center fielder on the roster, and May represented one of two courses by running with somebody who had a chance of contributing somewhere down the line. Watching May struggle now, it opens second-guessing about releasing Peter Bourjos. Bourjos hasn’t done much with the Rays in a fourth outfielder role (2-for-13), but he would’ve been a human shield at the very least.
Instead, May remains exposed in the big leagues, and the lack of alternatives is even starker now that Adam Engel has suffered through his own miserable start in Charlotte (2-for-35!).
Rick Renteria has exercised his two chief options. He started the season playing May through it, starting him five of the first six games. He tried giving May a breather, benching him for three straight games. Now May has started the last three games, and he’s 0-for-10 with three strikeouts.
May, for his part, is trying to keep his head up:
"It's only going to make me better," May said. "When it's all said and done, it will be a pretty cool story. You have to fight through it. I'll never quit.
"I'll show up every day and I'm going to put in my best effort and work hard. I've had a lot of guys, teammates, people reaching out to me, telling me to relax and it will happen when it happens. All I can do is keep coming out here and giving my best effort. At the end of the day, I'm blessed to even be in this locker room. I'm going to keep coming at it, working hard, and things will happen."
It’s possible that the pain will be contained to the present, even if it’s quite pronounced. May will very likely need an extended return to Charlotte to get his career on track, but as severe as these struggles are, perhaps they’ll make Triple-A pitching look easier, and he’ll be no worse for the wear when he angles for a role in 2018 or beyond.
For the time being, it still isn’t clear what the best recourse is.
Optioning him: Probably best for him, definitely worst for the team. That would leave Leury Garcia as the starting and only center fielder unless they called up Jason Bourgeois, which is French for “Bourjos,” but with a knowing connotation that can’t quite be translated to English. Either that, or they’d have to give Yolmer Sanchez an outfielder’s glove and see what happens.
Playing him regularly enough: Rough for the team, personal implications unclear. It’s be nice if he could even sniff the Mendoza Line by the next week, but I imagine there’s gotta be scar tissue if he surpasses Brown’s franchise record and makes a run at Chub Aubrey in 1903.
Platooning him: Nothing like carving up a small sample size further, but eight of May’s nine strikeouts have come against right-handed pitching, while he’s struck out only once while drawing his only walk against lefties. His minor-league splits are inconsistent when it comes to matchups, but “better against lefties” is a characteristic of his best work with Birmingham, and if he tracks the ball better as a right-handed hitter, maybe that’s the best way to try to give him his footing. The problem with this approach is that the White Sox aren’t scheduled to face a lefty until April 24, so that’d be the same as...
Benching him: ... which is best for the team, as Garcia has been the clear-cut best option out there. Garcia entered the season striking out in 33 percent of his MLB plate appearances, but he’s whiffed just once over his first 25 PA this season. His plate discipline numbers are all tracking in the correct direction — chase rate down, contact way up in all senses -- although that might be because teams are pretty much challenging him with fastballs in the zone, and that could be subject to change shortly.
The optimal version of the present White Sox has Garcia at No. 8 on the scorecard and No. 9 in the lineup, with May coming off the bench with speed and defense. That just doesn’t help May at all, since the biggest obstacle in his development has been a lack of reps.
So yeah, there still aren’t any enviable options here as the White Sox advance into the second half of April. It feels like a very White Sox thing to have this troublesome roster spot foundering to an extreme degree, but they’ve had good fortune elsewhere. Entering the season, FanGraphs said the White Sox had the worst projections at center field, right field and designated hitter. Avisail Garcia is thumping and Matt Davidson is contributing, so the math says that May is the one who has to wear it.