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Groundhog daze (Sox version)

Happy Groundhog Day — when Southpaw pokes his head up out of the dugout, and if he sees his shadow, it means six more years of rebuilding

‘Punxsutawney Phil’ Makes Annual Winter Prediction On Groundhog Day
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox
Groundhog designed by committee.
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Big day today!

Every Chicago White Sox fan has grown up with the legend of Groundhog Day, so we all know how it works — Southpaw will poke his head up out of the dugout, and if he sees his shadow, it means six more years of rebuilding.

Now, unlike the situation in Pennsylvania, where Southpaw’s distant cousin Punxatawney Phil will inevitably see his shadow because there are a gazillion TV lights shining on him, it is always possible in Southpaw’s case he won’t see his shadow. Possible.

The situations do cross over, though. The reason groundhogs poke up on Candlemas, reportedly, is to desperately look for a mate. Southpaw is desperately looking for a team …which just happens to be an anagram of mate. Coincidence? Unlikely.

After all, the Sox have already had six straight losing seasons, matching the length of the Houston Astros’ streak in length if not depth, and longer than the losing streak of the other famed modern rebuild, (a team we won’t name). Never mind that the hitting, pitching and fielding records of those other teams indicate they were a lot farther ahead, player wise, at this point. Never mind the Sox have a nine-year losing streak in their history, roughly overlaying the Great Depression. And never mind they were different sorts of rebuilds.

As Chicagoans know, rebuilding has a wide range, from the total tear-down, dig-up-the-foundation-and-start-all-over type, to the gut rehab, to the let’s-dab-a-little-paint-on-it-and-see-if-we-can-catch-a-sucker variety.

The Astros and that other team went all the way, wiping out front offices and coaching staffs, and replacing them with people who had a lot of success elsewhere. Houston got Jeff Luhnow from the Cards, and that other team got GM of the decade Theo Epstein from Boston. Luhnow ran through a bunch of managers who didn’t perform before getting A.J. Hinch, Epstein let go of a manager White Sox fans are familiar with to get Joe Maddon. Et cetera. No stone unturned, even though the Astros budget wasn’t huge.

The Sox on the other hand, have settled for gut rehab. They ripped out the plumbing and wiring and windows, and tore down a wall or two, a la HGTV, but left the shaky foundation, hoping they can bribe building inspectors and fans out of noticing. Then they got a bunch a real fancy new stuff in the form of highly rated prospects, only to have those prospects dramatically underperform so far, even get worse … sort of like a new bathroom with the spiffy tiles and double sink — but no water pressure.

With the current effort to make a big splash with a very good player who demonstrated some questionable character traits last October, the Sox now look like they’re trying to shift into a dab-the-paint rebuild — but it’s too late to do that after you’ve ripped out the plumbing and wiring and windows.

Yes, yes — rebuilding takes time, and we must patiently just watch while the scaffolding is still up. But patience works better when you can already see what a nice job they’ve done with the windows.

So, Southpaw’s shadow may or may not show up.

Of course, since 1993, Groundhog Day has had another meaning as well, thanks to the movie with Bill Murray, who deserves every goddang bad thing that happens to him in the film, because he’s a famous fan of the team that we won’t name. In the words of the immortal bard Yogi, Groundhog Day becomes “déjà vu all over again,” endlessly.

White Sox fans know the feeling. In the movie, Murray woke up every morning to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe”; we turned on Sox games, and every time it was Hawk yakking about Yaz. Hard to say which is more tortuous. Could have been worse, though — Cher could have been screeching “Half Breed” and Hawk could have been trying to cope with metrics.

Nowadays, the endless cycle is more on the field. Batter comes up, shift goes on, batter hits right into the shift or strikes out. That’s not a Sox thing, it’s a baseball-wide thing ... but the Sox are really good at it.

FiveThirtyEight last month did an analysis showing batters actually fare better hitting into, and over, the shift than when they do the seemingly sensible thing and go the other way. FiveThirtyEight is really good with statistics, but what the stats don’t show it how often balls hit the other way were unintentional, essentially foul pop-ups that land in play.

The stats also don’t show whether batters practice going opposite field, which is doubtful in most cases. Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew would have hit .900 against the shift, which would have very quickly been removed for them. If today’s players worked at it, they’d crush the shift as well. (I’ve long thought that the most important carryover from sports to real life isn’t about teamwork or perseverance, but “take what the defense gives you.”)

Funny thing about baseball. In football or basketball, adjustments to what the other team does are made in seconds — tweaks every play or every time up the floor, with major changes every timeout and at halftime. In baseball, other than in direct pitcher-hitter confrontations, adjustments are made over decades. The shift has eased in over a decade, and beating it apparently will now take another one.

So we get buried in the Groundhog Day cycle for long, long stretches of time. It eventually worked out for Murray’s character, so maybe it will eventually be OK in baseball, too.

As for Southpaw? We need to hope for a really cloudy day.