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You can’t Go-Go if you whiff-whiff

Or, what a difference 60 little years make

That’s not a misplaced decimal: Fox had a career K rate of 2.08%.
Richard Meek /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Sunday’s win against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday raised the Chicago White Sox to 31-33 record. That would play out to 78 wins, except for the small fact they’ve had easily the softest schedule in the majors so far (White Sox opponents have won at just a .467 clip). FiveThirtyEight is sticking with a 74-win projection, which may still turn out to be a bit generous.

We all know that the Sox have suffered from bad pitching except for Lucas Giolito, in part due to injuries, and horrible defense, but their offense hasn’t been much either, despite some fine individual performances — and there are signs that it has been lucky .

The Sox scored 267 runs in their first 63 games, 23rd in baseball and 11th in the AL. Bad, but not unexpected, except for one thing — they are third the majors (and second in the AL) in batting average on balls in play. Yeah, I didn’t believe that when I saw it, either, but their BABIP of .318 is just four ticks behind clubhouse leaders the Tampa Bay Rays and Colorado Rockies, and if there’s any statistic where experts say an outlier is sure to regress to the mean, that’s it. So, expect trouble.

So how does No. 3 BABIP translate to 22nd in runs? Not to mention 22nd in OPS? The Sox are 25th in homers, but that’s a small part in the equation. The big deal comes in Ks and BBs.

The Sox had struck out 600 times at the one-third mark, sixth in baseball, in a category you most definitely don’t want to lead. That’s a 1,542 pace for the season, barely better than last year’s record-setting 1,594. Those 600 Ks so far pair with 159 walks, last in the AL, and tied for last with the Miami Marlins all told.

That works out .27 BBs per K. No team in baseball is worse, and that includes 15 National League teams that have their pitchers bat. Logic says if you strike out a lot you should walk a lot, since you never interfere with the pitcher’s chance to give you a free pass by hitting the damned ball.

Of course, we’re in the era of strikeouts and homers, but the Sox have only hit 70 long balls, so that’s 8.6 Ks per HR. Boooooring. Don’t take my word on how horribly boring all-whiffs-and-dingers ball is — take Bill Melton’s. When a slugger like Melton, with a career of 160 HRs and 669 Ks, says all the fanning is killing fandom, the powers that be really need to listen.

And it’s not like it’s all on one or two individuals, even though Yoán Moncada’s 217 strikeouts last year were one more than Nellie Fox had in a 19-year career, and Tim Anderson is notoriously allergic to taking a freebie when offered. The entire White Sox starting lineup, except for Yolmer Sánchez, Welington Castillo and, oddly enough, Yonder Alonzo, has at least 3-to-1 K-to-BB ratio. And it’s not like things are looking up — even in their best two-game stretch of the year, the two wins in Houston, the Sox had five walks and 23 strikeouts, and you don’t even want to know what the numbers were during the massacre in Minnesota.

But I digress. Where we should be heading is back 60 years, to the pennant-winning 1959 Go-Go Sox, back to a time when the play was better and the memories sweeter. (Well, sweeter for Sox fans. I was a kid in Cleveland then, watching the Indians not catch up.)

That White Sox team was mostly known for two things. One was outstanding pitching, led by 39-year-old Hall-of-Famer Early Wynn. The other was absolutely otherworldly defense, especially up the middle, with Hall-of-Famers Fox and Luis Aparicio at second and short and multi-Golden-Glovers Jim Landis in center and Sherm Lollar catching. It was a joy to watch, even if you were rooting against it.

You can tell this shot is spring training-staged. If it was the regular season, the metal cleats would be sharpened.
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

But the Go-Go Sox had an amazing offensive statistic as well — taking pitchers out of the equation (the DH was 14 years away), they walked more than they struck out. Yep, 545 walks, 524 whiffs.

It wasn’t just bingles hitters like Fox and Aparicio and Landis who managed that, either. Youngster Norm Cash had twice as many walks as fans in 58 games — that’s Stormin’ Norman of future 377 HRs fame.

The Sox picked up Ted Kluszewski for the stretch run and in the regular season and World Series (where he was awesome) combined, he had 11 BBs and 10 Ks. For those of you not familiar with Klu, his closest comparative today, in size, strength, and foot speed, is the Rock of Gibraltar. He wore uniforms with the sleeves cut off so opposing pitchers could see that, to borrow from Gaston of Beauty and the Beast, his biceps were roughly the size of a barge. He not only had more walks and Ks with the Sox, it was true for his career, and he hit 279 homers. Obviously he didn’t like dragging his bat back to the dugout, unlike players today, especially Sox players.

Great American Ball Park
Big Klu’s statue at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. He looked bigger than that in real life.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The walks were a big deal. The 1959 White Sox were last in all of MLB with 97 HRs, but scored 673 runs, just five fewer than the MLB average (and more than the 2018 White Sox’s total or this year’s pace). It helped that the Go-Go Sox were first in both triples and stolen bases, which, incidentally, are really exciting plays to watch.

The effort to put the ball in play, and willingness to take a free pass was part of a system that created 17 consecutive White Sox winning seasons (from 1951 through 1967) under four different managers. About half the streak, including 1959, was piloted by Al Lopez — there’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame along with the players.

Yeah, yeah, I know, times change. Everybody strikes out more these days. But to what avail?

If you adjust the 1959 season to 162 games, runs in 2018 were up all of 1% — one percent —from 713 per team to 721. And that’s with the DH for half the teams. Yes, homers are up 25%, but, as you can see, they’ve meant squat when it comes to increasing scoring.

Walks are down 3%. But strikeouts are up an astounding — and incredibly boring — 65%. Yep, up by two-thirds.

Sure, pitchers throw much harder these days, and bullpens are larger and better and used more, but still, attitude plays a major role — the attitude that says going for bombs every swing is the way to go, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

Every coach at every youth level teaches kids to shorten up with two strikes and that “good things happen when you put the ball in play,” or some such. I must have said those things a thousand times, and sometimes even teenagers listened. But apparently at the professional level, nobody bothers to mention such things. Or listen to them.

(In fairness, James McCann seems to follow those instructions, which explains why he’s hitting .333. Which makes this a good time to apologize to Mr. McCann for anything I may have ever said about it being a bad idea to sign him. And to Rick Hahn as well, though only in this case.)

But I digress again.

The failure is especially obvious in the White Sox organization. The Sox are so much worse than other teams at striking out and not walking, and the awfulness is so widely spread, among both those coming up through the system and those brought in, that it has to be a systemic problem.

The whole organization seems to lack any development of bat control, pitch identification, or plate discipline — heck, the Sox are perennially among the very worst teams at o-swings (lunging for bad pitches). And they seem to find players to fit the terrible mold. Here’s hoping that drafting Nick Madrigal and moving Omar Vizquel (career Ks and BBs almost equal) up the managing ranks are signs they finally recognize the problem.

Otherwise, we’re in for a long, long time of very bad and incredibly boring baseball.

(Of course, MLB could do something to halt the current trend. It’s not rocket science. Well, no, hold it...rocket science is exactly what it is, drag coefficients and propulsion ratios, etc., but it’s well-known rocket science. Change the ball to cut down on homers and the effects of higher spin rates and such, and you save the game. But that’s another story.)