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Midterm grades: leadership

Is Ricky icky, or slicky? It’s tricky

New York Yankees v Chicago White Sox
Fowl play: It appears Ricky Renteria is pointing at seagull deposit in basepath, with the ump tossing the offending gull out.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

When it comes to judging leadership, a key question is, “Is the whole greater or lesser than the sum of the parts?” The question applies in the arts, business, the classroom, the government, the military — and especially in sports.

Sports leaders generally catch a lot of flak, and little else. If a player draws outrage by booting a grounder or striking out with the bases loaded, he’ll draw cheers as soon as he makes a good catch or key hit. If a manager leaves a pitcher in too long and it costs a game, no fan is going to give him credit when he makes the right move the next time.

And, of course, when a coach or manager has a lousy record, we blame him, not the guys who can’t hit or catch or throw. But, if not the record, what should we really look at when judging a manager? Let’s go with the sum of the parts view.

Baltimore Orioles v Chicago White Sox
Ricky checks the closeness of Manny Banuelos’ shave. A team that looks sharp, plays sharp.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The White Sox just finished the first half of their season Sunday with 39 wins and 42 losses. That’s considerably better than any but the most blind — or younger than age eight— fans would have expected, but should Ricky Renteria get any credit, or just the players?

Based on scoring 351 runs and giving up 420, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean analysis suggests the Sox’s record should be 34-47. ESPN’s version is nearly the same, at 33-48. Why is that so different from Chicago’s actual record?

For that, let’s look at blowouts. If we arbitrarily say any game decided by five or more runs, beyond where homer announcers say “one swing could tie it up,” is a case where the manager had no possible impact on the outcome, then the Sox have really outplayed projections. They’re 8-16 in such games, which makes them 31-26 in games where a managerial decision or two could make the difference. That’s kind of astounding, though understandable given the horrendous White Sox starting pitching that so often lets games get out of hand early.

Not a believer in Ricky yet? fair enough. So let’s go to WAR.

Battle “Zauberhaufen” during the Second Siege of Vienna, Copper engraving, 17th century
FanGraphs supporters express displeasure with backers of Baseball-Reference.

In theory, a team’s total Wins Against Replacement, plus replacement level, should equal its record. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs now say replacement level is 48 wins a season, or 24 at the midpoint where the Sox are now. So how do we come out?

B-R has Sox position players at a total of 5.9 bWAR. That’s for all 18 who have played so far this season. As you’d expect, James McCann, José Abreu and Yoán Moncada lead in the offensive scores. As you’d also expect, the defense drags down the total WAR, with only McCann, Yolmer Sánchez and Adam Engel providing much positive, and Eloy Jiménez (a -1.0 all by himself), Abreu and Yonder Alonso (-.6 each) doing the heavy dragging.

As for the pitchers, they get a 5.5 bWAR, with Lucas Giolito getting almost two-thirds of that on his own at 3.7, and Alex Colomé at 1.5 and Aaron Bummer at 1.3. The rest of the staff — the other 20 who have tossed this season — provides a hefty negative.

There are often large differences between bWAR and FanGraph’s fWAR, generally due to defensive interpretation, but in the case of the Sox, they’re quite close. FanGraphs has the position players at a total of 5.5 (24th in the majors). Again, defense drags the bats down, as do the horrible 6.6% walk rate, far below that of any team but the Miami Marlins, and 25.5% K rate, only better than the San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers.

(Fun stat — as bad as all the other defensive stats are, generally ranking about 22nd, the White Sox are dead last in one category — their fans’s subjective rating of the D.)

Sox pitchers get a combined fWAR of 5.1 (21st in MLB). They’re the flip side of the batters, with a walk rate worse than anyone but the Toronto Blue Jays and the 24th-worst K rate.

So, 11.4 total bWAR, 10.6 total fWAR. Call it 11. Add in the 24 victories by replacement players, and individual performances should have brought 35 victories at this point, not 39.

That would seem to be a pretty good leadership showing. But is that just the way things usually work out?

To find out, given that I’m too lazy to do any difficult math, I chose the eight teams that were at exactly 81 games when I was checking stats on Friday: the Tampa Bay Rays, Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, That Other Team in Town, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers. Of those, only the Phillies and Rockies have outperformed both WARs, with the Rangers and Brewers above one and under the other. (So much for alleged genius on the other side of town.)

(OK, just for fun, I did check the Orioles when they hit 81 games the next day. They don’t have much WAR — 3.8 b and 7.6 f — but, with 23 wins, they’re below replacement level to start with, which would indicate they would be better off trading their entire major league roster for their AAA team. Which may well be what they’ve already done.)

So, despite all the quibbles we may have with Ricky’s decisions, it looks like he actually has more wins against replacement than any player on the team. And he’s outperforming the managers of several winning clubs.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
Alonso couldn’t hit or field, but he does do a nice eye black.
Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Given that result, let’s look for excuses for weird decisions. I figure he did all that bunting last year, especially the two-strike variety, because he had several guys who would never have a chance to stay in the majors unless they became good bunters under pressure. It’s not his fault no one did (you listening, Engel?)

As for bizarrely not only playing Yonder Alonso, but sticking him at cleanup? A lifetime spent covering government and politics, much of it in a state capital, provides occasional insight, one point being that the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce the living daylights out of it. For example, when police in a dry county only use prohibition to arrest the less well off, nothing happens. When they bust a party full of politicians and their friends and donors, you’ll have repeal by the next weekend.

So let’s give Ricky credit for outthinking Rick Hahn, admittedly not all that big a challenge. By making the pickup of Alonso even stupider than it was in the first place, Ricky managed to get rid of him.

But before we give Ricky a halo, it’s proper to ask whether he’s responsible for how bad individual performances are. He can’t swing the bat, or throw the pitch (or get rid of the antiquarian pitching coach), but it is the manager’s job to set the tone, and one area where the tone sucks is the matter of strikeouts and walks.

The horrible K and BB rates are spread all over the team, so it’s not the problem of just a few players. The walk rate is so bad that the Sox are sixth in the AL in batting average, but 11th in on-base percentage, 10th in OPS, and 13th in runs. They’re only 10th-worst in the league with 720 strikeouts, but they’re 13th in homers, so it’s not because they’re doing the strikeout-or-dinger routine. They’re just feebly swinging at bad pitches over and over and over again. And it’s not like they’re getting better — even in taking two out of three from the Minnesota Twins over the weekend, they drew three walks, and K’ed 27 times.


Most of that is the fault of the system, not the manager, but Renteria is stuck with having to overcome it. May I modestly suggest that above every locker, in every hallway, all along the dugout, carved in stone in the on-deck circle should be “when you put the ball in play, good things can happen,” along with pictures of the strike zone and a notice that “real men take walks.” Audio-visual backup would be good, too, though probably not for more than 23 hours a day. All in English and Spanish, of course. With expletives added generously, as in:


And while we’re at it, with regard to pounding grounders into the shift, the most important sports lesson that carries over to all of life:


Just a suggestion, of course.

Overall, you have to like the results so far, especially given the starting pitching situation. There’s no question the weakness of the schedule has helped. The Sox had the softest road in the majors much of the season, and even after 15 straight against winning teams they’re 27th. But at the midpoint, Ricky Renteria definitely wins the WAR.