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White Sox Hitters’ Report Card: 2021

South Side Sox issues our annual grades, with pitchers and management to come.

New York Yankees v Chicago White Sox
TA: Honor student.
Ron Vesely/Getty Images

In the first of a three-segment piece, we here at South Side Sox take an in-depth look at the performances of the best (and the worst) of the 2021 White Sox roster. See who passed with honors, needs to improve, needs to repeat, and got expelled, as we examine the hitters and position players.

Keep an eye out for part 2, which will grade the pitchers, and part 3, which will grade the management and front office.

Tim Anderson: A+

The team captain sustained his record for a third straight season of having the best overall batting average in the majors during that time span. Despite a stint on the IL in the first half of the year and some extensive rest in the second half, perhaps no player on the Sox roster had more of a positive impact on the lineup than TA7 — the team’s batting average and runs scored dropped by nearly 30% when he was out of the lineup — and his playoff performance was stellar, becoming the only player ever to get three-plus hits in all of his first seven playoff games.

Add to his impressive resume of highlights perhaps the most dominant performance of the year, in the Field of Dreams game against the formidable New York Yankees, and you might forget that he hit .309/.338/.469 on the year while flirting with a 20/20 season, all while missing nearly 40 games. He also solidified himself as the true team captain and saw a significant step forward in his defensive play and consistency. Tim Anderson is the class valedictorian for 2021.

Luis Robert: A

If an injury hadn’t derailed more than half of his season, Robert was on pace to hit .330+ with 30+ HR, 120+ RBI, and 20+ SB. His plate discipline and plate vision both matured significantly in his sophomore year, and he looks to challenge Anderson for best pure contact hitter on the roster (if not all of Major League Baseball). Add to it some astronomical power that saw the highest exit velocity on home runs for any player on the team and some astounding defensive play and base-running while returning ahead of schedule from a hip injury, and it’s no wonder the White Sox feel they have the next Mike Trout on the team.

If Robert had been healthy all year, we might be looking at an MVP candidate. The fact that he received such high marks despite missing so much time is indicative of just how special this kid is.

Yoán Moncada: A-

Perhaps no one on the roster gets more undeserved hatred from the trolls of the White Sox fanbase than Moncada. Despite posting the best WAR on the team from a position player, some of the worst representatives of the South Side faithful have taken to calling Moncada a bust because he has yet to tap into his power potential. (One moronic fan is campaigning on Twitter that Conor Gillaspie was a better offensive player than Moncada.)

Delusions aside, Yoán paced the entire offense in fWAR (4.5), played elite defense, and got on base more than anyone in a White Sox uniform in 2021. He also put up a 19-game hit streak, drew almost as many free passes as the walk king of the majors Yasmani Grandal, and did all of this while hitting in almost every slot of the lineup card. A player more versatile is hard to come by, but to find someone so patient at the plate while doing everything else is a rarity. Moncada’s power has room to grow, but at just 26 years old if this is his floor, the White Sox have a lot to be excited about.

Yasmani Grandal: A-

Yaz got off to a pretty terrible start in terms of batting average, but he never struggled to get on base. He finished the season with one of the best walk rates in the majors and — after missing a third of the season to a significant knee injury — came back with a vengeance, hitting about two-thirds of his round-tripper total in the last six weeks of the regular season. He also called some excellent games behind the plate, played great defense, and helped the pitching staff achieve remarkable and unexpected heights as a backstop. And in addition to leading the team in walks, Grandal also paced the team in OPS, OPS+, and BB/9.

Despite some contact issues, Grandal is earning every penny of his paycheck and then some. If he can adjust his vision at the plate and make even slightly better contact in 2022, he is primed to remain one of the best all-around (and most valuable) catchers in the league.

José Abreu: B+

Abreu led the team in RBIs again, gathering 117 in 2021, and finished the year with 30 homers for the fifth time in all six of his full seasons. A statue is going to be built on the concourse when he retires, and he’ll take his No. 79 with him. This grade would have been higher, but Abreu did struggle to make good contact this year. His batting average was a career-worst .261, a lower mark than when he had his worst chase rate season in 2018. If a pitcher threw a slider with two strikes, chances are Abreu swung at it. And while he put forth a Gold Glove-caliber season defensively and played through a remarkable amount of pain and injuries, he also looked desperate to do too much too often.

This was likely an exception to the rule; he shows no signs of significant aging and he has all the capability of a bounce-back season. Plus he was as tough as anyone in the majors this year, playing hurt, dealing with poor sportsmanship from opposing teams, and pacing the league in HBP. But if Abreu wants to be the best player on the team again, he needs to focus on barreling the ball more than swinging for the fences. And at his age, hitting for contact will be much more useful given how frequently he hits with runners in scoring position.

Nick Madrigal: B+

Before being traded to their crosstown rivals in what will likely go down as one of the worst trades in White Sox history, “Nicky Two Strikes” hit a cool .305 and — like his name suggests — led the majors in two-strike hits. Also prevalent in his play before a hamstring injury ended his 2021 campaign was immense growth as a defender and a baserunner. And despite only playing in 54 games, he looked good enough to warrant placement amongst the top of the class. Madrigal showed he’s a great teammate who plays old-school baseball and he did it all while mostly hitting from the bottom of the order.

The South Side will miss him dearly (and Rick Hahn is sure to lose sleep over his departure), but Madrigal looked to be blossoming in 2021 and he earned the respect of a blue-collar organization in a very short period of time. Sox fans will always have a place in their heart for someone who played the kind of baseball Madrigal did at such a young age.

Gavin Sheets: B+

If given a full season's worth of at-bats, Sheets was on pace to hit 35+ HR and 100+ RBIs. No player who spent time in Triple-A this year had a bigger impact on the Sox than Sheets did, hitting in clutch situations as well as any veteran. (His game-winning home runs off of José Berríos was one of the highlights of the entire year.) Sheets also played surprisingly advanced defense in right field, a position he only tried in-game for the first time a matter of weeks before he was called up to play it in the majors.

Sheets did have a little trouble making contact at times, but he also flashed the ability to barrel small-ball hits, too. He also needs to get better at hitting on the road, but if Sheets can harness the comfort he had at home this season and is given an opportunity to play full-time, he has all the makings of an impact bat on a great offense.

Leury García: B

“Leury Legend” had quite a season. After a slow start, he got his groove and strung together a lot of hits when he needed them. Forget the fact that he was playing as many positions as anyone on the team; he also played above his projections by producing a 2.0 WAR on the year and he hit when it counted, posting a .286 BAPIP.

Leury’s defense left a lot to be desired no matter where he played, and it’s clear his arm strength has dipped over the past two seasons, but if the Sox re-sign García and return him to the utility role he was meant to play, he’s as valuable a bench player as there is in the majors.

Eloy Jiménez: B-

Thanks to getting himself injured on a dimwitted defensive effort in spring training, Eloy missed more than 100 games in 2021 — and it showed. Despite exploding out of the gate when he returned in August by hitting five home runs in four games, he immediately became ice-cold and finished the season hitting worse than .250 (while amassing just five more homers over the next 50 games). Jiménez was also markedly ineffective in the playoffs and spent the final four weeks of the 2021 campaign swinging at more pitches out of the zone than anyone else in the lineup.

Despite these failings, Eloy did show flashes of his potential, even significantly outperforming his defensive expectations in the outfield; Once considered a liability on defense, he looked fleet-footed and disciplined every game he was out there. He also had looked strong and focused at the plate, likely causing pitchers to focus on his spot in the order. Some slack needs to be given for coming into the season so far behind the rest of his teammates in terms of comfort.

There was a lot left to be desired from Eloy this year, but if he can use the disappointing elements of 2021 as fuel, his star is sure to burn brighter in 2022.

Brian Goodwin: B-

Goodwin was a welcome presence in a White Sox clubhouse that was riddled with injuries. He hit well in clutch scenarios, played solid defense, added veteran leadership to a young team, and barreled a lot of poor pitches. Unfortunately, a good portion of those barreled balls fell foul, and veteran leadership only gets you so far; he hit just .221 for the year without much power or on-base prowess to balance out the middling bat. To be fair, Goodwin was one of the few bright spots on the team for the first half of the season, but a conspicuous cold spell down the stretch took a bite out of his season stats, before ending the year early with a back injury. On a team that’s vying for a World Series, a significant slump can be the last gasp.

The Sox chose to outright Goodwin, thereby allowing him to become a free agent, but Goodwin played well and will be missed by the fan base.

Billy Hamilton: B-

“Billy the Hitter” got to show a whole new side of himself in Chicago, and the fans loved him for it. Like Goodwin, Hamilton didn’t really have a consistently effective bat, but he hit when it counted. He also gave himself up for perhaps the best defensive play of his career, diving in the mud to make one of the best catches of 2021. He also had a very positive impact in the clubhouse, often seen joking with his teammates and chatting with fans. A true man of the people and a savvy veteran who ran the bases with as much skill as anyone in the majors, Hamilton showed why he belonged on the team.

If he’s open to continuing as a rotation player who spells the starters for rest, pinch-runs, and subs in on defense in late-inning situations, the fans in Chicago adore Hamilton and the front office likely does, too. He’s a free agent, but if he wants to return in the role he had in 2021, he has a home in Chicago if he wishes to keep it.

Seby Zavala: B-

Zavala has gotten the short end of the stick on more than one occasion with this franchise, and 2021 was no different. Despite being forced to stay in the minors beneath a far less effective Zack Collins for much longer than he should have, Zavala was sent down early in favor of Collins despite playing better overall. He’s not a great hitter, but he does have a lot of potential for pop, and he proved it when he became the first player in baseball history to hit their first three home runs in one game. He also was a far superior defender than Collins, and a more effective game-caller.

Zavala’s downfall was ultimately his ability to make contact, hitting just .183 on the season, but as Grandal showed us, a small sample size of at-bats for a power-hitting catcher does not tell the whole story. Seby showed the team and the fanbase that he deserves more of a look; Hahn and company would do well to oblige him.

Adam Engel: C+

Engel might have had the widest spectrum of good and bad this season of anyone on the team. When he was on, he was electric: In just 40 games, he hit .252 with seven home runs, 18 RBIs, seven steals, and a .832 OPS, the third-highest mark on the roster among qualified players. He remained an exceptional outfielder and baserunner, and he hit as well against teams better than .500 as anyone else in a White Sox uniform. But Engel has been in the league for five years now and only once has he played in more than two-thirds of White Sox games. If he could figure out a way to stay healthy, Engel projects as a 20/20 player with ease. He could be as impactful a player as anyone the Sox have in their system, but potential only takes you as far as your body lets you.

For Engel, his impact is strong … but it doesn’t last.

Jake Burger: C+

Like Seby Zavala, Burger wasn’t given enough of an opportunity to succeed as he should have, but that’s not anyone’s fault. The logjam of infielders in Chicago prevented Burger from being allowed to shine unless injuries invited him. Sadly for the rookie, there just isn’t a consistent spot for him to prove his worth. Yet even when there was, he wasn’t able to click into a groove.

With Sheets, Moncada, and Abreu all clearly defining their roles on the ballclub, Burger appears doomed to be stuck in Charlotte or become trade bait. That’s a sad outcome for a player who could easily become a fan favorite on the South Side, especially given his remarkable journey back from injury (he overcame not one but two Achilles injuries in one year). But if health issues plague the corner infield positions in the near term, Burger has the makeup to be an offensive force — and surprise people with his defense along the way.

Andrew Vaughn: C+

It’s unfortunate that Vaughn was forced to spend most of the first two months of the season on the bench, especially because he played such exceptional defense at multiple positions he had never played before. He proved that his adaptability and baseball IQ are as exceptional as his hitting skillset. Ultimately, poor management might carry more of the blame for this grade than anything else.

No matter how you slice it, Vaughn really underperformed in 2021, particularly against right-handed pitchers. Splits aside, the young hitting phenom slashed just .235/.309/.396 on the year, mostly because he did not see breaking balls well. He might have been advanced to the majors too fast, so blame also falls on the front office for failing to properly outfit its roster with impact players. But as one of the best pure hitting talents in any draft class of the last 10 seasons, expectations were higher. Vaughn didn’t need to live up to them immediately, but it was surprising to see him fall so far short.

Still, the flashes of brilliance were obvious, and Vaughn showed why he deserves to be considered a future middle-of-the-order hitter. The question has just become whether or not that will happen in a White Sox uniform. He has a spot on this team as of now, but Hahn might feel compelled to use his value for a trade before his development potential sways too far below its current placement.

Yermín Mercedes: C

After a world-class, record-breaking start to the season, the emotional designated hitter could barely manage to make contact at the major league level once the calendar flipped past April. Once pitchers figured out his hitting approach, it became a remedial task to get Mercedes out. And while Mercedes finished the year with a .271/.328/.404 split, he only ended there because he spent the first month of the season hitting over .400. If the Sox had let him stay any longer, he might have been lucky to hit over .200 by the end of a full season.

But all things considered, Mercedes still has immense talent and power. If he can make some effective adjustments in Triple-A and learn how to control his emotions (he briefly “retired” out of frustration for his demotion halfway through the year, only to come back a few days later), the future for “The Yerminator” is bright. But as it stands, the White Sox are in a window of contention and more is expected of the players on and off the field than what he showed after the magic of his first month wore off.

Jake Lamb: C-

Lamb did the best he could for a team he wasn’t a good fit for, so credit him for doing so with class and silent fortitude. But the power-hitting lefty was more of a black hole in the lineup than a respite for the right-heavy arsenal of hitters. And despite his positional flexibility, Lamb didn’t look particularly sharp on defense, either, ultimately leading to a DFA by the front office. Hitting .212 with a sub .800 OPS isn’t good for any power hitter, particularly one who is supposed to draw walks at a high clip. Lamb also showed his age by getting hurt on pretty limited playing time.

True, other journeyman veterans like Hamilton had similar issues with durability, but Lamb was never truly able to carve out his role in the clubhouse, either. And while he was certainly respected by his teammates, Lamb wasn’t punching at their weight class.

Danny Mendick: C-

“Dancing for Dubs” took a backseat in 2021 to Mendick’s inconsistent play. Much like Vaughn, Tony La Russa did an embarrassingly incompetent job of implementing Mendick, but Danny also just looked like his opportunity has passed. Mendick had a few clutch hits, but he was not an effective batter late in the order. His wOBA was a career-low .268 and his usually stellar defensive play took a noticeable dip this year, too. But with an offensive fWAR of -6.3, it’s no wonder he struggled to stay on the major league roster.

If he gets a chance to turn things around in 2022, he will need to do so quickly or he may find himself following in Lamb’s footsteps.

Zack Collins: D+

Collins posted an fWAR of -0.7 in 2021, and only that high because he managed to increase his BB% to 15% and post a BABIP better than .300. Defensively, he posted a -10.8 WAR, an inexcusable number for a catcher at the major league level, and in nearly 250 plate appearances he hit just four home runs. Furthermore, he looked lost on pitches in the dirt, seeming to be utterly incapable of laterally shifting to keep a biting pitch in front of him.

Collins’ star is falling fast, and he really has no discernible use on a team as competitive as the White Sox. Collins had three good games all year for the South Siders, and he did manage to call Carlos Rodón’s no-hitter; those are the only reasons he earned a D+. Collins shouldn’t sit above someone as talented as Zavala on a depth chart. Being a lefty does not compensate for such a significant drop-off in talent.

César Hernández: D-

While the moves seemed impressive at the time, ultimately Hahn and the front office did a really poor job of filling in the gaps at the trade deadline this year, and perhaps no one is better evidence of that than César Hernández. Before being traded from Cleveland, César had hit 18 home runs and 47 RBIs from the bottom of the lineup. He was playing excellent defense and seemed to address exactly what the White Sox needed. You know what they say about the best-laid plans ...

His .232/.308/386 slash line was probably the true barometer for what was to come. The 31-year-old hit just three home runs in more than 50 games while seeing a significant drop in slugging. The normally sure-handed defender who won a Gold Glove just a year earlier averaged an error every 10 games at 2B and saw himself phased out of the top of the lineup within days of arriving in Chicago. Cesar was a bust in every true sense of the word and the White Sox recognized this, as evidenced by their decision to decline his option for 2022.

Adam Eaton: F

Spanky was a complete and utter failure in his return to the White Sox, and (hopefully) the front office is embarrassed for wasting their valuable resources on his services. Hahn passed on signing George Springer, Michael Brantley, Starling Marte, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eddie Rosario, Kyle Schwarber, and Joc Pederson in favor of Eaton, all of whom significantly outperformed him and many of whom made less money to do so. In addition to barely cracking .200 at the plate, Eaton averaged a strikeout per game, played far below his defensive expectations, and was disliked in the clubhouse. He lost his composure at the plate when he wasn’t hitting well (which was often) and he handled the media like a toddler.

But the death knell finally came when he refused a rehab start after returning from a stint on the IL, only to come back and watch his batting average drop even further. Thankfully Hahn took La Russa’s insistence upon batting Eaton second every day away, as he was DFA’d shortly thereafter. Dating back to the petulant interview he gave when he first signed, all Adam Eaton did in 2021 was remind Sox fans that he cares more about himself than his team. He was so horrible this season that even the fledgling Angels dropped him after just 70 plate appearances.

If only Eaton cared about winning as much as he cared about Adam and Drake LaRoche’s right to goof around on company time, he might have a better legacy to leave behind. But as it stands, the only thing more embarrassing than Eaton’s presence on the White Sox in 2021 is the fact that Hahn actually paid him $8.5 million to be there. Eaton was so bad, he should return the money.