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Rob Manfred’s Favorite Team: The White Sox

The South Siders are winning a lot, and they are doing it in a bit differently than other teams

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
The White Sox just keep on hitting.
Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

All over the country, MLB has instituted new rules or new baseballs to try and find a way to raise batting averages, because they are currently at their lowest point in more than 50 years. MLB is trying to find a way to shorten the length of games, improve pace of play, and have more balls in play.

These are just some of the new rules around the country:

  • New baseball in MLB
  • A bigger bag in Triple-A
  • Anti-Shift rules in Double-A
  • More strict balk rule in High-A
  • Electronic strike zone in a Low-A league
  • Pitch Timer in another Low-A league
  • Two step-offs per plate appearance in a third Low-A league
  • 61´6´´ mound in the Atlantic League
  • DH spot is in the lineup until the SP is relieved in the Atlantic League

All of these experimental rules in what has been a very federalized process for MLB is meant to fix the problems it and fans have been talking about for years. And something must be done; batting average really is way too low, and pitchers are not going deep in games because most aren’t built to do that.

However, I submit that MLB does not need to change that much, because they have a blueprint to make the game better right now: Encourage teams to build a roster like the White Sox, the team that is bucking trends so far and is one of the best in baseball right now.

Now, let’s start out with the caveat that this era of baseball is different. The starters with the White Sox go deep into games compared to other 2021 ball clubs, not compared to clubs even 10 years ago. For example, the Sox average 5.4 innings pitch per games started, which is Top 5 in MLB but would have been last in 2011. Now some of that could be chalked up to seven-inning doubleheaders, pitchers coming off of a 60-game pandemic season, it is still early in the season, etc. But even if the White Sox are a sort of outlier, something still needs to be done to make the game more fluid.

Yep, MLB should still want other teams to be constructed like the White Sox.

Now, let’s start with the hitting side of things ...

The Sox are the best offense in baseball right now, with the best team OPS+ and wRC+. However, they are not doing it in a typical 2021 way. The Sox actually have the fifth- best slugging percentage (.417) in baseball, but they only have the 23rd-most homers (39) and about as equally low a HR/AB rate. It is a strange thing, especially in this era of baseball, unless you think about the type of players the White Sox are trotting out there every day. Some of their hitters with pop are not hitting homers yet, like Andrew Vaughn and Yoán Moncada, or in Yasmani Grandal’s case, not really swinging often. But the Sox are also giving a lot of at-bats to Nick Madrigal, Billy Hamilton, and Leury García. Those guys don’t hit homers. In fact, Madrigal still does not have a barrel, according to Baseball Savant.

This type of lineup does lead to a lot of singles, which doesn’t register much with slugging, but the Sox are in the top-10 in doubles and have the sixth-most triples; that will help slugging but it also makes the game more exciting. We all know about the three true outcomes, and the increase of those instances is something baseball wants to correct. Well, the Sox lineup has been what MLB wants, at least in the home runs lane, and that fixes other problems other teams have with the three true outcomes.

The White Sox have a top-five BB rate in baseball, but also the 11th-best K-rate. So as they get more batters on base, even if there are a lot of walks, there are more balls in play because of the good K-rate. That means more action on the base paths unrelated to stolen bases. That means more first-to-thirds or to home: The White Sox are top three in that category, and they are in the top five in a bunch of active baserunning categories.

Along with top-three placement in scoring or reaching third from first on a single, the Sox are also top-five in scoring from first on a double and are top-three in scoring from second on a single. They also have a top-five rate in extra bases taken and are in the top half of the league in total stolen bases. The White Sox are just a very active team when on base. They have a good mesh of really fast guys, like Tim Anderson, Luis Robert before the injury, and Adam Eaton, to go along with Madrigal and Hamilton, and they use that speed frequently. All of that information is collected in a stat called UBR (FanGraphs calls it the baserunning equivalent of UZR for defense), and the Sox are tops in baseball in that department.

Though it may not be great that the White Sox aren’t hitting home runs, and surely, their league-leading (by 15 points!) .329 BABIP will fall along with their .264 batting average, but the Sox are making up for it with doubles, triples, and excellent base running. That makes for a more fun viewing experience, with more balls in play, which is exactly what Rob Manfred wants. He should want the White Sox offense so far to be all across baseball. The White Sox have enough speed for surprising base running, to go along with power hitters who still hit for average. It also doesn’t hurt that Madrigal will put the ball in play the vast majority of the time — I’m sure Manfred wishes there were more Madrigals.

The pitching side is a bit different. The league has just changed so much that everything is relative, but in relation to the rest of the league, the Sox are one of those pitching staffs that is more like what MLB wants.

So far, the Sox are a bit behind league average in quality starts, but their starting pitchers still go deeper in games than most. They are top-10 in average innings pitched by a starter and are top-two in pitches per game by starters. So, even though Sox starters are not having, on average, the best starts in MLB per quality start, starters are staying out there as long as possible. In fact, the Sox have the fourth-fewest innings thrown by relievers — music to Manfred’s ears.

The bullpen is being utilized a bit more like a modern-day team, but the Sox are at or near the league average in relief outings that are more than three outs. However, the makeup of the bullpen is something that has and will continue to give the Sox longer bullpen opportunities. Michael Kopech is obviously a former starter who has mainly been a reliever this year, but he isn’t the only one. Codi Heuer was a starter in college and rookie ball back in 2018, and Garret Crochet was drafted out of college as a starter. Matt Foster was never a starter, but he usually lasted more than three outs during his minors career, and Aaron Bummer with Liam Hendricks are typical eighth- and ninth-inning guys who get three to five outs when necessary. It is a perfect mix of arms that can be utilized in a lot of different ways so Tony LaRussa does not need to change pitchers multiple times an inning often.

Now, it is 2021, so Manfred is not happy about any pitching staff in general. Though the Sox do use starters longer than most other teams, the Sox still take advantage of this era of baseball. They are fifth in strikeout rate (starters and relievers) but they are at least in the middle of the pack in walks. Obviously, because the pitching has been very good for the Sox, they are not allowing a ton of homers, but the average is still a lot compared to other eras.

Now, maybe it is because the pitching has been very good or maybe it is because La Russa is from an age where shifting wasn’t done often, but the Sox do not shift much compared to other teams.

Team shifting rates against lefties and righties.
Baseball Savant

As you can see from the table, it is a lot less often compared to other teams. Now, shifting against righties isn’t something that the data suggests is something teams should do, and the Sox are bottom-five in that. The thing where the Sox really diverge is shifting against lefties. They only shift in 40.3% of the plate appearances against lefties, which is 25th in baseball. What a more modern team would do is something the Padres approach, where against righties they shift 0.9% of the time but greatly increase the rate against lefties (63.6%).

Whatever the case is, right or wrong, Manfred prefers the White Sox approach, which is to not really shift all that often.

The current commissioner of baseball has an odd tendency to talk about the bad parts of the game instead of concentrating on the good and marketing players who deserve it. The White Sox have all the ingredients of a team for fans of baseball to watch day-in and day-out. They have the cult favorite player in Yermín Mercedes, who has taken Chicago and the league by storm. They have Lucas Giolito, who is not only great on the mound, but is as thoughtful a pitcher during interviews as one can be. They have electric young arms in Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, with stuff that lands on pitching ninja all the time.

They even have a player known for bat flips, and is the heart and soul of the team, showing it on the field and in the dugout all the time, with Tim Anderson. He just has fun, and everybody has fun watching him. Oh yeah, they have the reigning MVP too, in José Abreu.

Everything about this team is fun, from the way they are hitting and running the bases, to how the pitchers and fielders are used. Things probably do need to change with the rules, but Rob Manfred could give the Sox some credit for bucking some trends so far.

Being a very good team, and right now the best team in baseball, make the Sox fun in general. But there are multiple aspects of this club that generates more action than some other teams, and that is in part why they have been fun to watch.

If only the manager would get out of the way.