When pitchers and catchers reported to Glendale back in February, White Sox fans eagerly awaited the start of the 2021 season. The team was coming off of its first playoff appearance since 2008, and many believed this year they had the ability to truly make some noise.
Cleveland were always a threat with great pitching, and the Twins were coming off of consecutive AL Central crowns. But this year, it felt like it was time for the White Sox to break through and win the first of hopefully many AL Central races in the coming years.
Those feelings were understandable, as the club has a stable of young, controlled talent, most notably on the position player side, and added premier players like Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks to the mix.
After years of rebuilding and watching rough baseball, it was time to see all of the hard work the front office and scouting department come together on the diamond. Things were looking great on the South Side.
And then March came around, where the White Sox would deal with their first of many roadblocks on the year. Left fielder Eloy Jiménez suffered a pectoral injury while trying to make a catch at the wall during spring training. The injury did not look good and one day later, the White Sox would find out that Jiménez would miss extended time. It’s hard to stay healthy in baseball, but you also never plan for losing a significant piece like that.
The White Sox focused on pitching in the offseason, which was understandable because on paper, they had one of the best offenses heading into the season. They signed Adam Eaton, but he was there to fill a hole in the other outfield corner spot.
There’s Adam Engel, but he too went down the same week as Eloy, with a hamstring injury that kept him out well into the regular season. So who would be the next man up? The White Sox had limited options within the organization. The farm system didn’t have many outfielders who were ready to contribute to a winning team right away.
The White Sox hatched a plan that seemed crazy at the time. That plan involved Andrew Vaughn switching positions, from first base/DH to the outfield, and making the jump from A-ball to the big league club out of spring training.
Vaughn only got word he would become a left fielder during the last weekend of spring training, so there hardly was time left in the spring for him to get acclimated to a new position before he would have to rise to the occasion in games that counted. After playing in just two games in left field, he’s done a damn good job adjusting to left thus far.
It was a shaky start to the season, though, as he was used more as a platoon player against lefties instead of getting consistent reps like he would if in the minors.
Through April and May, Vaughn slashed .233/.325/.406 with 11 doubles, four home runs, 12 RBIs, 15 walks, and 40 strikeouts in 40 games. Those numbers aren’t awful for someone making his MLB debut, but he found himself struggling to get in a consistent groove.
With someone as talented as a hitter as Vaughn is, it was only a matter of time before he would turn a corner, and he did just that heading into the All-Star break. Over his last 23 games, he’s slashing .329/.369/.605 with six doubles, five home runs, 11 RBIs, six walks, 18 strikeouts, and a wRC+ of 162 during that span.
He’s come up clutch in big moments for the team, too — most notably, his pinch-hit, game-tying home run off Aroldis Chapman. Chapman had not given up an earned run all year until Vaughn decided to flip his script.
We all knew Vaughn would hit eventually, but how would he fare in the field? When the plan to have him play there was put in motion, fans were hoping he would at least be as serviceable as Jiménez in the outfield.
Up to this point, Vaughn has been a pleasant surprise in left, as he has handled the position well for someone with little to no experience out there. According to FanGraphs, Vaughn comes in with a -3 DRS (placing him slightly below average) and he has a UZR of 0.2 (a smidge above the average rating of 0).
No one was expecting Vaughn to come in and play elite defense in left field, but he’s been much better than everyone anticipated, and that’s been an extremely positive development for the White Sox this season.
It's a bird!— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) July 3, 2021
It's a plane!
It's... Andrew Vaughn! pic.twitter.com/Hkj0U3Knp7
With the Jiménez injury, many felt like the White Sox could still be in the mix for the division with the rest of their lineup and pitching staff still littered with talent. But the injury bug would strike the offense again and again, leaving the White Sox with no option but to continue on with the next man up mentality.
In May and June, the White Sox would lose two more starters, in Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal. The outfield depth was already thin with Engel still sidelined, and it began to feel like maybe the injuries would be too much for the White Sox to overcome.
The club signed Billy Hamilton back in March, but he has struggled to find a consistent home since leaving the Reds organization in 2018. He hasn’t been much of a threat at the plate, so how much could the White Sox get out of someone like Hamilton?
Hamilton has been a below-average player by advanced metrics, but he’s had his moments with the White Sox this season. Between back-to-back games with a home run against Baltimore, being an important player in the May series against Cleveland, and many impressive catches in the outfield, the White Sox have been getting more out of Hamilton than they expected.
Hamilton isn’t the only surprise outfield signing that has stepped up for the club in the first half of the season. Brian Goodwin, who was signed after the Luis Robert injury, spent time with Charlotte before making it to the big-league roster and he’s made the most of his opportunity.
In 30 games with the White Sox, Goodwin is slashing .267/.353/.511 with eight doubles, four home runs. 15 RBIs, 12 walks, 22 strikeouts, and a wRC+ of 137. He made his presence felt by smacking a home run and driving in five in his first game with the big league club. Since then, Goodwin has continued to help the White Sox maintain their division lead while being riddled with injuries.
And then there’s old standby Leury García. He got off to a brutal start this season, and Tony La Russa penciled him into the lineup more often than he probably needed to. When Nick Madrigal went down and it was time for Leury to take over as the primary second baseman, it left fans with an uneasy feeling — and rightfully so.
Leury, however, has been awesome since taking over and getting more consistent playing time. Since the Madrigal injury on June 9, Leury is slashing .309/.396/.494 with three home runs, 20 RBIs, 13 walks, 21 strikeouts, and has a wRC+ of 146 in that timeframe.
There have been a few other players throughout the first half of the season that have stepped up and taken on that next man up mentality. Jake Lamb, who has played sparingly, has been pretty productive in his time with the club. Gavin Sheets, who is getting an opportunity in right field with Adam Eaton gone, has been impressive too, in a small sample size.
Thanks to the help of these guys, and other factors like the pitching staff and being in a weaker division, the White Sox are sitting in first place in the AL Central with an eight-game lead as we start the second half.
If you would’ve said this was possible without Jiménez, Robert, Madrigal, and now Yasmani Grandal, I would’ve thought you were crazy. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for this team in the first half of 2021, but the next man up mentality has helped them continue to compete for the postseason.
The White Sox have gotten a lot out of the guys who have been forced to step up, and now are getting to a point where they will get Eloy and Luis back relatively soon. It’s likely they add at the trade deadline as well, so reinforcements are on the way.
You have to give a lot of credit to these guys and this team for battling through the adversity they’ve faced in 2021. They managed to grind through some rough patches, eventually building a solid division lead. It’s going to be a fun second half of the season as the White Sox look to continue to take care of business in the division and aim to get back to the postseason in 2021.