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Lefties key to breaking the White Sox lineup imbalance

The South Siders’ struggles against righthanders dates back to 2020

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates
Hey, this pair can swing from the left side!
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 White Sox did pretty well against right-handed pitching. A 113 wRC+ wasn’t anything like the warpath they unleashed on lefties, but it was still one of the best marks in the league.

The 2021 White Sox hit right-handed pitching slightly less well, although a 108 wRC+ was nothing at all to sneeze at. Not quite the powerhouse we anticipated, but with the injuries the team suffered, it was a reasonable result.

The results were there on the whole in 2021, but there were cracks in the armor. The thing about that 2021 wRC+ is that lefties were responsible for most of the damage (114 wRC+), while Sox righties were just a smidge above-average against same-handed pitchers.

In 2022, the chickens have come home to roost: Against lefties, the White Sox remain a force, with a 120 wRC+ that’s second in the American League. Unfortunately, there are far more righty starters than lefty starters, and Chicago’s 83 wRC+ against righties — boosted a non-insignificant margin on Thursday night — is third-last in the majors, better than only Detroit and Oakland. Fantastic company.

MLB: Game Two-Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of that left-on-right damage in 2021 came from sources that aren’t available to the 2022 White Sox: Brian Goodwin and Jake Lamb have moved on, and while they were nothing close to special — barely average on a rate basis — the team did virtually nothing to replace the 14 homers, 42 RBIs, and 50 walks they contributed to last year’s offense. It’s far too early to say that last summer’s Gavin Sheets was a mirage, but an inability to reproduce a .506 slugging was not an unpredictable occurrence. Leury is Leury.

The offseason additions to the offense were both right-handers. Josh Harrison does little to move the needle strongly in any direction, and though AJ Pollock has delivered vaguely inverse platoon splits at times in recent years — and is a very dangerous hitter when hot — his presence does little to solve the balance problem that has contributed to the ends of Chicago’s two most recent playoff series.

There’s the critical part. Imbalanced as it is, the White Sox still have a playoff-caliber starting lineup at full strength. But when the field is narrowed to the best of the best and everything comes down a few individual games, these matchups are critical.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season ended when the White Sox failed to beat Chris Bassitt and a convoy of right-handed Oakland relievers. And the 92 pitches it took Bassitt to work through seven one-run innings would have looked at home in 2022. Oakland righties then threw 8 23 of the nine innings in the decisive Game 3.

The 2021 season ended when the White Sox couldn’t beat Lance McCullers Jr., who allowed just one run over 10 23 innings in the ALDS, and that innings total would have been even higher had he not departed Game 4 with an injury. McCullers has run a fairly sizable reverse platoon split over the course of his career, and Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal were the team’s only lefthanders capable of doing much damage against a pitcher of his caliber.

In moments like these, it becomes a serious weakness that the bulk of the team’s best hitters are right-handed, with average-at-best plate discipline. All three of the White Sox home runs in the ALDS were left-on-right. There was plenty of failure to go around, but on the offensive side, part of the team’s problem boiled down to right-handed hitters’ inability to do anything but hit singles against the solid Houston pitching staff.

The White Sox offense is already starting to play a little bit better here in 2022. Thursday afternoon saw a season-high 14 hits; Pollock is starting to round into form; José Abreu is definitively hitting the ball better. If Moncada, Grandal, or Andrew Vaughn start to shake off the rust, there could be plenty to get excited about.

All the same, the handedness imbalance hasn’t been addressed. Things will certainly look great when Moncada, Grandal, and García or Sheets are in a groove. When push comes to shove, however, there’s a reason the 2022 Sox have been repeatedly shut down by mediocre righties seemingly more adept than in the past at exploiting weaknesses that go with being so top-heavy. Early or not, getting beaten for 6-7 innings by pitchers like Zach Plesac, Dylan Bundy, Michael Lorenzen, Zack Greinke, and Brady Singer isn’t encouraging when it comes to the prospect of facing pitchers of the caliber they’ll see this weekend in New York.

There’s a reason they play the games, and we know the White Sox have hardly played to their full potential for more than one game at a time this season. There’s still time for roster adjustments to be made, or for some of the team’s talented righties to improve their approach. We just have to wait and see.