With about one month left to go in the regular season, the Chicago White Sox are in first place in the American League Central. They sit three games up on the Detroit Tigers, and are tied with the wild card-leading Athletics at 72-57. As of this writing, they are 85 percent to make the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, with 74 percent of that coming by way of their division lead.
At this time last year, the White Sox had won four in a row and sat at 67-65, five games back of the Tigers. They were desperately holding on in a busy playoff race, but the Tigers would go 22-6 down the stretch, while the White Sox limped to a sub-.500 record. What's different for Chicago this time around? The veterans that should have powered their 2011 run are producing in 2012.
In 2011, Adam Dunn was in the first season of a four-year, $56 million contract. He hit .260/.356/.536 with 38 homers in his last year with the Nationals, which opened up the question of whether Dunn or not had a shot at 600 career homers. That question seemed silly after his debut with Chicago. The designated hitter/first baseman put up a paltry .159/.292/.277 that put his OPS at about half of the league average, and he went deep just 11 times in 496 plate appearances.
Dunn struck out even more than he had in the past, whiffing well over one-third of the time, to the point where, if he had reached his plate appearance total from 2011 (648), he would have struck out 231 times. That's eight more times than Mark Reynolds punched out in 2009, and would have set the single-season record, as well as been Dunn's first campaign with over 200 strikeouts.
Striking out isn't that harmful on its own, as it's just another out, but there's swinging-and-missing, and then there's never getting your bat on the ball well. Dunn combined those 177 strikeouts with a .240 batting average on balls in play, nearly 50 points under his career mark.
Things haven't changed much below the surface in 2012. Dunn is striking out 34 percent of the time, and owns a .236 BABIP. His walk rate is about the same, too, and he's seeing the same rate of pitches per plate appearance. The major difference is in the homers. Dunn has 28 more hits in 2012 than he did in 2011, in 42 more at-bats. He's hit 27 more homers this season than last, and the year isn't over.
Will it last? He's already having a tougher second half, posting a .201/.300/.463 with a .198 BABIP, but that's still above the league average thanks to the power, and it's far better than his 2011. If he keeps that up, he won't be a drag on the White Sox as he was down the stretch last year.
Alex Rios is another Chicago hitter that couldn't put it together in 2011. He was part of our pre-season look at players who needed to bounce back after replacement-level campaigns. Essentially, Rios had seen his grounder rates creep up over the last few years, cutting into his power, a problem that he had years before in the early part of his career, while still with the Blue Jays.
To get out from that issue, Rios shortened his swing considerably, allowing him to get around on the ball quicker, and with a more explosive path to it. A similar situation has occurred this year, with Rios standing up straighter in his stance, and shifting the bat closer to the plate -- this means his hands need less time to get into position to drive the ball. He's now hitting more liners, fewer grounders, and has seen his Isolated Power jump from .121 to .215, a new career-high, and his first .200-plus campaign since 2006, when he initially shortened his swing. It's not just more homers he's seeing, though, as his batting average is over .300 for the first time since -- you guessed it -- 2006, and his BABIP sits relatively close to his career norms at .317.
As it did back in the mid-2000s, Rios' shortened swing has led to far more pull power, and balls laced back up the middle. A comparison of 2011 and 2012 (sOPS+ is split-adjusted OPS+, i.e., how a player did in a specific split relative to others. In this case, how Rios did with directional hitting compared to other right-handed batters.)
|Direction||2011 sOPS+||2012 sOPS+|
While he's still nearly 70 percent worse than average at going to the opposite field, Rios has seen a huge jump in those results year-to-year, going from a 252 OPS in 2011 to 475 this season. It's ugly, but with numbers to the pull side and up the middle as lovely as what Rios has going on now, blemishes like that are easy to ignore.
Rios is also seeing fewer fastballs, as pitchers can't get around him as easily anymore, and, according to PITCHf/x pitch values, has contributed five runs on fastballs, after posting a -17 in 2011. Those aren't predictive, but they give you an idea of the difference from season-to-season.
Neither of these players could do what was needed to keep the White Sox afloat in the 2011 playoff chase, but this is a new year, and the pair look like new players -- especially Rios, who gave his swing the overhaul it needed. Chicago's chances are that much stronger for their efforts, and this time around, that means the White Sox should stick in this thing.