After an offseason full of drama and roster turnover, the Chicago White Sox have gotten off to one of their best starts in recent memory as they sit atop the American League Central Division one quarter of the way through the season.
The roots of that success were planted before the season even started, as the team acquired third baseman Todd Frazier in a trade and made upgrades at several positions, with Austin Jackson taking over as the everyday center fielder and Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro splitting time behind the plate for the Sox.
The biggest asset for the team this season has been, unquestionably, the pitching. Chris Sale is putting up even more ridiculous numbers than he usually does, and Jose Quintana is finally getting some run support from the squad. Even guys like Mat Latos and Carlos Rodon are getting in on the act, as the Sox rotation has been among the best in baseball.
So what else has been going right for the White Sox? What has been going wrong? To answer those questions, we’re going to give our first quarter grades for the team as they look to stay in the playoff hunt in the American League.
Where They Stand:
With a 26-18 record, the White Sox currently sit atop the AL Central, sporting a two and a half game lead over the Cleveland Indians. Despite that status, Fangraphs isn’t bullish on Chicago’s chances of finishing in a playoff spot, giving them just a 48.3 percent chance of winning either the division or the wild card.
After a red-hot start, the White Sox have cooled considerably in recent weeks, losing seven of their last 10 games overall and giving up a big chunk of their divisional lead as teams like Cleveland and Kansas City have started to find their footing.
Chicago’s offense has seen its share of ups and downs so far this season, but there’s little question that the guys at the upper end of the spectrum have been absolutely carrying the squad.
Adam Eaton has had an excellent start to the season for the White Sox, collecting 73 total bases and sporting an on-base percentage of nearly .400 so far on the year. He’s also striking out less, which has been a huge boost to the team at the top of the order.
Frazier has provided a ton of pop for the White Sox, hitting 13 home runs and driving in 33 RBI so far this season. Those 13 home runs tie the team’s total from the third base position last year, and although he’s hitting just .228, it’s been critical for Frazier to succeed in big spots because of some of the players that aren’t necessarily thriving.
One of those players is Jose Abreu, who’s hitting just .243 on the year. That average is down nearly 50 points from his .290 mark last season, and his slugging percentage has dropped by over 100 points as well. Add to that the fact he’s hitting into more double plays (he’s already halfway to his season total from last year in just one-quarter of the plate appearances), and you have a player who needs to step up for the team.
Another player who started out the season well and has trailed off is Brett Lawrie, who has seen his batting average plummet by 32 points in his last 10 games. During that span he has just seven hits in 40 at-bats, with one home run and two RBI to his credit. He’s also struck out 17 times in that stretch, and he’ll have to figure things out quickly if he’s going to start helping this lineup again.
Over the last two seasons, the White Sox have been comically awful on defense, but this season, that narrative has completely changed. Frazier has brought a much-needed amount of stability at third base, and Lawrie and Jimmy Rollins are playing excellent baseball up the middle of the field too.
The big story this season has been the emergence of Eaton as a defensive stalwart in right field. Limited by a lackluster arm and a surprisingly low amount of range in center, Eaton has thrived since moving over to make room for Austin Jackson, and he has put up some simply staggering numbers in that position.
Perhaps more importantly for the White Sox than who they gained is who they lost. Guys like Alexei Ramirez, Tyler Flowers, and Gordon Beckham were all defensive liabilities for the club, and replacing them with solid veterans has made this team markedly better with the leather than they were before.
When it was revealed that Chris Sale was going to make some changes to his approach to pitch deeper into games, skepticism and fear from White Sox fans would have been legitimate emotions to have. After all, Sale, a perennial Cy Young contender, was already highly successful, so why mess with a formula that was working?
Naturally, all of that worry has proven to be for naught, as Sale is off to a simply ludicrous start this season. Sporting a 1.58 ERA, Sale has won his first nine starts of the season, striking out 8.17 batters per nine innings and compiling an eye-popping 3.0 WAR so far on the young season.
Of course, Sale isn’t the only one that has been dominant for the White Sox. Jose Quintana is also off to a rollicking start, and despite a 5-3 record, he’s been almost as impressive as Sale has been. He currently has a 1.98 ERA, giving up just 13 earned runs in 59 innings of work. He’s also got a gaudy WAR number, earning a 2.2 in that category, and his WHIP of 1.02 is solid for a starter as well.
Sure, there are some weak spots, as Mat Latos has hit the skids a bit recently and John Danks was an unmitigated disaster in the fifth spot in the rotation, but for the most part, this team’s rotation and bullpen have been the cornerstones of their successes on the field.