Friday, November 12, 2004

Looking Back 2004: What Went Wrong

Here is a second part in a three-part retrospect of the 2004 season.

It’s easy to put a finger on what went wrong for the White Sox in 2004. Injuries, and more injuries. And we’re not talking about ouchies to a fourth outfielder or fifth starter. Or even a setback such as losing a low-key everyday player.

The Sox basically lost the heart of their lineup. And for a team as one-dimensional as the Pale Hose is on offense (power, power power… OBP? What?), the loss of their two best on-base men was devastating.

While that’s not the whole story, it’s a large part of the White Sox failures of last season.

No. 1: No Big Frank

On June 15, when Frank Thomas first suffered an ankle injury that would end his season, he was sporting a .298 batting average, was reaching base at a .462 clip, and was slugging a devastating .639. His OPS of 1.101 led the American League, and had he not been injured and held his rate stats, that figure would have led the AL at the season’s end.

Instead the Big Hurt got hurt. His OPS sunk to .997 (still among the best in the league) before he was forced out of action by a stress fracture. With the injury requiring surgery, the Sox will be lucky to have him back before spring training is over.

It’s no secret that the Sox were a slugging team that didn’t get on base very often. While players like Jose Valentin (.473 slugging percentage) and Juan Uribe (.506 had plenty of pop in their bats, they only reached base at rates of .279 (!) and .327, respectively.

While some would argue that the loss of a certain outfielder (which we’ll address in a minute) was the more significant loss, let’s first point out that Carlos Lee’s team leading .366 OBP was almost a full .100 points off Thomas’s rate before he was hurt.

In a lineup where nobody – not even the guys at the top of the lineup – even approached a .400 OBP, that’s a lot of on-base power for a lineup to lose. Oh, and the huge power to boot.

It’s good to play Earl Weaver baseball, waiting for the three-run home run, but if a long ball is going to plate three runs, guys have to get on base. Mostly, the Sox failed to do this.

At this point, it’s hard to argue that Thomas isn’t the best offensive player that’s ever worn a White Sox uniform. When healthy, he’s still the best player they have. And like seasons past (see 1999 and 2001) as Thomas goes, so does his team.

No. 2: No Magglio

Magglio Ordonez’s injury was the other major Sox setback. He was having a typical season, hitting .292/.351/.485 when he tore his knee. The injury has become the subject of international speculation, as Ordonez went to Vienna for some type of medical procedure. It gets stranger by the day.

But no matter how strange the offseason gets for the player that’s patrolled right field for the Sox since 1998, another typical season from Ordonez would have gone a long way towards keeping the Sox in contention.

No. 3: Fifth Starter Shenanigans

For the second straight year, the Sox suffered through the painful process of auditioning for a fifth starter. The reviews are pretty bleak.

Felix Diaz (6.75 ERA), Jason Grilli (7.40), Jon Rauch (6.23), Arnie Munoz (10.05), Josh Stewart (15.26) and Dan Wright (8.15) combined for 25 starts. The results are pretty obvious by these ERAs.

If the Sox had been able to dig up a league-average pitcher, or acquire someone better than Jon Garland (4.89 ERA), thus bumping him to the No. 5 spot, the Sox could have definitely picked up some games in the standings.

No. 4: Stagnant Youth

Speaking of Jon Garland, he and Joe Crede were supposed to take big steps forward this year. They didn’t.

The now 25-year-old Garland, besides an ERA near five, gave up more than 200 hits and 76 walks. He also gave up 34 home runs, which means his sinker isn’t sinking.

Crede struggled early in 2003, but the Sox stuck with him in part because of his hot corner defense, and in part because of their faith that he’d turn the corner. He rewarded the Sox with a big second half.

The 26-year-old third baseman saw his 2004 campaign begin the same as the previous. However, there was no big second-half turnaround.

Both Garland and Crede are getting too old to be prospects. Crede will turn 27 early next season, and Garland has already been in the big leagues for five season. To boot, the not-so-young right-hander could stand to make close to $5 million in arbitration this winter.

To a lesser degree, Willie Harris and Joe Borchard could be included here. But because of either cost (Garland) or the desire to contend (Crede), it’s the aforementioned players that are making the Sox face tough decisions this offseason.

No. 5: Instead of closing door, door closed on Koch

Before the 2003 season, the Sox traded uber-closer Keith Foulke for Billy Koch, who himself was coming off a 44-save season. But besides the saves Koch has racked up (144 in four seasons), Foulke had been better in every other statistical category.

Koch, probably because of his heavy workload in ’02 (a career-high 97 2/3 innings), struggled with the loss of his velocity. He saved only 10 games before being replaced by Tom Gordon. Koch finished they year with a career-worst 5.77 ERA.

But the Sox, through faith or stubbornness stuck with him. They were rewarded (or rather punished) with a 5.40 ERA in just more than 23 innings. It sure wasn’t worth the $6,375,000 the Sox paid.

But it wasn’t until June that the Sox dumped Koch and handed the job over to Shingo Takatsu, who would go on to finish second in the Rookie of the Year balloting after posing a 2.31 ERA and saving 19 games.

It’s good to have faith in your players. But it’s bad to stick with them past the point at which they’ve proven they can’t do anything to help your cause.

No. 6: The Scott Schoeneweis Experiment

Giving Schott Schoeneweis a spot in the 2004 wasn’t an entirely bad idea. He had been a full-time starter with the Angels in 2000 and 2001 with close to league-average results. And after a couple years of coming out of the bullpen, Schoeney was striking out close to a batter per inning and was ready to resume work in somebody’s rotation.

It even looked like it was working, as Schoeneweis was 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA after the first two months of the season. If not for a tough-luck loss to Javier Vasquez, he’d have been 6-1.

But working deep into the count undid the experiment. It took the left-hander more than 17 pitches per inning. His 3.84 pitchers per plate appearance was a high total, and his 1.58 Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched mean that he was throwing his 3.84 to a lot of batters. He also wasn’t working deep into games.

For a elbow unaccustomed to the workload of a starter, better pitch efficiency could have saved Schoneweis. But instead, he was put on the DL with inflation of the critical joint. His ERA wound up at 5.59. And the Sox had another gaping hole in their rotation.

1 comment:

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