Saturday, May 14, 2005

The beat goes on for the Southsiders

Since the last time your faithful narrator checked in, the White Sox finished off a sweep of the Blue Jays, dropped a couple bad losses to the Devil Rays of all teams, and ensured themselves at least a split with the AL East-leading Orioles by taking the first two games of a four-game set with the birds from Baltimore.

The Sox have now won seven straight at home and overall are 11-2 in their last 13 games. And for the most part, the basic formula has remained the same. Let the starter work deep into the game, let the offense scratch out a few runs and then let the bullpen nail it down.

The only time the bullpen didn't nail it down was in the 7-6 loss to the Devil Rays. But that by itself hardly constitutes a meltdown. In fact, since the last time I've written about it, the bullpen has remained rock-solid.

Dustin Hermanson has yet to allow a run in 18 1/3 innings and appears to have emerged as the de facto closer. But as good as he's been with a .76 WHIP, Cliff Politte has been even better with a .68 WHIP and 17 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. Politte's ERA now stands at 1.35.

Damaso Marte has also been pitching well with a 1.93 ERA, despite a 1.71 WHIP. He's been walking a tightrope with 12 walks in 14 innings, but he's helped bail himself out with 16 strikeouts. Something will have to give, though. Either Marte tops walking guys or his ERA will skyrocket.

The other two big pieces -- Shingo Takatsu and Luis Vizcaino are both scuffling with ERAs of 7.00 or higher. But there are plenty of reasons to like the work they've been giving the Sox lately.
Both survived disasterous outings against Cleveland on April 7. In fact, of the 20 earned runs the pair has given up this season, nine were against the Tribe that afternoon. That must hurt, especially for Vizcaino, who was left hung out to dry because he was the last man in the bullpen.

I know it's a slippery slope when you begin saying things like "without such-and-such outings, pitcher X has X.XX ERA." But without the Cleveland game, Takatsu's ERA is 3.38 and Vizcaino's is 4.60.

Takatsu has struck out 12 men per 9IP while walking a handful and allowing his share of hits. Vizcaino has not been striking guys out (5.63 K/9), but has avoided home runs (1 allowed this year). So when you look at their peripherals, those adjusted ERAs sound about right for what they're getting done on the mound. Not enough to qualify them as studs, but even with the ass-busting ERAs they're still touting, they haven't been bad options for the Sox.

I guess the other shoe could still drop, as we're only a month and a half into the season. Small sample sizes are still an issue, but short of overuse, even when the clock strikes mid-season, it's hard to see the whole bullpen turning into a collection of pitching pumpkins.

So lets talk about last night's game.

GAME NOTES:

Taking the ball:
Mark Buehrle tossed another eight innings last night, putting him on pace to throw more than 270 innings. The last Sox pitcher to throw more than 250 innings in a season was Alex Fernandez, who had 258 in 1996. The last time a White Sox pitcher tossed more than 270 innings was 1975, when Jim Kaat and Wilbur Wood both crushed that mark with 303 2/3 and 293 1/3 innings, respectively.
There's still a lot of season left, and I'd be surprised if Buehrle managed to throw that many innings. But I think at this point we can also be surprised if he doesn't throw more than 220.

Something else interesting of note is that out of the last 10 non-strike-shortened seasons, the only years the White Sox didn't have a left-handed pitcher toss 200 innings were 2000, when Mike Sirotka managed only 197 because of injuries down the stretch, and in 1997, when Wilson Alvarez threw 145 before being traded to the Giants. Alvaraz still finished the year with 200+ innings.

Not out of the woods yet:
Paul Konerko went 2-for-3 and keyed Friday's Sox win with a broken-bat single that scored two runs in the seventh inning. It was his first multi-hit game since last weekend when he drilled two home runs against Toronto and only his second since a pair of hits against the Twins on April 19.
To read some of the game stories, it seems like some scribes are implying that the bloop hit was just what Konerko needs to, "get things going his way again." I don't really know how much more likely his is to go on a tear than he was after he broke through with a couple bombs against the Blue Jays, though. The hits just fall when they fall, you know?

There is one comforting fact in this slump. During Konerko's titanic nosedive of 2003, he wouldn't get his on-base percentage up above .300 for good until a 2-for-4 night against the Yankees on August 28. Part of that had to do with how far Paulie had fallen off early in the season, but it also had to do with a lousy approach at the plate. Konerko took a lot of pitches, but instead of drawing walks and getting on base even when the balls weren't falling right for him, he'd get into a pitcher's count and never seemed able to battle back.

This time it's been different. This season, while Konerko is still hovering around the Mendoza line with his .208 batting average, his OBP has not dipped below .300 since April 17. In fact, his OBP is still a tolerable .333. That's still not enough on-base production from your first baseman, but for as deep of a slump in which Konerko's been mired, you have to be pleased with that.

What's more, after his disasterous 2003, Konerko bounced back with a huge 2004 in which he drew a career-high 69 walks. This year he's on pace to receive 95 free passes. I think we can easily say that after the first slump, Konerko emerged as a better hitter.

So what does that mean for this year going foward? With nine home runs, he's hurting pitchers when they go after him. And he's taking his walks and not getting himself out on junk out of the strike zone. So I think the hits will eventually start falling and he could have a very big second half. I don't think Friday night was the beginning. I think 2003 was the beginning, and now it's just a matter of waiting for Konerko's luck with balls in play to start evening out.

Designated to do what?:
Willie Harris got the start at DH on Friday. It's not really that unusual. Teams, because of injury or just plain lousy rosters, have to play worse hitters at the spot all the time. And at least Harris is still batting over .300 with a nice .389 OPB. But it's still funny to say, "Now batting, the designated hitter, No. 1 Willie Harris."

Qutting time?:
Possible Hall-of-Famer Rafael Palmeiro has had a tremendous career, and in his prime -- which reached well into his 30s -- was considered one of the most dangerous left-handed hitters in baseball. He had it all with a good batting average, OBP and lots of power.
But right now, he is killing the Orioles.

As laughable as his third Gold Glove award in 1999 was (he played 135 games at DH that year), it was his great defensive rep that landed him that piece of hardward. Though it's been evident on plays like the one he made in the seventh inning Friday that he's been slipping in that department.
That would be ok if he were hitting better. Palmiero is batting .218, and because he's only slugging .333, pitchers don't feel threatened and are going right after him. As a result, he's only got a .295 on-base percentage and is on pace for only 51 walks. That total would be his lowest total since he was a 23-year-old wearing Cubbie blue.

Baltimore's offense has been motoring along, but can still ill afford to have Palmiero get old on them. From www.baseballreference.com, here are Raffy's OPS+ marks the last three years:

2001: 144
2002: 141
2003: 117
2004: 103

That's an alarming trend for a guy that blew out 40 candles on his birthday cake last September.
It's also a pretty good reason why the Orioles, who are already missing Sammy Sosa's bat, probably won't be able to hang with the Red Sox in the AL East race all summer.

On the rise:
That would be the Sox' team OBP, which is up to .325. That's still only good for 22nd in the majors, in between the Cubs (.326) and the Rangers (.323), but considering that only a couple weeks ago the Sox were at .312 and keeping company with teams like the Pirates and the Royals, that's a huge step forward.

So with Konerko and Jermaine Dye still struggling, how have the Sox elevated their OBP? Well in part because...

POW:
... Scott Posednik is sporting a .380 OBP after going 3-for-5 on Friday. The Pod person has already accepted 20 free passes, which is why his current OBP is better than rookie mark of .379, despite his batting average being off more than 50 points between those two seasons (.262 now, as opposed to .314 for Milwaukee in 2003).

Despite a base-stealing slump that saw him get gunned down 3-of-9 times last week, he's still got 18 steals on the season against only five caught stealing. It should also be mentioned that Posednik, along with Rowand and Dye, have been fantastic defenders in the Sox outfield. Posednik and Rowand are both among the top defenders at their position as measured by Zone Rating (Rowand is tops, Posednik is sixth).

Even if you don't like Zone Rating as a way to measure defense, it's hard to say that balls in play given up by the Sox pitching staff haven't been turned into outs.

So while it's still early, and while I was also an early doubter, I have to say that this Posednik experiment is working out pretty well... so far at least.

On deck:
Freddy Garcia will go against Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera has been a strikeout machine, punching out 9.25 per 9 IP. He also walks a few. This should be a fun matchup to watch.

1 comment:

Pete said...

A couple weeks ago I started my own sox blog if you'd like to add me to your blog roll. chisoxrants.blogspot.com