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The White Sox Are Good, But Can They Be Great?

In an otherwise ho-hum game last week, with the Chicago White Sox trailing the Kansas City Royals 3-2 in the top of the eighth inning, Eloy Jiménez came to the plate with a pair of runners on base. The 2020 Silver Slugger had missed nearly the first four months of the year after he tore his pectoral muscle trying to rob a home run in March, and this was just his eighth at-bat of the season. In the immediate sense, the game against the Royals didn’t matter much: The White Sox sat eight and a half games clear of the rest of the American League Central. But when Jiménez sprung on a slider and sent it arcing over the left-field wall, it hinted at what might still be in store for the Sox.

In the spring, the White Sox promised to be baseball’s headiest blend of homer-mashing, single-blooping, base-thieving, run-piling offensive talent. “The opportunity is real,” Tony La Russa said in March of his new club’s championship chances, comparing the squad favorably to the successful and stylish ones he had managed in Oakland and St. Louis. But that team has not yet materialized. Long-term injuries have ravaged the roster; tears to Jiménez’s pec and Luis Robert’s hip flexor cost each player at least 60 games, while Nick Madrigal’s season — and, as it turns out, his career with the Sox — ended with a hamstring tear. Those stars who have remained on the field, most notably reigning AL MVP José Abreu and shortstop Tim Anderson (who finished seventh in AL MVP voting last season), have had unspectacular campaigns, settling in below recent high-water marks.

Still, the White Sox carry all the trappings of true contention. They rank eighth in OPS and fourth in ERA; FiveThirtyEight’s projections give them an 8 percent chance at the championship.

There’s a set of lessons to be drawn from Chicago’s season, about the importance of organizational flexibility and prudence in roster building. The White Sox have sidestepped the flimsiness that can hamper teams over-reliant on marquee names, leaning instead on a cast of able fill-ins and MLB’s most consistent starting rotation. Their deadline acquisition of reliever Craig Kimbrel bolstered what was already one of the game’s most formidable bullpens, bumping up the team’s margin for error still further.

But there’s also the irresistible hypothetical, as the postseason rounds into view: If they get right, just how good could this team be?

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Pitching, to this point, has been the most conspicuous source of the steadiness. Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease have each made at least 18 starts, covering all but seven of Chicago’s games. Lynn (with an MLB-best 2.07 ERA) and Rodón (with a 0.965 WHIP) have struck up an in-house Cy Young rivalry; Giolito has continued the career turnaround that began in 2019; Keuchel and Cease — the downsloping soft-tosser and ascendant power arm, respectively — have met in the middle, each working 100 innings to this point. In all, the Sox starters have so far maintained the fourth-lowest ERA and pitched the third-most innings of any rotation in baseball. Per FanGraphs, they have the game’s second-highest wins above replacement.

Credit for the White Sox’s pitching dominance has popularly gone to Ethan Katz, Chicago’s first-year pitching coach who worked with Giolito in high school and has recalibrated Rodón’s repertoire. More accurately, though, Katz’s hiring is one example of a broader organizational pattern of prudent plays and smart bets. When the team traded for Lynn last December, he had a reputation as a fastball-pumping stalwart who occasionally nudged up against elite status; the Sox have benefited from the best season in a fine career. When they re-signed Rodón to a $3 million deal after non-tendering him in December, they followed a hunch that the shooting-star slider he flashed during a decorated collegiate career might yet show up in the majors. In Keuchel in 2020, they brought on a onetime Cy Young Award winner and postseason regular who, at worst, would introduce an element of sub-90s guile. Across the board, Chicago attended to both sides of the staff-building process: maximizing potential, yes, but also minimizing how much can go wrong.

A blue tint over a headshot of Hideo Nomo, inside a special frame with laurels and baseball bats intersecting with it.

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Despite a relative lack of top-line success, the bats tell a similar story. Anderson, Abreu and Moncada, the cornerstone trio that has remained active this year, have put up a combined 7.2 WAR;1 together, they’re just better than one Shohei Ohtani. A lineup that was supposed to run on linked highlights — Anderson beating out an infield single, Abreu thumping him home with a double in the gap — has instead subsisted on depth. Yermín Mercedes’s recent demotion obscures a torrid start in which he put up a .946 OPS over his first 40 games. Andrew Vaughn, the rookie fill-in for Jiménez, has chipped in an eminently acceptable .786 OPS. Catcher Yasmani Grandal, a 2020 signee presently sidelined with a tendon tear in his knee, has used his strike-zone sense and power to put up one of the strangest slash lines across baseball: a .188 average,a .388 OBP and a .436 slugging percentage. He’s a useful microcosm; what he’s done is working, just not in a way anyone would expect.

The best news for White Sox fans is that there’s still time for those original expectations to pay off. Plain bad luck explains part of Abreu’s disappointing follow-up to his MVP campaign. Though he’s set a career high in walk percentage and retained his usual lofty perch in exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, his batting average on balls in play has fallen to a career-low .275; that number figures to climb. Anderson once made a habit of top-tier two-strike hitting, and if he nudges his current .209 mark closer to his .260 from 2020 or his .239 from 2019, he’ll give Chicago a crucial cog in postseason run-scoring. Jiménez is back after a different injury kept him out a few more games, and Robert, who won a Gold Glove in center field and notched 11 homers in 56 games as a rookie last year, is on his way.

If the condensed 2020 season didn’t mean much for 2021’s prognostications, it nevertheless provided a useful example of the distinctions between a full 162-game slate and shorter stretches thereof. The first half of the White Sox’s season was a testament to preparation, and the coming months may still show what this team is capable of when it isn’t just getting by. (They offered a taste on Tuesday night, with Anderson spraying three hits and Abreu driving in two runs in a 7-1 win over the Royals.) 

Across 60 games last year, Chicago put on a classic baseball spectacle: the central-casting power bat, the leadoff speedster, the young outfielders with massive range and massiver swings. The White Sox already number among MLB’s best teams. The key to a championship may be becoming, once again, its best show.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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  1. By the version of the metric.

Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.