As the 2021 MLB season just crossed the 60-game mark that would have been the entirety of the 2020 season, it is obvious the Chicago White Sox have something going on. It is still far too early to be handing out trophies, but watching this group play on a nightly basis has been extremely enjoyable.
The resiliency that this team has shown bouncing back from major injury, after major injury, after major injury has been nothing short of remarkable. The White Sox clubhouse has embraced a “next man up” mentality, as evidenced by significant contributions from Brian Goodwin, Billy Hamilton, Jake Lamb, and Danny Mendick, among plenty of others.
But the White Sox secret weapon thus far? The coaching staff.
Altered Offensive Approach
This team is winning in a much different way than last year. In 2020, the White Sox ranked third in all of baseball in home runs with 96, and with that, they were also fourth in the league in strikeouts and just 24th in walks. In 2021, the power has not been there to the same degree (injuries being a key factor here), as the team ranks 22nd in home runs with 65. On the flip side, they are now 19th in strikeouts and fourth in walks, which has propelled them to the number two spot for OBP.
The White Sox ranked fifth in runs last season. With the change in approach this season, they are now up to third in the league. While everyone loves the long ball, this offensive approach is much more sustainable through the inevitable slumps of a long season, and much more effective against tougher pitching the White Sox are sure to face come the fall.
Frank Menechino deserves a ton of credit for completely revamping the White Sox offensive approach. Even while they were smashing opponents with the long ball last year, Menechino had the following quote in August:
“Everybody’s starting to barrel balls, guys are starting to hit balls out of the park, and I’m over there bitching, saying, ‘We’ve got to stop striking out.’ That’s the tug and pull that’s going on here. Sometimes I’m the killjoy.”
The players have obviously bought into what Menechino is selling and it has made for an offensive juggernaut of a different type. It will also certainly help to get the bats of Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert back in the lineup.
Starting Pitching Prowess
On the pitching side, the starting rotation has been quite clearly the best in baseball any way you slice it. The talent in itself has been upgraded, as Carlos Rodon is having a career year now that he is finally healthy and Lance Lynn has replaced the Dane Dunning/Reynaldo Lopez spot in the rotation.
Ethan Katz was a very well-received hire from the get-go and he has certainly lived up to expectations. The White Sox pitching staff as a whole has shown the second-biggest increase in spin rate this season, a testament to the work Katz has put in with each of his pitchers. And while some want to attribute this to “the sticky stuff,” the more obvious answer is better pitchers and a new pitching coach.
Katz has turned the perenially frustrating Dylan Cease into a consistent strike-thrower with some of the nastiest breaking pitches around. Carlos Rodon is throwing harder than ever before with the best control he has ever had. Even Lance Lynn, who was very good before this season, is off to the best start of his career through mid-June.
Lucas Giolito’s ERA sits a little higher than he would like, but if you remove the debacle in Boston where he gave up eight earned runs and only recorded three outs, his ERA would be a nifty 2.90. Dallas Keuchel has been the most anemic of the starters so far, but he certainly has not been bad. If he is the biggest issue in your rotation, you are in good shape.
Each of these pitchers to a man has discussed how Katz has helped them, whether it be using a new tool, using their lower body more, or mentally, thinking through pitch sequencing in a different manner. All of this has led to the White Sox having the third-best team ERA in baseball to this point. Katz’s former team, the Giants, are right behind them at fourth.
A Not-So-Weak “Weakness”
The obvious blemish is the bullpen, which has not been as automatic as we all thought it would have. Here, I would suggest some context. Relief pitcher performances are notoriously volatile from year to year, and as frustrating as it has been to watch the bullpen cough up leads every now and then, the White Sox still rank seventh in the league in bullpen ERA.
Starting with the closer, Liam Hendriks is still at the top of his game. Aaron Bummer has pitched in some of the worst luck in baseball, illustrated by his peripheral statistics that reflect an expected ERA about a whole point lower than his actual ERA. Evan Marshall appears to be gaining his confidence back with scoreless outings in eight of his last nine appearances.
The regression from Codi Heuer and Matt Foster was not completely unpredictable. They were both young pitchers last season that no one had seen before, and now there is tape on them. Garret Crochet can still be overwhelming in the right matchups. Oh, and Michael Kopech should return from the injured list any day now.
Yes, the bullpen has been the biggest disappointment thus far, but it has not been a total trainwreck by any means. The fact that a bullpen with the seventh-best ERA in baseball is seen as the team’s biggest weakness speaks to how well-built the entire roster is.
Eyes On The Prize
The White Sox coaching staff is clearly among the best in the league for how they have every player prepared to succeed on a given night. Like many fellow White Sox fans, I had extreme doubts about the Tony La Russa hire. And while a lot of those doubts have come to fruition in the form of some poor decision-making and unnecessary controversies, La Russa clearly has this ship headed in the right direction, especially when it comes to letting his staff work their magic.
And above all, the White Sox clearly have built a winning culture, and they seem to have embraced the oddity of having a 76-year old manager who just won’t see things the same way they do a lot of the time. The attitude seems to be that they can all agree to disagree in a civil manner and move on.
As long as the team keeps winning, there is no reason it can’t continue to be a mutually beneficial relationship. On Monday morning, The Athletic placed the White Sox at the very top of the power rankings, thanks in large part to the coaching staff the team has assembled.