Can the White Sox Make the Playoffs this Season?

By: Brett Fuller Last Updated: August 5, 2011

Few things in this world frustrate baseball fans more than when their team over-pays and under-performs. Perhaps no team exemplifies this more in Major League baseball than the 2011 Chicago White Sox.

Unlike their neighbors to the North (whose expectations were low going into the season), the White Sox bought a ton of goodwill to the table this off season, acquiring Adam Dunn, and re-signing Paul Konerko and AJ Pierzinski to go along with their already-sturdy pitching rotation. With payroll at a record $127 million, to quote their marketing campaign, the White Sox have gone “all in”.

At the time of this article posting, however, the ChiSox are sitting five games below .500, trailing the first-place Tigers by six and a half games and the second-place Indians by four. With the wild-card out of reach with the Yankees/Red Sox pulling away from the pack (the Yankees are 15 games ahead of the White Sox and one behind the Red Sox), the White Sox’ only hopes for the 2011 playoffs come with winning the division. The good news is they’re a Nifty-Nabber’s reach away from overtaking Detroit. Can they do it? Let’s take a closer look.

The Offense’s Under-performance in Overwhelming.

The Law of Averages says that “everything will even out” eventually. When you’re talking about baseball, it is one of the cornerstones of the sabermetric community: players don’t vary much throughout their careers; some may get better and some may get worse, but power hitters will always hit for power, strikeout pitchers will always rack up the K’s, and Ozzie Guillen will always say something controversial.

Offensively, no team in baseball has played further below average than the Chicago White Sox. In fact, the only offense worse than the Pale Hose has been the Seattle Mariners’ offense. The main difference between the rosters, though, is the Mariners’ roster is mostly comprised of truly bad or young major leaguers. The White Sox have some good players, they’re just under-performing.

Adam Dunn, brought in to hit for power and get on base. Unfortunately, through 93 games, he’s done neither. His really bad .296 on-base percentage (OBP) this year, is down 80 points from his career average. If we’re looking at hitting for power, his .301 slugging is miles below his .508 average. What is to blame for this unusually underwhelming season? No one knows. All of these things could be dealt with if he was the only one playing below their usual self. Let’s get nerdy with this!

Alex Rios, the team’s second-highest paid positional player, has had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement, an all-encompassing saber-metric measuring how impactful a player is over a fictional “replacement” player) of 2.2, 1.0. 3.6, 5.0, 5.6, 0.3, and 3.7 in his seven season heading into this year. This year? -1.3.

Juan Pierre, who has played in 104 games this year out of a possible 108 for Chicago, is worth 0.4 wins *less* than that fictional replacement guy. In fact, only six players in the American League who have played in more than 90 games at this point have a negative WAR. The White Sox have three of those six in Dunn, Rios, and Pierre.

It’s not all bad offensively for the White Sox. Alexei Ramirez, Carlos Quentin, and Paul Konerko have all played well this season, each with Top-30 WAR numbers among eligible players. The issue is, these numbers are still around the average for these three players’ careers.

WAR isn’t the end-all-be-all statistic in baseball, but it’s pretty close. It does take into effect defense, and I have two less Gold Glove than Dunn, Rios, and Pierre do combined. But I think it gives an overall sense that, this White Sox team is under-performing, and when the three WAR guys focused on above combined to make up about $35M of the $128M payroll (28% of the 25-man roster), then a severely large percentage of your resources are really dragging you down.

It’s tough to be good on offense when no one on your team are producing above their average, especially your “biggest” players.

Lady Luck Has Not Smiled Kindly on the 2011 White Sox

In most walks of life, luck is a tough thing to quantify. Luckily for baseball fans, sabermetricians have done a swell job of quantifying how often a team catches a lucky break compared to others.

Example 1: Batting Average of Balls in Play

The batting average of balls in play (BABIP) stat is an effective measure of how effective a hitter is, minus their strikeouts and home runs. The Hardball Times defines it as “ a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit”  and allows you to analyze a bit more of how lucky a player can get. Supposedly, the average across baseball for BABIP is around .300, meaning 30% of balls hit in play, when you tally everything up at the end of a season, will be hits.

The White Sox, as a team, are hitting .279 in the BABIP department, good for (again) 2nd worst in the American League. Again, to focus on the whole "progression to the mean" theme here, Dunn is hitting .244 BABIP this year, compared to his .293 BABIP career average, Rios has a .220/.307 2011/career split, and Pierre's split is actually good this year (.295/.320), but still nearly .30 points below his career average.

Example 2: Home Run/Fly Ball Ratio

Carlos Quentin. Adam Dunn. Paul Konerko. What do they all have in common? They’re home run hitters.

Home Run-to-Fly Ball (HR/Fly) ratio is another stat used to measure "luck" in baseball. According to, again, The Hardball Times, "Research has shown that about 11% to 12% of outfield fliers are hit for home runs. For pitchers, significant variations from 11% are probably the result of "luck," but for hitters this stat is more indicative of a true skill."

The power hitters (Quentin, Dunn, and Konerko) are just a tad unlucky this season in the Home Run/Fly Ball ratio. Quentin's HR/Fly this year is 13.1%, slightly below his career average of 15.0%. Konerko's 2011 ratio of 18.2% is well below his 25.9% career percentage. And Dunn, to no one's surprise, is the "unluckiest" of the bunch. His 2011 ratio represents his career low at 11.8%, down a full six percent from his next-lowest, and almost a full 10% below his career mean of 21.7%.

Clearly, these numbers don’t represent every home run where the wind blew the ball just foul, or the ball hit a rock in the infield and bounced three feet to the left of a player, but they give an overall look that the Sox haven’t caught all the breaks. Especially Dunn.

There is a lot of talk in the sabermetric world about “regression to the mean”, when a player or team is playing well above whether they usually do. Mostly what I’m trying to get at here is that the White Sox have underperformed, and if the Law of Averages play out, a strong progression to the mean is in order.

The Schedule Ain't That Bad the Rest of the Way

I’m not much of an Around The Horn fan on ESPN, but when I was in college, it was the only thing watchable at 4pm on a weekday. One of the more salient points raised by Woody Paige on that show (OK, fine, the only salient point) was to LOOK AT THE SCHEDULE. It’s everything in seeing how a team will do, whether you’re looking at the NFL or the MLB. So let’s make like Woody and search through.

Once the White Sox finish their 4-game set against the New York Yankees, they play only 8 games against playoff-caliber opponents (and that’s including the LA Angles, who could be out of contention by then; and the Indians, who are falling faster than Chicago). They have six of those games against Minnesota and three against Seattle, baseball’s third worst team.

Detroit has a similar schedule, except a four-game series at Tampa Bay awaits them, along with six games against the Indians.

Both teams could enter September looking eye-to-eye in the standings, with six games between them in the final month of the season. For a team sitting only five games out with 55 to play, the White Sox will have plenty of opportunity to catch and pass the Tigers for the AL Central crown.

The Hope Lays On the Arms

The White Sox pitching has been so much better than the offense this year. In fact, the WPA (Win Probability Added) of the White Sox’ pitching staff is 8.02 (third in the AL to the Yankees’ 11.56 and the Red Sox’ 9.51). The offense, on the other hand, is dead last at -10.02, way behind the A’s at -7.04.

More on the pitching, even after trading away Edwin Jackson, the team’s WAR leader, the White Sox still remain among one of the best top-to-bottom staffs in the majors.

And who knows, anything can happen once you make the playoffs. Certainly no one had the Rangers making the World Series last year. Pitching in the playoffs is a premium, and the White Sox have one of the American League’s deepest staffs.

Can the White Sox make the playoffs? Of course. Will they?

Stranger things have happened.