The White Sox are off to a great start for the month of April. Before Sunday’s loss to Detroit, they won six games in a row, are now 13-10, and are just 1/2 game behind Cleveland in the AL Central. Of course, no fan of the White Sox can forget what they did a year ago in the month of April. They went 17-8 in April last year and reached a peak of 23-10 in the first week of May. That hot start was followed by a brutal collapse that ultimately led to Rick Hahn making the decision to rebuild in the winter.
Thinking that the White Sox are doomed to repeat their recent history wouldn’t be unwarranted. The White Sox lost their two most valuable players, according to WARP, in the offseason. The team is less experienced. Despite this, the White Sox have looked pretty good. There are three specific things that have stood out and led to a supposedly rebuilding team residing in first place.
The first reason is probably the most obvious one. Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, and even Leury Garcia have been offensive revelations. Avisail’s hot start has been the most notable, of course, as he leads the league in batting average while having also slugged five home runs. While he left Sunday’s game with groin tightness, he’s slashing .368/.409/.621 so far this season, has been held hitless just five times, and has a wRC+ nearing 200. That’s a huge reason the White Sox have been able to win ballgames. Matt Davidson has a .327 ISO paired with a 38.9 strikeout percentage to help infuse some power into the White Sox lineup. Leury Garcia has also been a diamond in the rough with his .310/.328/.500 slash line after going 2-for-4 Sunday.
Of that trio, only Avisail spent extended time on the 25 man roster prior to this season. We all know how that went. The arrival and positive performances from these three players have helped push the White Sox offense into a better position to succeed. For a team that hasn’t received help from its depth players in years, the contributions from players like Davidson and the Garcias has proved crucial to an increase in offense. In fact, those three players are currently atop the White Sox leaderboard in WARP.
Another obvious reason the White Sox have been so successful this season is their bullpen. The big names of Nate Jones and David Robertson haven’t been the ones dominating. It has been Zach Putnam (until his injury), Anthony Swarzak, and Tommy Kahnle carrying the load for a Chicago bullpen with the best DRA in all of baseball entering Sunday (2.02). Kahnle especially has been a revelation for the White Sox bullpen. Kahnle has always had the stuff, even dating back to his time with the Rockies. The problem has been getting it over the plate for strikes. It appears that Kahnle has figured that much out, leading to a 19/1 strikeout to walk ratio and 0.99 DRA. The ability to use Kahnle in high leverage situations at the end of games has been a major addition to the White Sox bullpen.
Kahnle isn’t the only pitcher having fun with strikeouts either. Although Swarzak was initially invited to camp as rotation depth, his stuff has played up in the bullpen in the early part of the season. His numbers aren’t Kahnle ridiculous, but his 14/1 strikeout to walk, 0.00 ERA, and 1.23 DRA indicate that he’s been pretty dang good.
The third and final reason the White Sox have been able to have so much success this season without Chris Sale or Adam Eaton is one that’s much more difficult to pin down with concrete numbers. Instead, it relies totally on abstract thoughts based on what little we know about the clubhouse from the outside looking in. It appears as though the White Sox have better chemistry within their clubhouse and on the field.
Part of this is due to the leadership of Rick Renteria as the manager. Sometimes the effect a manager has on the mood of the team is overstated. However, in this case it appears that the players are genuinely happy to play for Renteria. The feeling appears to be mutual, as Renteria commented on Saturday about how the team has been playing.
“They’re just playing the game,” he said. “They’re not thinking about the division, they’re just playing baseball. We just happen to be playing within our division, and for the most part, they’re doing a nice job. Just having fun. Fortunately for us, all the little pieces are doing what they need to do and fortunately we’ll try to keep [knocks on wood] getting after it.”
In a much more murky sense, the increase in positive mood around the clubhouse may have something to do with those players who left the team this offseason. It’s all speculation, of course, but the comments that Jimmy Rollins made during Spring Training certainly seem to indicate that there was tension in the clubhouse throughout the 2016 season. He also indicates that a big source of the problems lied within players that are now gone.
The White Sox, despite making it pretty clear that they are rebuilding, are in first place as the first month of the season winds down. There are three key reasons they’re in first place. It remains to be seen whether they can keep it up, but this team does look quite a bit different from the one that got off to a hot start a year ago.
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