With just under two months remaining in the 2010 regular season, the Twins are now tied with the Chicago White Sox for the lead in the AL Central Division. Now the question on everyone's mind is who will prevail and win the division title? Because most of us eat, drink and breathe Twins Baseball throughout the season, we pretty much know what the Twins have. A solid starting rotation, better since Brian Duensing replaced Nick Blackburn, one that could be great if Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano keep up their solid performances and Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey return at least to historical norms of recent years. Throw in one of the American League's best offenses and lowest bullpen ERA, and you have a team that is expected to remain in the race until game #162 (or #163...).
What about the White Sox? After an epic collapse over the past couple months of the 2009 season, Chicago got off to a very slow start, sitting nine games under .500 at 24-33 as late as June 8th. At that point, I pretty much gave up on the Sox' chances to compete for a division title. Then interleague play came, and Chicago won 15 of 16 games to put themselves four games above .500 by the time interleague games were done. At this point, many of us suspected once games against the weaker NL teams were finished, the White Sox would fall back to earth. Instead, Chicago won nine straight entering the All Star Break and bounded to the front of the pack in the AL Central. And since the All Star Break, the White Sox have continued to play solid baseball, improving by another three games relative to .500, now sitting tied atop the division (barely) at 63-49.
The question of the day is, are the White Sox for real? Or are they playing above their heads (for three full months...), with a Detroit-like collapse awaiting them? After the jump, I'll examine a few arguments for and against the White Sox, attempting to remain as unbiased as possible against the Twins' chief division rival.
Yes, the White Sox Are For Real
- Their pitching staff is much better than they showed in April and May. Coming into the season, the one strength everyone expected from the White Sox was their starting pitching. With Mark Buerhle, John Danks, Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd, Chicago had arguably the best 1-4 starters in the American League. But in April (where the Sox posted a 9-14 record), only Danks (1.55 April ERA) got off to a good start, as Buerhle (4.68), Floyd (6.49) and Peavy (7.85) struggled out of the gate. May wasn't much better, with Buerhle (4.03 May ERA) returning to norm and Danks (4.79), Peavy (5.09) and Floyd (5.63) continuing to struggle. But in June, the Sox pitchers regressed to the mean, with Peavy (1.75 June ERA), Floyd (2.58) and Danks (4.18) pitching well and only Buerhle (4.93) struggling. And in July, Floyd (0.80 July ERA), Danks (2.91) and Buerhle (3.00) all made up for Peavy's injury by posting some great starts. As a result, overall for the season, White Sox starters have a 3.98 ERA, right around where one would expect in the preseason. And down the stretch, consistent, solid starting pitching is absolutely key.
- Their offense is not nearly as poor as April and May suggested. Looking at the White Sox month by month totals over April (.698 OPS, 4.0 runs per game), May (.720, 4.4), June (.749, 4.6) and July (.824, 5.4), Chicago's offense has improved each and every month. While I don't expect the Sox to keep up an 800+ team OPS, there is a lot of offensive talent on the roster, especially when Paul Konerko is hitting over .300 with 28 home runs.
- The White Sox have been there before. While there may not be many players left over from the 2005 World Series Champions, a number of key veterans including Buerhle, Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and Bobby Jenks anchor this ballclub. Yes, the Twins caught Chicago in 2008 to force a Game #163, but that year it wasn't a matter of the White Sox falling back to earth as much as the Twins getting hot and sweeping head to head the last week of the season.
No, the White Sox Are Going to Stumble
- The values just don't quite add up. Looking solely at components of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the White Sox pitching staff has a +41.4 run advantage over the Twins (178.5 to 137.1 RAR), one that is more than eclipsed by the Twins +74,.4 run advantage (+77.3 to +2.9 RAA) at the plate. So at the plate and on the mound, the Twins have over a 30 run advantage over the White Sox. In the field according to UZR, the Twins also have a healthy 39.1 run advantage (+22.7 to -16.4 UZR) defensively. Add to that an 11.9 run advantage in the "little things" I wrote about in July (+10.5 to -1.4 RAA), and you have a more than healthy 84 run advantage when comparing the Twins and White Sox head to head. Sure, Chicago has shown consistent improvement month to month, and the early season totals may not have been indicative of the Sox' true talent, but 84 runs is a HUGE advantage in the raw numbers, one that is even greater than the Twins current advantage in run differential (+97 to +61).
- Even without the Metrodome, the Twins are in Chicago's head. Say what you want about Ozzie Guillen, but he's not exactly a manager that keeps a team on an even keel or remains steadfast when a team struggles. The Twins have nine games left against the White Sox, 6 in Chicago and 3 in Minnesota. After an ugly series in Baltimore, losing three of four against the last place (but rebounding with Buck Showalter at the helm) Orioles, if the Twins are able to take two of three this week in Chicago, the White Sox may find it difficult to win with their hands around their throats.
- Edwin Jackson isn't the answer. So far after two starts with the White Sox, Jackson has an outstanding 1.38 ERA, but this came against the Detroit Tigers, who are starting to see the wheels fall off what looked like a promising season, and the Baltimore Orioles, who simply don't have much offensively. Wake me when he faces a real AL offense, a guy with a 5+ ERA in the National League isn't going to be the answer down the stretch, even if he is a #4 or #5 starter.
In all, any team with Buerhle, Danks and Floyd atop the rotation is going to remain competitive. But with Liriano and Pavano, the Twins match up at the #1 and #2 spots, and the advantage is so large offensively, defensively and outside the box score ("little things") that one has to give the clear advantage to Minnesota down the stretch, especially when Justin Morneau comes back. But it's an advantage that exists solely on paper. The nine games head to head are most likely going to decide the division title. If the Twins win at least four of those games, then I think the Twins will be playoff bound. Any fewer than that and it's going to be a real dogfight.