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Scouting by the numbers: Chicago White Sox

An analytical preview of Games 1-3, at Chicago - July 24-26

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Well, it looks like we made it – there will be baseball in 2020. For the 60 game 2020 season, I’ll be preparing analytic scouting reports of the Twins opponents. In them I’ll try to give you the basics on each foe while highlighting insights from the data and explaining what I think they might mean for the Twins. My hope is these will be quick, informative, and help you prepare to watch the games with a critical eye. With that, let’s get the season started with a look at the White Sox.

Opponent Overview:

Coming off a 72-89, 3rd place finish a season ago, optimism is high around the White Sox. Last season started to bring fruit from their recent “sell” years as the highly rated prospects the team acquired in trades of Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana began making an impact. Young third basemen Yoan Moncada broke out, slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez had a loud second half, and right hander Lucas Giolito dominated opponents for much of the season. More hyped prospect help is on the way in Centerfielder Luis Robert and the White Sox fortified this young core with aggressive veteran free agent spending this offseason, adding star catcher Yasmani Grandal, still solid left-hander Dallas Keuchel, and noted Twins tormenter Edwin Encarnacion at Designated Hitter. While the lineup is deep offensively, the backend of Chicago’s rotation is full of question marks but not without options – including former highly regarded prospects Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease. The White Sox will be without top pitching prospect Michael Kopech, who has opted out of participating in the 2020 season. Defensively, the White Sox finished 25th in MLB last season in Fangraphs’ defensive runs above average measure, dragged down by Jimenez in the outfield, first basemen Jose Abreu, and shortstop Tim Anderson. The club expects a defensive upgrade with Grandal behind the plate and prospect Robert is considered an above average defender in center.

The projection services expect the White Sox to improve in 2020, but to trail the Twins and Cleveland in the AL Central. If the young players keep growing, the veteran additions deliver, and Robert plays to his potential – the Sox could surprise, especially in a short season.

Four Breakdowns:

★ ★ ★

1. Regression for Tim Anderson?

Shortstop Tim Anderson obliterated his career bests last season on his way to the batting title. Despite a paltry 2.9% walk rate and 43.6% rate of chasing pitches out of the strike zone (4th most in MLB), the swing-happy Anderson posted a .335 batting average. However, the underlying stats and batted ball data give plenty of reason to see Anderson as a regression candidate in 2020.

First, that batting average was propped up by a .399 batting average on balls in play that exceeded the MLB average (.298) by over 100 points. Further, Anderson’s swing rate of 58.5% is among the most aggressive in baseball (alongside Twins Eddie Rosario and Willians Astudillo).

That aggression, combined with the high chase rate mentioned above, is a recipe for poor contact quality and swings and misses. Statcast calculated expected statistics using exit velocity and launch angle data indicate that Anderson severely over-performed in 2019 – when his expected batting average was a still-solid .291. The gap between his actual and expected batting averages was the 3rd largest in MLB.

What to look for:

Expect to see Jose Berrios and Kenta Maeda attack Anderson with their breaking balls, especially outside the strike zone and when ahead in the count. Anderson had a 33% whiff rate on breaking balls in 2019, but only 17% against fastballs. The impact? Anderson’s wOBA against fastballs: .356; against breaking balls: .319

★ ★ ★

2. Lucas Giolito’s Simplification

Opening Day starter Lucas Giolito broke out in 2019 by deploying a simplified arsenal from what he had done in the past. Giolito scrapped his sinker altogether and offered his curveball as a career-low 4% of his pitches. Instead, Giolito increased his four-seam fastball and change up usage to a career high 55.7% and 25.6% respectively, while maintaining his slider about 14% of his offerings. This simplified approach paid off with a 3.43 FIP and 11.6 K/9.

In short, Giolito prefers to attack right handers with his four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup; and attack left handers with only his four-seam fastball and changeup, as shown by his Statcast pitch plots:

You can also see some clear location patterns – fastballs generally up in the zone, sliders down and away to right-handed batters, and changeups down and away to left-handed batters. There’s really nothing fancy or novel about this approach – these patterns and pitch pairings are tried and true and have been effective for a long time.

What to look for:

We might expect to see Rocco Baldelli stack his lineup with right-handed hitters against Giolito. While he performed well against all batters in 2019 (.306 wOBA vs. RHB, .241 wOBA vs. LHB), he has reverse platoon splits and is better against left-handers due to the changeup, which yielded just a .203 expected wOBA as calculated by Statcast. Because it’s Opening Day, I expect Rocco will go with his “A” lineup which means Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, and Luis Arraez will need to get Giolito to offer his changeup in the strike zone and not chase it out of the zone.

★ ★ ★

3. Chicago’s Budding Young Core

After several years as sellers, the White Sox are starting to reap the returns of their prospect haul. Chicago’s young core of talent is enviable and potentially coming up together to start a contention window. Here’s something you should know about three key players:

  • Yoan Moncada - Now 25 and entering his third full season in the big leagues, the third basemen is coming off a season in which he improved dramatically across the board – posting a career high .379 wOBA, 141 wRC+, and 5.7 WAR. Moncada increased his aggressiveness at the plate, swinging at 47% of pitches thrown, a more than 6-point increase from 2018. This aggressiveness is likely due, in part, to Moncada trying to avoid dealing with the breaking balls thrown when the pitcher is ahead in the count. Moncada swung and missed at 48% of the breaking balls he saw in 2019 but was able to improve his strikeout rate from 33.4% to 27.5%. For his efforts, the White Sox saw fit to extend Moncada earlier this spring, five years and $70 million.

  • Eloy Jimenez – Acquired from the cross-town rival Cubs for left-hander Jose Quintana in 2017, Jimenez debuted for the Sox last season. Jimenez did nothing in his rookie season to dispel the prospect hype that he will be a complete power hitter, ranking in the 87th and 89th percentiles in average exit velocity and barrel percentage respectively. Jimenez was streaky, struggling in May and July and succeeding in June and September. Like Moncada, Jimenez has a lot of swing and miss in his game, whiffing on 32.8% of pitches (6th highest in MLB) and 46% of breaking balls. The outfielder is also locked into a long-term contract, having agreed to a 6-year, $43 million extension prior to the 2019 season

  • Luis Robert – A young, highly regarded position player with questionable plate discipline and a lot of swing and miss. Do you think the White Sox have a type? A consensus top ten prospect in the game, Robert followed the path of Jimenez and agreed to a huge extension before he had even debuted, 6 years and $50 million. Robert has had an exciting summer camp, displaying the big power and plus-plus speed that produced 32 homeruns and 36 steals across three minor league levels last season. Just 22, Robert will be making his big league debut this weekend.
What to look for:

Plate discipline. Can the young White Sox make strides in swinging at strikes and laying off of pitches outside the strike zone? The evidence is clear they will do damage when they make good contact. I’m particularly interested to see Jimenez in year two. Through the minors he controlled the strike zone better than he displayed in his rookie season, as evidenced by on base percentages around the .370s. Like nearly all power hitters he will swing and miss; but swinging and missing at strikes instead of balls will unlock his production further.

★ ★ ★

4. Balancing the Approach

In 2019, as a team, the White Sox had MLB’s lowest walk rate at only 6.3%. This was supported by the underlying data that include baseball’s 4th highest swing (49.1%) and whiff rates (27.7%) and 3rd-highest chase rate (32.0%). Their offseason additions of Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion add two patient and disciplined hitters to their lineup. Grandal brings a career 13.9% walk rate and last season had the second highest walk rate (17.2%) of any qualified hitter, trailing only Mike Trout. Encarnacion has a career walk rate of 11.2%.

Both swing at far fewer pitches than their teammates and chase fewer pitches out of the zone. With all the aggressive, free swingers in the Sox lineup it seems they adopted a clear strategy find a little more plate discipline.

What to look for:

Yes, we can expect Grandal and Encarnacion to contribute through their own performance – both are proven players who should make the White Sox better. I’m also curious to see the impact these veterans might have on those young players. The White Sox no doubt expect these disciplined veterans to offer mentorship to their teammates – will the patience and plate discipline rub off?

Have a question or topic about a Twins opponent you’d like to be explored? Please leave a comment and let me know!

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.