I think it would be fitting if the stadiums lights went out at U.S. Cellular field on Saturday, October 3rd, during the Chicago White Sox’s final night game. It would serve as a parting motif for the type of season it’s been on the Southside.
I’m not sure if ComEd forgot to make its rounds to Chicago, but across the line up, there’s been a frustrating lack of power all season. So much so that’s it’s made the typically hitter friendly U.S. Cellular field play as a pitcher’s park.
That’s right, U.S. Cellular field, which is typically a launching pad, ranks dead last in overall park factors, with a 0.837 run factor per ESPN.com. That makes it the best pitcher’s park in baseball. I bet you never expected to hear U.S. Cellular Field and pitcher’s park in the same sentence before, yet here we are.
It still plays as a slight hitter’s park in regard to home runs, with a HR park factor of 1.063, which barely clears the 1.000 benchmark required to favor the hitter. In regard to doubles, U.S. Cellular field finds itself 26th overall, with a 2B park factor of just 0.858.
Yes, that’s how bad the White Sox offense has been in power production. It has actually dragged down a prototypical hitter’s park into the designation of a pitcher’s haven.
This seems impossible until you take a closer look at the numbers.
The White Sox rank 27th among all major league teams in extra-base hits, with just 368. That’s well below the MLB average of 406 XBH, per ESPN.com.
The White Sox also rank 27th in team slugging percentage, with a lowly .384 mark. Only the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and Atlanta Braves are worse, so it goes without saying that if the White Sox didn’t boast exceptional pitching, they’d likely be on their way to 100 losses this season.
Finally their home run output has also faltered, as they rank 24th overall with a dismal 118 long balls. Their margin of lead over the teams trailing them is small enough that they could very well finish in the bottom three by the time the season comes to a close.
The White Sox’s power output has been so bad in ’15 that it has designated a hitter’s park as a pitcher’s haven.
Now, maybe this would have been a welcomed sign because looking at these numbers you’d assume the White Sox have finally transitioned into becoming a speedy, on-base machine. After all, the major league leading St. Louis Cardinals rank a spot below the White Sox in home runs and clearly aren’t suffering for it.
Unlike St. Louis though, the White Sox also happen to sport a bottom five team OBP, with just a .307 mark.
So not only are they not hitting for power, but they’re also not getting on base and that’s strange because those trends aren’t usually mutually exclusive.
This brings us to another question: Who are the culprits?
First on the list is designated hitter and first baseman Adam LaRoche. LaRoche has a meager twelve home runs on the season and is slugging .348. This comes a year after he hit 26 bombs and had 92 RBIs for the Washington Nationals. He also had surpassed the twenty home run mark nine times in his twelve-year career.
Plus, LaRoche was moving to a hitter’s park that profiled perfectly for his bat because the power alley at U.S. Cellular field tends to be in right and right-center, which is his target ground. Yet LaRoche has slugged only .276 at U.S. Cellular field with just four home runs this season.
Not even the most pessimistic prognosticators would have had him slugging .276 at U.S. Cellular field. It’s just an anomaly at this point.
For LaRoche, this is the type of regression that comes with age, and at 35 years old this is a dramatic drop off but mirrors what you’d expect to happen over the aggregate of his final seasons. The difference is that it is occurring suddenly rather than gradually.
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We know it’s regression and not a flawed approach, because LaRoche’s fly ball rate is right around career norms. It’s not that he’s slapping balls into the ground, but rather that the balls he does elevate die before they even reach the track. His HR/FB ratio is at a career worst 10.4% per Fangraphs, while his strikeout rate has jumped from 18.4% in 2014 to 27.6% in ’15.
What we’re seeing is grandfather time catching up to what was supposed to be a lefty masher brought in to protect Jose Abreu.
Speaking of Abreu, he’s had a solid season overall but has also been lacking in the power department at times. Whether it’s due to that aforementioned lack of protection is anyone’s guess.
Here was Jose Abreu‘s line after the first half of the 2014 season: .292/.342/.630 with 29 home runs and 73 RBIs.
Here’s his line thus far with ’15 about to come to a close: .295/.349/.517 with 27 home runs and 86 RBIs. Needless to say, Jose Abreu’s entire 2015 season has essentially equaled his first half 2014 production. Now these aren’t bad numbers by any means, but Abreu was expected to expand on his 36 homers last year and push the 40 mark this season.
One encouraging thing about Abreu is that unlike last year, his production has remained consistent through the second half. He has thirteen home runs post all-star break compared to just seven last season.
Abreu has been a bonafide all-star (even if he didn’t officially earn that stature) in this season, but he hasn’t been enough of a monster to drive the entire team’s power numbers closer to league average.
Aug 14, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia hits a two-RBI double against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
His .387 slugging percentage leaves a lot to be desired and part of the problem centers on his approach. Garcia’s fly ball ratio is 26.1% compared to a 49.5% groundball ratio, which is an awful formula for someone trying to establish themselves as a power hitter.
These splits aren’t unlike his career norms but the issue also lies in his deteriorated HR/FB ratio. In 2013, he sported a 14.6% HR/FB ratio, which is really good. His 2014 ratio in a more limited sample was an otherworldly 18.9%. This year, it’s just 12.5%. That’s still above average but doesn’t play up when he’s only lifting the ball 26.1 percent of the time.
The power is effortless and Garcia has worked to use his hands more to square up the ball. This has seemed to help somewhat, but every time he wows fans with a multi-homer game, in which the ball explodes off his bat, he goes back to hitting ground balls.
He has the untapped power potential of a 30-homer, middle of the order bat and his inability to realize an existence even close to his ceiling is a big reason why the White Sox are where they are.
Beyond those three middle of the order hitters, it’s safe to say that more was expected from supplemental power pieces like Melky Cabrera and Alexei Ramirez. Cabrera hit sixteen home runs in 2013 and a move to U.S. Cellular field was supposed to see him become a legit threat to hit twenty.
A dismal April, May, and partial June put Cabrera way behind pace but he’s picked it up some, hitting seven home runs over July and August. That’s about the contribution that was expected from him, and had he brought that level of productivity over the entire season, he probably would have cracked twenty long balls. Instead, he’s sitting at nine on the year and that’s just not going to cut it.
Ramirez is another player who I expected to make a run at twenty home runs since he would be changing his role and moving down in the order. He rediscovered his power in 2014 by hitting fifteen balls out of the park. Similar to Cabrera, an uncharacteristic start put him behind pace. He’s hit seven home runs since the all-star break, but again that puts him at just nine this season and that’s disappointing to say the least.
Finally, Tyler Flowers was supposed to come with a low batting average, but the trade-off was that he could hit twenty home runs in the process. Like a carbon copy of Ramirez and Cabrera, he’s hit just nine home runs, but unlike the other two, he’s only produced ten doubles to go along with that output. That’s good for a .345 slugging percentage. Nineteen extra base hits from Tyler Flowers on top of a .218 batting average are other reasons the White Sox are where they are.
Overall, this is a breakdown of the team’s home run numbers over the last six seasons.
As you can see, hitting home runs is crucial to this teams success despite what the front office has said about rebranding the team into a more contact-based and balanced offensive profile. Playing in U.S. Cellular field requires hitting home runs. The opposition is going to hit home runs at U.S. Cellular field and the White Sox can’t afford to not keep pace.
The fact that the White Sox are likely to hit less home runs in 2015 than the 2013 season says it all. This team has staged another blackout and it’s not the good kind, like the one it staged in the 2008 tiebreaker game. This team needs another big home run hitter and it needs him stat. Yoenis Cespedes is a free agent this offseason. He has 33 home runs and a 19.8% HR/FB ratio in ’15. Go get him Hahn, because the team has never needed his services more than now.