2006 Preview: The defending World Champions

This is Part One of my 2006 season preview. Today, I’ll examine the defending World Champions. This series continues tomorrow with a look at the MLB-owned Washington Nationals.

White Sox’s hopes resting on lady luck

Seemingly since the last out of the 2005 World Series, baseball analysts from every side of the statistical argument have tried to figure out just how the Chicago White Sox shocked the baseball world to become improbably World Series champions.

On one side of the argument are those believers in Ozzie-ball. This is the supposed style of play exhibited by the Chicago White Sox and their outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie-ball is all about the little things. It’s about sacrificing and stealing. It’s about moving along baserunners, pitching complete games, and solid defense. It is a supposed throwback to the “old style” of baseball from the last reign of the White Sox, the Deadball Era.

The other side of the argument follows the stats line. The White Sox did anything but play small ball. While they didn’t overpower the league with their offense, they relied on the home run for a greater percentage of their runs than nearly every other team in baseball. They outpitched their opponents and outslugged them too.

While Ozzie-ball proponents like to dig in for the prolonged – and losing battle – against the statistical revolution, the truth is that the White Sox won the World Series last year because the fickle fingers of lady luck were firmly on their side. As we wait on edge for the 2006 baseball season to begin, many who ignored the White Sox last year are choosing them as favorites. To do so defies reason. For the White Sox to be World Champions again, they will need an inordinate amount of luck on their side. I wouldn’t count on it.

In 2005, the White Sox’s pitching staff turned in arguably one of the most durable seasons by a pitching staff since the era of closer. The team used just six starters the entire season, and the four starters who dominated the Angels in the ALCS – Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, and Jon Garland – did not miss any starts. The four of them combined for 130 starts.

On its surface, this is hardly a remarkable fact. Buehrle, Garcia, and Garland had always been considered horses. Buehrle, who turned 27 last week, hasn’t thrown fewer than 221.3 innings since 2000. Garland has made 32 starts or more for four years in a row. Likewise, Garcia has topped 200 innings for six of his seven years in the Majors. Only Contreras, a star in Cuba and a dud in New York, was surprising in this regard.

Joining this foursome in 2006 will be Javier Vazquez. Like his rotation mates, Vazquez throws innings and makes his start. He has topped 215 innings in five of the last six seasons, making no fewer than 32 starts a year. If the White Sox’s injury luck holds up, it is conceivable that they could go through a season using just five starting pitchers. At this stage, it is not very likely because Contreras, who may be much older than his listed 33 years, has expressed concerns about his elbow. Plus, the innings could catch up to Garcia or Buehrle at any moment. Luck will play a role in keeping the team healthy.

But of course, you could argue with me and say that any team is relying on luck to keep them healthy. In fact, teams relying on older pitchers like the Yankees and the Red Sox need even more luck than the White Sox in avoiding the disabled list.

This luck, though, extends well beyond the trainers’ office. According to the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, a measurement of runs scores vs. runs allowed translated to wins and losses, the White Sox were 8 games better than expected last year. Luck indeed had a big role to play in this marked difference.

The White Sox starting rotation last year (those four pitchers plus 22 starts from El Duque and 10 from Brandon McCarthy) held opponents to a 3.75 ERA in a Major League-leading 1074 innings, but these pitchers, the numbers show, did not exactly blow away the opposing hitters. They recorded just 5.78 strike outs per 9 innings, good for 22nd overall. That’s not exactly what I would have expected from a team that overwhelmed its post-season competition. While they did a masterful job of keeping runners off base through the free pass, luck lent its hand to the Chicago White Sox.

Overall, the Chicago White Sox pitchers had a team ERA of 3.61, good for second overall. But when you look at the defense-independent aspects of their pitching records, their success begins to melt away. The Sox DIPS, a defense-independent pitching stat, was 4.19. Their DIPS%, a ratio of ERA to DIPS, was 1.16, third highest in the Majors. The White Sox were relying on their defense for a significant part of their success. Furthermore, their DER, a measure of defensive efficiency, was .713, second best in the American League.

In other words, the White Sox were very efficient in turning batted balls into outs. This high level of success is hard to maintain over the course of multiple seasons, and the White Sox know this. This team – the defending World Champions – has seen similarly built teams win World Series one year only to slip in their next season. The 2003 Florida Marlins – a team relying on pitchers outpitching their career records, hitters having career years at the same time, and an inordinate amount of luck or Steve Bartman – come to mind.

The White Sox, however, seem to know that luck and great defense may not be as kind to them in 2006 as it was in 2005, and they have tried to address their problems. White Sox GM Ken Williams hopes that Jim Thome can provide the lineup with more pop. If the team regresses to their mean of just over 4 runs per game instead of just over 3.50 runs per game, at least, Williams reasons, they will have an improved offense in place.

In 2005, the White Sox scored 4.57 runs a game. For this team to repeat, I would expect them to need closer to 4.80 runs a game. If the White Sox can stay healthy and top 780 runs scored for the season, this defending champs could see their season once again extend into October. With luck on their side last year though, this time around, the lady may not be as forgiving.

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