The White Sox have already had a wild ride this season.
Right before the season started, they lost middle-order slugger Eloy Jiménez for the year. They blew the game on Opening Day in the eighth inning. They blew a lead in the third game of the season and then lost in walk-off fashion in their fourth game. Every time they fought back to .500, they lost. Through 14 games, they were 6-8. There were whispers about new manager Tony La Russa having issues with the clubhouse. La Russa has owned up to making some managerial mistakes, too.
More recently, center fielder Luis Robert was lost to a serious injury.
And yet, here they sit in first place in the middle of May with little reason to believe anything about this record is a fluke.
They won Thursday. Again. They are one of the hottest teams in baseball and just might be one of the best. Or the best. Their 22-13 record (.629 win percentage) is the best in baseball. So is their plus-66 run differential.
They have a lead in the AL Central. Their expected competition at the top of the Central, the Twins, are already 10 games back after the White Sox swept them this week. Since losing in Boston on April 17, the White Sox have gone 16-5 and they’ve looked every bit that good.
They aren’t likely going anywhere, either. Here’s why.
The offense has been good, but …
The White Sox have actually been one of the best offensive teams in baseball by several measures. Sure, they aren’t getting Robert back anytime soon and might not get Jimenez back all year, but there are reasons this group will be just fine moving forward.
Reigning AL MVP José Abreu is only hitting .240/.336/.457 this year, but he’s actually heating up. In his last eight games, he’s hitting .367 with three doubles, a triple, two home runs and 12 RBI. Remember when he flipped the switch last year? Through 23 games, he was hitting .250/.296/.435. In his final 37 games, he hit .358/.415/.730 with 15 homers and 47 RBI. He’s capable of carrying a team when he gets hot and that might be happening right now.
Catcher/DH Yasmani Grandal is only hitting .130 with a .333 slugging percentage. Even though he’s not a high-average guy, he hit .240 with a .463 slugging the past five seasons combined. You have to figure he’ll start swinging it pretty soon.
There’s also reason to believe there’s more coming from Yoán Moncada and Adam Eaton. Rookie Andrew Vaughn showed a lot more power in the minors, he’s still familiarizing himself with big-league pitching and has been great the last two weeks.
For now, let’s sing the praises of rookie sensation Yermín Mercedes, who is slashing .382/.424/.591 this season. Who knows where the White Sox would be without his MVP-like season to this point.
The rotation has been great, but …
The White Sox have had the best rotation in the American League to date. Lefty Carlos Rodon might win the six-week Cy Young if there was such a thing. Through six starts, Lance Lynn has a 1.30 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. The always-promising Dylan Cease appears to really be putting things together in a much-anticipated breakout season. Michael Kopech is limited and can only be a spot starter, but in his swing role he’s looked every bit the ace he was once projected to be.
Giolito’s ERA is wrecked by one horrific start in Boston, but the White Sox are only 2-5 in his starts. He’s only finished the sixth inning twice and the seventh inning once. He’s only 26 years old and we’ve seen him pitch like a Cy Young candidate before.
Given that he’s 33 years old, it’s possible Keuchel is hitting his age-related decline. Then again, his velocity isn’t down from last year and he’s a finesse pitcher anyway. The heightened walk rate and ridiculously low strikeout rate are concerning. He was also excellent in 11 starts last season, finishing fifth in AL Cy Young voting. Also, 33 is up there in baseball age, but it isn’t ancient. He’s not a running back. There’s hope that he could eventually be an effective starter again.
The bullpen has settled in
We mentioned the White Sox’s late-inning problems in their first series of the season. They turned a series where they were set to win at least three of four — and maybe sweep — into losing three of four. Through 10 games, the White Sox already had five team blown saves. Liam Hendriks, their big-ticket offseason acquisition who won the Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year award in 2020, got off to a rocky start himself.
They now haven’t blown a save since April 24 (and they won that game anyway) and the bullpen has a 2.06 ERA in May. Hendriks is the beast they paid for and there are several other enticing weapons, including lefty Aaron Bummer, the aforementioned Kopech and young Garrett Crochet.
La Russa will keep getting better
I’m still not sure it was a great hire, but La Russa’s early season struggles aren’t all too surprising, considering he hadn’t been operating on a daily basis in the dugout since the 2011 World Series. Of course there’s going to be rust and there were a batch of new rules to learn, all while having to go through the COVID protocols. It’s a new game! Of course there was going to be a learning curve.
Overall, the White Sox now have a 77.3 percent chance to take the division, per SportsLine. On Fangraphs, they opened the season with a 48 percent chance to win it and that has increased to 78.9 percent. They are really starting to play with confidence and they’ve long had swagger. They will start a four-game series with the flailing Royals on Friday and then get three against the Twins after that.
And, again, it’s not like the White Sox haven’t faced adversity. They’ve already lost 2/3 of their projected outfield for a huge chunk of the season and had to deal with questions about their formerly-retired manager. They’ve emerged with the best record in baseball and a future that might shine even brighter.