A whole bunch of teams have had issues on offense this year. Ryan Ludwick leads the Padres with 11 home runs, and he hasn't played for them in over a month. The Mariners have 9 hitters that have been to the plate 250 or more times, and only one of them, rookie Dustin Ackley, has posted even average numbers. And then there are the Giants, who are basically proceeding to miss the playoffs this year due to an inability to consistently push guys across the plate.
Those are offenses that never really stood a chance, though, for a variety of reasons. The Chicago White Sox have an entirely different issue, and it's one that's dragging down their entire season. Just like Ozzie Guillen dreamed of when his team was winning way more than they currently are, this is an offense that's firmly built contact hitting. Only the Rangers and Cardinals strike out less than the White Sox.
There's only problem with the entire design: the White Sox have been replacing strikeouts with their automatic out brother, the infield fly. Despite an elite ability to put the ball in play, Chicago's been just middle-of-the-pack in terms of batting average this season. And without good power or on-base skills throughout the lineup to make up for that, they've been left with a pretty bad offense, and a season that feels utterly disappointing.
For some teams, having a large number of infield flies wouldn't kill you. The Toronto Blue Jays pop the ball up at a higher rate than anyone, but only five teams have scored more than them this season because their hitters have exceptional power. You can live with a team that pops the ball up frequently if they're getting walks and hitting tons of power. But the White Sox aren't a team that does either of those things well. 21 different teams have posted higher isolated power marks than the Pale Hose this year. Unsurprisingly, the lack of power comes with a lack of patience; the White Sox have the fourth-lowest walk rate in the majors.
They're a free-swinging team, if you will. And just like with individual hitters, any team that's basically banking on contact skills to thrive is going to be subject to the whims of BABIP. There's really only one way for an offense like Chicago's to work- with a high BABIP- but frequently popping the ball up basically ensures that won't happen.
In the end, what you're left with is an offense that doesn't challenge the defense nearly enough given that it's so dependent on putting the ball in play. How could a baseball team possibly put together a worse combination of skill sets? They put the ball into play more than essentially anyone, but so much of that contact is of the weak variety that their BABIP is lower than everyone's but the Giants. This is like deciding that you're going to swing for the fences on every pitch when your middle-of-the-order hitters are Darwin Barney, Juan Pierre and Ryan Theriot.
And this has been an issue in the past, too. In the five years preceding this season, only the Astros, Mariners and Diamondbacks were hitting infield flies at a higher rate. The main culprits are key players, all of whom are are slated as regulars once again in 2012: Gordon Beckham at 20.3%, Carlos Quentin at 16.9%, Alexei Ramirez at 15.2%, Adam Dunn at 14.6%, Alex Rios at 12.6% and even Brent Morel at 11.6%. The league average is closer to 10%. We already knew that Dunn had a pop-up problem; now we need to start wondering why this is going on with a large slice of the team.
I don't know exactly what the White Sox can do. Quentin and Beckham are possible trade candidates, I suppose, but Ramirez is essentially a cornerstone at this point, and you basically have to figure out how to use Rios and Dunn next season. These are the guys that the Chicago offense has been built around. You just wonder if addressing something like this is possible, and if so, how would you go about fixing it? Obviously Dunn, Beckham, Morel and Rios have issues that extend beyond simply popping the ball up. But this propensity to waste at-bats has become a major handicap on the offense, and it's made taking an eminently winnable AL Central an essentially impossible task.
It's hard to say if Ozzie Guillen will be around for next season, not to mention GM Kenny Williams. Things could be looking very different in Chicago come next spring. But a whole bunch of this year's pieces are still going to be in place, and one of the first things that they should look into figuring out is why so many of their best hitters are smacking the ball straight up in the air so much.