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Luck and the White Sox

Many of you might think that the White Sox were lucky last year. I even wrote an article that listed several ways in which they were lucky.  I also wrote, that in the past, "They've had good teams that did not quite make it or good teams beset by injuries. Explaining all that is another essay." Well, this is that other essay. I am going to look at some outstanding White Sox teams in the past that, for one reason or another, did not make it to either the playoffs or the World Series.

Let's start with the 1963-67 White Sox.. Although they did not win any pennants in this time, these Sox were the first team in the twentieth century to have the best winning percentage over a five year period without finishing first in their league in even one season. Of course, this was back when there were no divisions and the first place team automatically made it to the World Series. Here are the top 10 teams over this period:

The Sox did not just have a good record, they also had a very good run differential. The Sox outscored their opponents by 469 runs, second only to the Twins' 561. But if we use what Bill James calls the "Pythagorean winning percentage," the Sox almost pull even with the Twins. You square runs scored then divide that by runs scored squared plus runs allowed squared. The Twins come out at .584 while the Sox come out at .582 (meaning the Sox may have been a bit unlucky, since in reality they had a .568 pct).

But maybe the 1963-67 White Sox got lucky and won more games than they should have, scored more than they should have or gave up fewer than they should have. This is actually not the case. The Sox underlying statistical performance was among the best in baseball. To look at this, I ran a regression in which a team's winning percentage was the dependent variable and HR differential, BB differential and non-HR differential (all per game) were the independent variables. All of the stats were based on totals for each team over the 5 year period.

(1) Pct = .5 + .142*HR + .089*NONHR + .0537*BB

Again, all of these are differentials per game. The r-squared was .947, meaning that 94.7% of the variation in team winning percentage is explained by the equation. The standard error works out to 2.55 wins per 162 games. Then I plugged each team's stats into equation (1) to predict their winning percentage. The next table shows how the teams ranked.

The Sox were second, just a bit behind the Twins. So they were a championship caliber team, better than some pennant winning teams over the five years. The Sox were unlucky in being consistently good while other teams fluctuated wildly in their performance. They finished 1 game out in 1964 and 3 games out in 1967. Their stars included pitchers Joel Horlen, Gary Peters, Tommy John, CFer Tommie Agee and SS Ron Hansen. You can read more about this team  here.

The next case of bad luck for the Sox comes in 1972. The Sox finished just 5.5 games behind the Oakland A's in the AL West yet all-star third baseman and 1971 AL HR leader Bill Melton was hurt and played just 57 games. His replacement was Ed Spezio, playing in his last season. How much difference did this make? In 1971, Melton had 4.9 of what Pete Palmer (the editor of the Baseball Encyclopedia) calls BFW or batting + fielding  win. That means the Sox won 4.9 more games than they would have if an average hitting and fielding third baseman had been there in place of Melton. In 1972, Melton had a BFW of 0.4 while Spezio had -0.6. So they combined for a -0.2 BFW. That is 5.1 less than what Melton had in 1971 and is almost equal to how many games the Sox were behind the A's. There is no guarantee that Melton would have been just as good in 1972 as he was in 1971. But he was only 26 at the start of the season and had been steadily improving, seemingly about to enter his prime. He suffered a herniated disk (my hazy memory says it was lifting an airconditioner at home) and never again was as good as his 1971 season. But the White Sox were in first place as late as August 28th, so if Melton, who played his last game on June 23rd, had been there, things might have turned out differently.

1973 was a similar story for the White Sox.  They were in first place for 62 days, with the last day being June 29th. But superstar Dick Allen, the 1972 AL MVP, got hurt on June 28th. He only got 5 more ABs the rest of the season. They won only 77 games that year. Allen only played 72 games that year. Ken Henderson, the fine CFer, also got hurt and only played 73 games. He missed all of June when the Sox were only 11-18. He came back just about the time Allen got hurt but his season was over in early August. Their replacements in the lineup were Tony Muser and Johnny Jeter, at best journeymen. Allen had another great year in 1974 while Henderson put up all-star type numbers. If they had been healthy all season in 1973, things might have been very different.

The next case involves the 1990-94 White Sox. They are a little like the 1963-67 White Sox. They were the best team in the AL over this period, yet never made it to the World Series. Here are the AL winning percentages over that time:

I also tried to measure the underlying performance of the White Sox over this time, like I did for the 1963-67 team. Here I had data available that allowed me to calculate team OBP and SLG for both the hitters and pitchers. For OBP I just used ABs, hits and BBs. I also used team totals for the 1990-94 period. The regression I ran had winning percentage the dependent variable and OBP and SLG for both the hitters and pitchers as the independent variables. The equation was

(2) Pct = .409 + 1.92*OBP + 1.11*SLG - 2.40*PITOBP - .486*PITSLG

The r-squared was .825, meaning that 82.5% of the variation in team winning percentage is explained by the equation. The standard error works out to 2.67 wins per 162 games. Then I plugged each team's stats into equation (2) to predict their winning percentage. The next table shows how the teams ranked.

By this measure, the White Sox were the best team in baseball over the 1990-94 period. They did make the playoffs one year, 1993. But they lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS. They were in first place in the Central Division in 1994 when the players' strike ended the season. Just like the 1963-67 Sox, they were consistently good. The stars of this team included Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ozzie Guillen, Lance Johnson, Carlton Fisk, Jack McDowell, Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Roberto Hernandez

The last case of bad luck comes in 2004. They were in first place on July 3 and 1 game ahead of the Twins. But the Sox two best players, Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez both got hurt. Ordonez missed all of June and came back to play a few games in July but was done by July 21st. He only played 52 games after playing 140 or more in each of the previous six seasons. Thomas only played 74 games that season with the last being on July 6th. The Sox finished 9 games out.

The 2005 White Sox may have been lucky. They won more games than their stats might predict. But over the years, the Sox have had some bad luck and some very good teams that did not make it to the World Series. Last year might have just balanced things off.

The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia edited by David Gillette and Pete Palmer
Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia
Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia
Sean Lahman's database
MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia 8e