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On the concerning nature of the White Sox defense

The Chicago White Sox have plenty to be excited about in 2021. Their defensive game is not one of those things.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Oh those pesky Chicago White Sox. A trendy pick prior to the season has seen kind of a mixed bag to open up 2021. There are a few factors contributing to that. Their first road swing to open the year resulted in a 3-4 record, with questions about depth and bullpen management running rampant, which were, in turn, compounded by early injuries. Managerial decisions and said injuries are primary culprits, but there’s the matter of defense that looms largest before my eyeballs.

The generalized Tony La Russa discussion is an entirely separate—and probably a much longer—discussion. These elements—management, depth, etc.—are not completely independent of each other. There’s some overlap. The front office’s reluctance to spend just a little extra to add depth to essential areas of the field is another layer to all of this.

Defense, however, is something we can talk about right now. Because while it’s likely too early to make any firm declarations about La Russa (is it, though?) and the roster construction as a whole, the defensive aspect is one of those things that can legitimately pose early questions that lead to longer term ramifications.

It’s really interesting to look at the sort of mild evolution that took place for the Sox between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, they ranked 24th in the league in Defensive Runs Saved (-27), 25th in Ultimate Zone Rating (-19.2), and 25th in FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Def rating (-18.2). They followed that up with significant jumps everywhere in 2020. The Sox came in second in DRS (27), 13th in UZR (2.2), and ninth in Def (7.2). That didn’t really put them in an elite defensive tier, but it’s still quite the jump.

What changed there? Obviously the sample size in defensive statistics is going to have a pretty sizable impact, for better or for worse (the former in this case). Change in personnel (Luis Robert) probably had a pretty decent bearing on it as well. Both factors make comparing defense across the two seasons a rather silly exercise, but it doesn’t make it less interesting. Especially because perhaps the notable increase in shift deserves some credit for that change, as well as some of the blame for the early downturn we’ve seen from them in the field.

As was the case with the entire league, which saw nearly a 10 percent jump in Shift% as a whole, the White Sox had a significant jump of their own. After shifting 22.3 percent of the time in 2019, the team shifted at a 29.3 percent clip in 2020. So it’s probably not a coincidence that Their Outs Above Average (OAA), leapt from 20th in baseball (-10) in 2019 to third in 2020 (12). This also brings us to a rather concerning trend thus far in 2021, courtesy of Mike Petriello.

To this point, the White Sox are shifting on just 9.7 percent of pitches. In the last three years, when the shift exploded in its usage, only one team has shifted at a rate under 10 for an entire season (Atlanta in 2019). And it’s not as if the shift is some newfangled analytical concept. Yes, it’s obviously being deployed at a sky-high rate, really, across the game right now, but conventional wisdom tells us that you want to put your defensive players in the best spot in which to get hitters out. That’s where some of that overlap occurs between those issues identified above. Some teams can compensate for such a dearth of situational positioning. But the White Sox aren’t the 2016 Cubs that shifted 4.4 percent of the time and posted historically good defensive numbers. They don’t have the personnel for that.

This visibly speaks to early questionable managerial choices and the ability to make those in-game adjustments. I realize that this was a team that thought Eloy Jiménez belonged on the outfield grass, but as much as we, as a collective, hate the shift for the aesthetics of the game, there isn’t any denying that it works. The two teams that have shifted the most, on average, over the last two years? Los Angeles and Houston. Seems to be working out well for them. Just something to consider.

But to ease some of the blame here on the manager, there’s an additional, but simpler, question of personnel. The White Sox might just not have the roster to do what they need to do defensively (hello, again, overlap). While some players haven’t performed at the defensive level at which they were expected, others are just ill-equipped to handle the role into which they are currently thrust. And even their elite players are letting flyballs hit them square in the dome.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Nick Madrigal, one such player who is more representative of the former. He is very small and he has virtually zero power in his bat. His contributions come in the form of bat-to-ball skills and high-level defense. The defense, however, has been absent early on. It’s a strange situation that almost seems like a mild case of the yips. While he’s only been tagged with one error this year, which was a throwing error on Opening Day, he’s had multiple instances of bobbles or misplays. He’s already at a DRS of -3 this early in the season. Again, early in the year, small sample, etc. but that’s the worst number in baseball, at any position. For the Sox, it’s certainly not ideal that a player that they thought to be a defensive cornerstone at the keystone is struggling to record outs. And all that does is enhance their other issues around the diamond.

From a roster construction standpoint, you expect Madrigal to excel defensively. You can then add him to Yoán Moncada—above average by defensive metrics—and a serviceable Tim Anderson. That’s a good group! When you take that even further with one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, with Yasmani Grandal, supplementing that group with even decent defensive players should be enough to make you formidable in that respect.

But the White Sox don’t have that. And they may not be built for it.

Again: Eloy Jiménez in left field. Now it’s Andrew Vaughn in left, who profiles as a bat-first first baseman. Adam Eaton hasn’t been an above average fielder since his first year of his first stint with the Sox, back in 2014. Luis Robert can only Kelly Leak the outfield so much. Don’t get me started on Zack Collins. I wish there was more data to support what is mostly anecdotal, but while there’s some upside to love with the bat, especially as a backup catcher, Collins looked entirely uncomfortable receiving pitches from Lucas Giolito earlier this week. You can’t cost a guy with Cy Young aspirations strikes, and Collins did it with pretty significant regularity in Seattle. This all culminates in the conclusion that the White Sox just might not have the defensive infrastructure to be as successful as the rest of their upside might indicate.

Again, I don’t have the space to hash out the problematic elements of Tony La Russa as the manager of a Major League Baseball team in the year 2021. But the expectation was that the Sox would deploy Robert, Nick Madrigal, Yoán Moncada, and Yasmani Grandal, maybe get a modest improvement from Tim Anderson, and perhaps add some depth to their outfield that could also aid in the defensive side. That last detail notwithstanding, La Russa has a heavy hand in what the White Sox look like, structurally, on defense. So, as a result, that expectation has instead manifested itself into some defense that leaves massive questions to linger.

Ultimately, the Chicago White Sox are going to win a lot of baseball games. Their offense is dynamite (Yermín Mercedes is so much fun). Their pitching staff has plenty of pieces, if utilized properly. But it’s very hard to win with poor defense. The White Sox have been bad defensively to start the year, and it may not get better. There’s an onus here on the manager to move the pieces around the chess board in order to help them be successful. Should that happen (because it may not!), then the Sox can compensate for some of their defensive shortcomings. And if it doesn’t, it’s a group that will remain wholly unpleasing to my eyeballs.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.