"If I'd told you in April that they'd be 3.5 games back of--"
"Oh just stop it already. I am so sick of that line. I don't care if they exceed my expectations, I'm not going to lower the bar retroactively every single day to make sure I can call the season a success no matter how lame or qualified. That's so stupid. They make the playoffs or they don't. And seriously, how big does the number have to get for you to quit saying that?"
"I... I don't know."
"Sounds like you've given up."
"You know what? If you told me they'd be 3.5 games back of the second wild card on August 15, I'd be disappointed. You're selling this team short. Big series this weekend."
At least nobody on the South Side has to endure that conversation. The White Sox may not be mathematically eliminated yet, but they're getting close to white flag territory. They're almost as cold as the Jays - they've lost 8 of 11, which has put them seven games under .500. They've been outscored by 60 runs. Right now I think the Jays could use a series against a veteran team that's just going through the motions, and Chicago may fit that bill. Unfortunately, they will probably be a bit fired up given the outcome of their last game.
The Sox led San Francisco 1-0 before this play, probably the most absurd correct application of Rule 7.13 yet. Catcher Tyler Flowers caught a throw from first base as Giants speedster Gregor Blanco ran home from third. Blanco was running on contact, and the throw beat him by a mile. Unfortunately for Flowers, his back foot was blocking the plate when he caught the throw, so after video review the umps decided that Blanco had been denied a pathway to the plate, and they ruled him safe. The play triggered a seven-run outburst for the Giants. Robin Ventura threw an impressive tantrum. The noted feminist intellectual Hawk Harrelson prophesied that before long, catchers will wear skirts. Flowers was your voice of reason, railing against the inconsistent interpretation of the rule and the consequences of a super-literal reading: "Iím supposed to be able to make sure I donít block the plate, catch a ball and make a tag, all within two seconds on an infield dribbler. Itís just not realistic. If itís an outfield throw itís one thing. I think most people are getting that. When youíre talking about such a short time period there, on a play like that, it just doesnít make any sense. And that had no impact on Blanco being able to score. Itís one thing if he makes contact with me before I have the ball, but that wasnít the case. He was still seven-plus feet away. It had no impact on him whatsoever." So you'll see almost everyone running from third base on contact from now on, right? Why not? The catcher's job is very difficult, and the offense's potential payoff if he can't pull off the highwire act is enormous. At the very least, they need to redraft the rule so that there's an objective definition of "blocking the pathway."
Flowers seems pretty bright. Earlier this year, he also gave a very detailed interview to Fangraphs about the art of pitch framing, and all the variables that affect the way umpires call balls and strikes.
Starting pitchers: Third team's been a charm for tonight's starter, 27-year-old Dominican righty Hector Noesi. He opened 2014 with two lousy relief appearances for Seattle and was promptly DFA'd and sold to Texas, where he had three lousy relief appearances and found himself on waivers. I swear I will never understand how teams can be so eager to immediately pull the plug on pitchers they thought worthy of their opening day roster. The White Sox swooped in and found themselves a player. Noesi's started 19 games for them with a 4.15 ERA. (Oh, you thought it was just the north siders relying on the scrap heap for pitching?) Noesi's flying high after shutting down the Mariners for 7.1 innings in his last start with the help of his revenge hat; this season, he's actually pitched 18.1 innings against Seattle with a 0.00 ERA. Maybe he just needed a fresh start.
Saturday, John Danks takes on his old mentor Mark Buehrle. A left shoulder strain zapped Danks in 2012, and the past two years of recovery have been rough - he's barely been any better than Jose Lopez. Fortunately, everyone thinks Danks' signature cut fastball is finally starting to regain its effectiveness of old. After the Mariners dinked their way to a win against Danks last weekend, he said, ďThis is the best cutter Iíve probably had since before I had surgery. Definitely some silver lining. Unfortunately, we are not in rookie ball. Itís all about winning ballgames.íí If he's right, I'm not thrilled about the prospect of seeing him face an army of righty hitters. On the other hand, righty hitters have actually hit Danks harder than lefties in recent years. This is true even though Danks was once the poster boy for pitchers with exploitable reverse splits, and even though he's still a cutter-change-curve pitcher. So who knows. The one Blue Jay who's always owned him is Dioner Navarro, who's 10/23 with three homers and only one strikeout against Danks.
On Sunday, it looks like the skies will part, angels will sing, and the Jays will finally dodge an opponent's ace starter. Not only are the White Sox giving unhittable wordsmith Chris Sale an extra day of rest - Chicago's next opponents are the first-place Orioles. Win-win. In Sale's place will be 29-year-old rookie righty Scott Carroll, a sinker artist whose performance depends on fastball movement. The White Sox signed him as a minor-league free agent before the year, and he's rewarded them with 91.2 competent innings. Carroll is struggling with lefty hitters (.305/.380/.500) and with blisters - the blisters didn't help him in his last outing, when he got bombed by the Mariners, and the White Sox had to skip his start Wednesday in favor of Jose Quintana (another pitcher we fortuitously won't see this weekend). Carroll's sense of humor grades out as an 80* with plus-plus faux sincerity, and he would like you to know that Scott Carroll will endorse anything!
*Searching Google for "grades out as a 70" returns 13,200 results. Searching for "grades out at a 70" returns 11,900. Which one is correct? If they're both okay, which one is better?
As for the bats, this is Jose Abreu's team, and it will be for the foreseeable future. He still leads the AL in homers, RBI and slugging. Everyone raves about how level-headed Abreu is, a quality which will serve him well if pitchers continue to pitch around him. He's in a bit of a power slump - hitting .262/.380/.286 in August, hasn't homered in two weeks. It seems that most righty rookie power hitters have a stretch like this, where the pitchers collectively embargo the strike zone because they're sick of getting pounded by this guy, and his walks or strikeouts go up. (And if it's the walks, the homers return pretty quickly.) So far, Abreu is doing OK - 5 walks, 8 strikeouts this month. I'd never realized how strong the Cuban presence on the White Sox is - Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, and even backup catcher Adrian Nieto are all expats. Abreu may not be a gold glover, but they still play him at first base most of the time, since they need Adam Dunn's big lefty bat in the lineup.
For a guy who was once accused of not really liking baseball, Dunn has certainly carved out a respectable career. In his 14 big-league seasons he's hit 459 home runs, more than any active big-leaguer* except Albert Pujols, and drawn 1308 walks, more than anyone except Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. After a disastrous first season in Chicago, Dunn has been a productive hitter three years running. Tons of walks, tons of strikeouts, tons of homers; some of the homers are starting to turn into walks, as they often do for power hitters in their mid-30s. Dunn usually occupies the DH slot. That's his natural position, of course, and being the regular DH on a team that also starts Abreu and Viciedo every day is quite the honor. Dunn was pressed into outfield duty on the Sox' trip to San Francisco this week, with predictably amusing results - he doesn't know his own strength. He's also the eighth or ninth man in the Sox bullpen (Dunn and jack-of-all-trades Leury Garcia have both pitched this year), and he features a nasty breaking ball in the high 70s. Here's more on Dunn's pitching escapade from Fangraphs and August Fagerstrom.
*Manny Ramirez is actually ahead of Dunn on both leaderboards, and he plays for the Iowa Cubs, so Baseball Reference considers him to be an active player, but that's a pretty generous interpretation of "active." Ramirez is hitting .191/.208/.340 in 48 plate appearances as a bench player, and seriously, the Cubs of all teams are going to call him up? Perhaps Theo Epstein goes on a nostalgia trip. I'd be surprised.
The White Sox on-base percentage leader is neither Abreu nor Dunn - it's speedy centerfielder Adam Eaton, who just landed on the disabled list with the dreaded strained oblique. Tough break for a guy who was hitting .304/.370/.401 in his first real shot at an everyday gig in the majors. This has created an opportunity for Jordan Danks, who's 28 - only 16 months younger than John. Jordan has the dubious distinction of owning the Charlotte Knights record book: he's their all-time leader in games played (458), hits (446), runs (250), triples (12), walks (211) and at-bats (1664, tied with Joe Borchard). Unfortunately, in 60 big-league plate appearances this year, his strikeout rate is higher than Juan Francisco's. The corners are manned by Dayan Viciedo, a big, slow, rocket-armed power hitter who Hawk Harrelson refers to simply as "Tank," and by Alejandro De Aza, a speedster who fields the corners very well and is usually one of the most prolific line-drive hitters in baseball, but for some reason simply cannot buy a hit this year. He might be an ideal fourth outfielder for the 2015 Blue Jays. Most importantly, anytime De Aza is on a team that gets the advance scout treatment, you get the obligatory link to Dave Rutt's immortal 2008 Marlins preview.
Gordon Beckham is trapped in a polar vortex, hitting .138 in July and .175 in August, and he's not an especially great fielder. I think his ship has sailed. At this point I'd rather have Ryan Goins. On the other hand, third baseman Conor Gillaspie is finally enjoying the breakthrough season that some statistically-minded prospect watchers had been expecting for a while.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez has been a mainstay on the South Side for seven years. He's one of the best fielding shortstops in the game, and a super-aggressive contact hitter who's more powerful than he looks. (But last week, Seattle's Yoervis Medina did this to him.)
The bench includes Paul Konerko, whose retirement tour has been less glamorous than Derek Jeter's. Leury Garcia is a switch-hitter who can probably play every position on the diamond. Old friend Moises Sierra will likely start against Buehrle on Saturday. Chicago may also get outfielder Avisail Garcia back from the disabled list at some point during the series. He tore his labrum while attempting a diving catch earlier in the season, but has recovered much faster than anyone expected.
This is an interesting bullpen. For one thing, there are no lefty pitchers, which should make John Gibbons very happy. The de facto lefty specialists will likely be the two guys with reverse splits: the best ever major league arm out of Denton*, Javy Guerra, and an erstwhile Jays prospect who was traded for Jason Frasor in 2012, Daniel Webb.
*With apologies to Brian Bohanon, Scott Atchison and John Darnielle.
Where most bullpens are full of high-strikeout flyball pitchers, the Sox have populated theirs with wild but aggressive groundball machines, from closer Jake Petricka on down. It's sort of like a less overpowering version of the Jansen/League/Belisario/Wright unit in Los Angeles the last few years. This White Sox staff includes that very Ronald Belisario, who's been the unluckiest pitcher on the face of the earth this year. He's stranded only 52% of his baserunners; his line in the chart is absolutely not a misprint - I've quadruple-checked. 52% seems impossibly low for any pitcher, let alone one with a sinker as good as Belisario's. It won't last. Rounding out the bullpen are Matt Lindstrom, who's not quite the 98-mph fireballer he once was; Zach Putnam, a journeyman rookie whose splitter has proven effective in the majors; and Maikel Cleto, who throws extremely hard but has been discarded by several teams.
Song to Advance Scout by: That was some week...
Credit section: The usual.