2013 Preview: Chicago White Sox

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Chicago White Sox.

The Big Question: Will the White Sox again exceed low expectations?

Last year at this time the White Sox were coming off a disappointing 79-win season and had lost Mark Buehrle to free agency, fired Ozzie Guillen and replaced him with a manager totally lacking in experience at any level, and further retooled by trading Carlos Quentin and Sergio Santos. Expectations were so low that Las Vegas set their over/under win total at 75 and many people wondered why the front office stopped short of a full-scale rebuild.

And then they won 85 games.

This offseason Chicago re-signed Jake Peavy to a favorable contract but again shed talent, as A.J. Pierzynski, Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers, and Francisco Liriano walked via free agency and the biggest additions were Jeff Keppinger and Matt Lindstrom. And so expectations remain low, with Las Vegas setting the over/under at 80 wins. I think they’ll beat that total, not because the White Sox are a particularly great team but because they’re clearly a decent team and the unbalanced schedule means someone in the AL Central besides the Tigers is going to finish above .500.

There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks for the White Sox emerging as that team, of course. Tyler Flowers has a very difficult task replacing A.J. Pierzynski’s production and durability behind the plate. Counting on Peavy to stay healthy in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-2007 is iffy and the rotation has other health question marks in John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Robin Ventura needs to get some kind of offensive help from the Keppinger, Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez infield trio so the lineup doesn’t lean so heavily on Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, and Alex Rios.

Because of all that the White Sox making a legitimate run at the AL Central title deep into the season looks unlikely, but unless the rotation falls apart because of injuries it’s also hard for me to imagine Chicago not finishing above .500. And yet if they do beat Las Vegas’ preseason expectations again it would be the White Sox’s first time with back-to-back winning seasons since 2005-2006.

What else is going on?

• For all the talk of teams making mistakes by shifting dominant young relievers to the rotation only to see them struggle and/or get hurt Chris Sale did exactly that for the White Sox last season and it couldn’t have gone better. At age 23 he was among the AL’s top five in wins, ERA, WHIP, opponents’ batting average, and strikeout rate, throwing 192 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 192/51 K/BB ratio before signing a long-term contract that could keep him in Chicago through 2019. Sale holding up physically in Year 2 as a starter might be the biggest key to the White Sox’s season.

• Dayan Viciedo showed a lot of power at age 23, smacking 25 homers in his first full season, but his overall production was lacking for a corner outfielder who isn’t a plus defensively. He hit just .255 with a measly .300 on-base percentage, striking out 120 times in 147 games while drawing a pathetic 20 walks in 543 trips to the plate. Despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark Viciedo’s all-around offensive contribution was below average among MLB left fielders even without factoring in his defense. Viciedo is obviously not without long-term potential, but power vastly overstated his 2012 value.

• Addison Reed posted a 4.75 ERA that suggests he wasn’t very effective as a 23-year-old rookie closer, but he allowed 21 percent of his total runs in one May appearance. In his other 61 games Reed threw 55 innings with a 3.75 ERA and 53/15 K/BB ratio while converting 88 percent of his save chances. He also averaged 94.6 miles per hour with his fastball. As a fly-ball pitcher in a power-inflating ballpark Reed will always be walking on relatively thin ice, but the White Sox have the ninth inning figured out for the foreseeable future.

• Dunn had a bounceback season after a miserable 2011, boosting his OPS by 231 points. That’s an amazing turnaround and it’s also amazing that he managed an .800 OPS while hitting just .204. In fact, while leading the league in both strikeouts (222) and walks (105) and ranking fifth in homers (41) he had the highest OPS of all time for someone with a sub-.220 batting average. By comparison, 25 players last season hit .280 or higher and posted a lower OPS than Dunn. It might not always be pretty, but production is production.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central

There is no need to lament the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie”

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Today in the New York Times Jay Caspian Kang writes about what he calls the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie.” About how there are few if any big baseball movies anymore. Movies which traffic in baseball-as-metaphor-for-America with Jimmy Stewart (or Kevin Costner)-types playing characters which seem to transcend time, elevate our emotions and rack up the dollars at the box office.

It’s a bit of meandering column, with just as much time spent on Kang’s seeming dissatisfaction with modern baseball and baseball telecasts as his dissatisfaction with baseball cinema, but he winds it up with this, which sums his argument up well enough:

Baseball’s cinematic vision of Middle America no longer means what it once did. The failing family enterprise and the old, forbearing white — or Negro Leagues — ballplayer now remind us of an extinct vision of the country and the growing distance between Middle America and the coasts. The attempts to update the archival, sun-kissed, Midwestern vision — whether on last year’s “Pitch,” the Fox TV show about a woman pitching in the majors, or “Million Dollar Arm,” the 2014 Disney movie in which Jon Hamm goes to India to convert cricket bowlers into pitchers — are canceled or bomb at the box office.

You won’t be surprised that I take a great deal of issue with all of this.

Mostly because it only talks about one specific kind of baseball movie being AWOL from cinemas: the broad works which appeal to the masses and which speak to both the past, present and future, often with a hazy nostalgia in which love of baseball and love of America are portrayed as one and the same.

It’s worth noting, though, that such films are extraordinarily rare. There was a brief time when such things existed and did well at the box office — the 1980s had “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “Major League” in a relatively short period of time — but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Baseball movies are almost always niche flicks. Biopics made of recently deceased stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Weird slices of life like “The Bad News Bears” or “The Sandlot.” Quirky comedies that are baseball offshoots of larger cinematic trends like “Little Big League,” which was just the latest in a series of “kids doing adult things” movies popular at the time. Or “Rookie of the Year” which is essentially baseball’s version of one of those body-switch movies that come and go. Or “Mr. Baseball” which was just a fish-out-of-water comedy like any other.

We still get those kinds of smaller baseball movies fairly often. They’re still pretty decent and still do pretty decently at the box office, even if they’re no one’s idea of a blockbuster.

“Moneyball” was done well and did well, not as a mass appeal movie, but as one of many business/Silicon Valley flicks that have popped over the past few years. “Sugar” was a great movie, but a small movie, exploring a culture about which most people aren’t aware and basically serving as a character study. “42” is just an updated (and much better) version of those old biopics of baseball stars. “Everybody Wants Some” may be the quintessential niche baseball movie in that it’s a story about characters which just happen to have a lot of baseball in their lives. “Bull Durham” was like that too, but it just came along at the right time to become a massive hit. As many have noted, baseball was more background than plot in that movie, even if the background was amazingly well done. I’d argue that most good baseball movies use baseball like that rather than put it squarely in the foreground.

There will likely always be baseball movies, but they will almost always be smaller ones, not large blockbusters or Oscar bait with an epic sweep. Most baseball movies are like baseball itself in that they lack a grand consensus. Baseball is not The National Pastime anymore — it’s just one of many forms of sports and entertainment available to the masses — so it follows that the movies which deal with it will likewise not have that massive cross-market appeal.

I think that’s a good thing. Smaller baseball movies more accurately reflect the sport’s place in the culture. To portray baseball as something larger than what it actually is opens the door to a lot of artistic and cultural dishonesty and runs the risk of creating some really bad art.

I mean, have you seen “Field of Dreams?” Bleech.

The Yankees set up “The Judge’s Chambers” cheering section for Aaron Judge

New York Yankees
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The Yankees aren’t well-known for going all-in on goofy, fan-friendly fun. While some organizations are happy to jump on new and even silly or ephemeral trends for the yuks of it, the Yankees have tended to keep things rather businesslike when it comes to promotions and things. They’ve always played the long game, assuming — not always unreasonably — that their brand is best defined by the club’s history and greatness and quiet dignity and stuff.

Aaron Judge and his breakout rookie season is changing things. His fast start has caused fans to dress up in judge’s robes and stuff, so the team is having fun with it. They’ve set up a special section called “The Judge’s Chambers,” complete with a jury box vibe:

 

Fans will be selected to sit in the special section, which is in section 104 in right field, right behind where Judge plays, and will be handed foam gavels with “All Rise” written on them. To be selected at the moment it’d help if you wear one of those judicial robes with Judge’s number 99 on the back or his jersey or an English judge-style powdered wig. Going forward, the Yankees will also use the section for groups and charity events and stuff.

Judge is on a 58-homer pace right now. It’s unlikely he’ll keep that up, but he certainly looks like the real deal. And, for the Yankees and their fans, he’s giving them the chance for some real fun.