MILWAUKEE -- Chris Sale worked around it Tuesday but improved defensive play is critical if the White Sox hope to turn things around.
Sale took a group that ranks 29th in Defensive Runs Saved, according to fangraphs.com, mostly out of the equation with 11 strikeouts over eight innings as the White Sox topped the Milwaukee Brewers 4-2 at Miller Park.
The best teams often boast strong defensive play up the middle as evidenced by the 2014 Kansas Royals, who earned an American League pennant behind the outstanding play of Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez.
Led by 2014 Gold Glove finalists Adam Eaton and Alexei Ramirez, the White Sox -- who have 12 errors in their last nine games -- expected they would be much better than they have.
“That remains a point of emphasis,” general manager Rick Hahn said before Tuesday’s game. “We last talked about this stuff a week or whatever it has been, the performance has been better but it’s not where it needs to be and guys know that.”
So far, Eaton and Ramirez, as well as second baseman Micah Johnson, are all in the bottom third among qualified players at each of their respective positions in Defensive Runs Saved.
Ramirez entered Tuesday ranked 20th of 28 shortstops while at minus-2 runs saved while Johnson (minus-8) was last among 24 second baseman and Eaton (minus-6) was second to last. White Sox catchers also have six passed balls, which is tied for the most in baseball.
Ramirez committed his fifth error in the first inning of Monday’s loss and later didn’t knock down a single, allowing an extra run to score against Jeff Samardzija. He and Johnson also couldn’t convert later on what looked to be an easy double play on Adam Lind, instead settling for a fielder’s choice. Geovany Soto missed out on a potential caught stealing -- all of which could have helped Samardzija. Samardzija took the diplomatic approach and noted he shouldn’t have hung a slider to Carlos Gomez.
But, Samardzija added, “We definitely need to not make this harder on ourselves.”
The defense has clearly made this more difficult for White Sox starting pitchers, who haven’t been very good themselves. Jose Abreu’s misplay on a potential double play set up a six-run, first-inning rally against Samardzija in Baltimore. On Tuesday, Sale had to work around a first-inning error by Conor Gillaspie and a dropped throw by Johnson on a potential pickoff play.
Hahn expects Eaton and Ramirez to get back to their career norms.
Ramirez has gone through defensive ruts in the past, though the White Sox can’t sustain one from him much longer. The White Sox think Eaton’s slow start is attributed to the pressure he has put on himself early this season and believe he’s on the mend.
Though Johnson has struggled, Hahn said the team must try and develop their own young players if they want a sustained run of success. They have a potential option at Triple-A in Carlos Sanchez, who is a good defender and has hit well enough to twice be named player of the week. But the White Sox like the speed element Johnson delivers and aren’t yet willing to make a switch.
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White Sox manager Robin Ventura is hopeful the improvement from all comes quickly so his pitchers don’t face more pressure.
“That has to clean up because we can’t expect pitchers to go out there and try to overthrow and try and do that,” Ventura said. “They can do it, but you don’t want it to feel like they have to do that to stay away from getting in trouble. So we’re going to have to be better.
“Everything goes together. You have to mesh it together to be able to feel confident with those guys going out there that they don’t have to be superhuman to get people out and get through it.”