White Sox

Frankie O's 'Moneyball' journey - Part 2

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Frankie O's 'Moneyball' journey - Part 2

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

WATCH: Beane & Pitt discuss 'Moneyball'

Its always about the first impression. Doing what I do for a living gives me a vast database for information on anything that piques my interest. But, of course, it comes with a subjective slant. Sometimes, the more libations served, it can get overly subjective. Thus, I always try to take any information gleaned at the bar with a grain of salt. When I told folks that I was going to Oakland, the response was always, Why? Then, those whod been there gave me gritty details. It couldnt really be that bad, could it? I always had a soft spot for the city from the time of my youth. The early 70's was when my sports psychosis started to take form. I was crazy about every sports team in Philadelphia and watched and read about them as much as I could. But I couldnt help but notice all the other teams that they played. You know, the teams that actually won.

It was at this time that a kid from Philadelphia became infatuated with two teams that dominated while playing more than 3,000 miles away: The Charlie O. Finley Oakland As, who won consecutive titles from 1972-74, and the Al Davis Oakland Raiders, who after breaking hearts year after year, finally won a Super Bowl in 1976. Both teams were known as renegades, and to yours truly were larger than life. The As featured Jim Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Mr. October Reggie Jackson (later known as Wedgie Jackson) and Gene Tenace the Menace who came out of nowhere to become the 1972 World Series MVP.

The Raiders were my first sports obsession. At this time, the Eagles were awful, so all of the guys in the neighborhood would root for other teams also. It was usually the Dolphins or Steelers, since they won all of the time. I, of course, took the road less traveled, the one full of agony and despair (youd expect anything less?) and followed John Maddens team religiously. The first NFL game I ever went to was an Eagles-Raiders game at the Vet during that magical 76 season. To this day, Kenny Stabler is still my favorite quarterback. And, he threw to my all-time favorite receiver, Super Bowl XI MVP Fred Biletnikoff. During this time, since both teams played there, and still do, the Oakland-Alemeda County Coliseum was the place to be. Go figure, I would soon be there.

As the plane was landing, I watched out the window to the rolling hills and water below. The airport is right on the bay, and compared to the view Im used to at Midway, it is visually stunning. Getting into the cab, Im usually pretty direct with the instructions since Im always convinced that cabbies want to take their fares from the airport on the scenic route to the hotel, but this time I didnt care. Mapquest had told me there were two ways to the hotel in Berkley, and both went by the Coliseum. What a great ride.

I had time to catch up on my fantasy scores -- good -- and watch the end of the Niners-Dallas game -- bad -- in my room as I ironed my TV bartender garb (Im a man of many talents). Waiting for the shuttle to the theater to see the movie was a reunion with others I had done junkets with before. TV-types from around the country (and Canada!) mingled with the moonlighting bartender from Chicago. I was pleased to hear that they all were as excited as I was to see the movie. Trust me, this is not always the case. As we all do our research before we come, sometimes things become a little too obvious about what we are about to encounter. The references to The Social Network and The Blind Side abound as everyone is upbeat about the screening.

During the ride we are given a verbal outline of how our day should work out for Monday. Its not quite the riot-act but its close. The bigger stars have a lot going on around them and they dont get much bigger than Mr. Pitt. Our day will have twists and turns, stops and starts, but everyone will get what they came for. One very big thing working in all of our favors is that since we are the sports press we wont be asking any Brangelina questions, or asking about Jennifer Aniston and her fun issues. That is if any of us wants to come to another junket! This should make the Bradster very happy.

He neednt worry about any of us. Its all going to be about the movie. As we all exit the theater, sometimes its like poker players trying to get a tell on the others. What did YOU think? That generally happens when the movie is iffy. After a screening of the unintentional horror-flick Leatherheads starring the handsome George Clooney, there were many in the theater lobby bellowing about how awful the movie was and lamenting the fact that we would never get those wasted two hours of our lives back. Personally, I was embarrassed to think that someone saw me come out of the theater. I was way too uncomfortable to even talk out-loud about it, especially in public. After we were safely out of view of any studio execs, several of us wondered out loud if anyone at all connected with this movie realized how god-awful it was.

Theyve got to know, dont they?

That movie was so bad that six months later, when a bunch of us were checking in for the next sports-movie junket, it was all we could talk about. A guy who had missed the junket laughed at his good fortune. The person checking us in from a different studio was laughing for a different reason: He felt our pain. Seems a short time prior, the studio he was working for was making a Nicolas Cage movie. Well, his guess was that the hierarchy of the film realized what a mess that they had made (at this point Im flabbergasted: A bad Nick Cage movie?! LOL! Dont get me wrong, Im a big fan, but hes taken a few epic swings and misses). Anyway, they decide to round up a few young guys in the office for a private screening. As in private with Cage, the director and a couple of producers, all of whom are big-time in their own right.

At this point we all guess what it is and say, Oh my god, you didnt have to watch Blank-blanker in front of them, did you?

You got it, he replied. Then afterwards, we all sat in a circle as they asked us our impressions.

At this point Im going crazy just thinking about that.

What did you say? You werent honest were you? I mean, you kept your jobm right? I asked.

I still work for the same studio, he laughed. When they got to me, I was so nervous I did not know what to do. So I remembered one scene that I really liked and could honestly talk about it in a good way, then, thank god, they let us go.

Wow.

You know what you are? I asked, setting up the punch-line, An enabler! They still released that piece of garbage!

Its as old as time, no matter what the business: give the boss what he wants! There would be none of those uncomfortable moments for any of us since all of us were sharing how much we liked the movie on the way out. This should make doing our jobs that much easier. Its like when Im at the bar: How hard can it be to serve someone one of the best steaks that they are ever going to have? When things are good, everybody wins!

I had spent much of my time trying to figure out which parts of the book they would leave out and which parts that they would keep or embellish. Hollywood was going to put its spin on this story. My hope was that they would not forget about the numbers side that excited geeks like me. In The Blind Side I felt that much of the football aspect of the book had been crammed in at the last minute. Example: Sandra Bullock as Leigh Ann Tuohy walking out of the stands and onto the practice field, in skin-tight pants none the less, grabbing young Michaels facemask, as she is being ogled by his teammates for cinematic effect and explaining to him that he has to protect the quarterbacks blind side. Im not saying, Im just saying. That movie was turned into a Sandra Bullock movie and it worked.

My hope for this film was that it could capture the tortured, manic, genius that was Billy Beane, who was a product of his entire baseball life, not just the year portrayed in the book. Billys journey though the many sides of baseball had brought him to a unique place. He was the right guy at the right time. Baseball is a game of failure. It is how a man deals with failure that will determine his fate. Billys story was not one of tidiness that could fit nicely into a box with a giant bow on top for us to open at our pleasure. It is full of the ups and downs that challenge us all. Repeatedly. And in the end he doesnt triumph in one shining moment, gaining mass adulation, just like in the real life that most of us live. Life isnt that simple. Its the reason I liked the book.

Obviously with Brad Pitt in the movie, there was going to be a lot of Brad Pitt. To my surprise, there was just as much of the formulas and numbers, the complete source of the internal debate in baseball. It gave the film balance to the riveting portrayal of a man seeking his place, within a world he loves, as much as it might not love him back, on his terms. The portrayal will spur a lot more of the anti-Billy Beane sentiment that exists in the baseball establishment, and that cant be helped. Its a great portrayal. But the movie shows that the discussion should be much deeper than that. Its not just about one man, even if that man is very interesting and is being played by one of the most famous people in the world on film.

I cant wait to meet them both and to ask them about it. Wheres my red bow tie?

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

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USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

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USA TODAY

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

The Houston Astros will not win back-to-back world championships this October.

Eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the recently concluded ALCS, the rebuilt Astros still remain the model for rebuilding teams like the White Sox. But with their first post-championship season ending without another ring on the fingers of homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, among others, the most pertinent topic involving the Astros when it comes to the White Sox is Astros players now hitting the free-agent market.

There's a number of them, and some are very, very good. The White Sox figure to be more active this winter then they were last offseason, with Rick Hahn already saying the team will be making pitching additions, a no-brainer with Michael Kopech slated to miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Hahn has said the White Sox will be "opportunistic" when it comes to other types of additions, as well.

So could any of these soon-to-be former Astros land on the South Side? Maybe. Here they are, ranked by such a possibility.

1. Charlie Morton

The White Sox need starting pitchers. Kopech's out until 2020, and James Shields, should the team opt not to bring him back on a new contract, will be a free-agent departure. That's two holes that need filling, and Morton could fill one of them. I know what you're thinking, "Dallas Keuchel is also a free agent, why isn't he No. 1 on this list, you fool?" More on him in a bit. Right now, we're talking about Charlie Morton.

Morton is hardly the most rebuild-friendly pitching option out there at 35 years old. But Morton's been very good for the Astros over the past two seasons, making 55 starts, striking out 364 guys and posting a 3.36 ERA. His fastball velocity is as high as it's been in his 11-year big league career and he's coming off two straight playoff runs, so maybe he could teach these young White Sox a thing or two about playing winning baseball — he did close out Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

The biggest problem might be that he's not too far removed from different results when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when his numbers weren't nearly as good as they got when he went to Houston. Would another change of scenery mean a different kind of performance?

What kind of contract Morton will get on the market remains to be seen, obviously, but it's kind of a mystery at this point, as he's coming off a couple great years but is getting up there in age when it comes to multi-year deals. He could be a fit for the White Sox should they want just a one- or two-year option while they wait for Kopech to return to full strength and for Dylan Cease to make his way to the major leagues. But should this recent success continue, he could be a valuable option on a White Sox team making the transition from rebuilding to contending, too.

2. Marwin Gonzalez

The White Sox have a bit of a quandary in that they are still waiting to find out what they've got in a lot of their young players. With so many prospects and even young players at the major league level yet to fully finish their development, it's tough to say where the holes on future White Sox teams will be. And that's made all the more difficult by the rash of injuries sustained by White Sox prospects in 2018.

A good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. During the 2018 regular season, Gonzalez played everywhere on the field besides pitcher and catcher: 73 games in left field, 39 games at shortstop, 32 games at second base, 24 games at first base, three games at third base, two games in center field and one game in right field. He played one game at designated hitter, too, in case you were wondering. He appeared at six different positions in 2017, when he finished in the top 20 in AL MVP voting. That versatility should make him a hot commodity this offseason.

The question marks come from Gonzalez's bat, which was excellent in 2017 but not nearly as good in 2018. After slashing .303/.377/.530 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs for the world-champion Astros in 2017, he got more playing time in 2018 and his numbers dropped to a .247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs for the AL runners up. So which batch of results would you get if you signed Gonzalez? That's the question facing teams this offseason. (To help assuage fears, however, Gonzalez just wrapped a solid postseason in which he batted .333 with a pair of homers, a pair of doubles and nine RBIs, not to mention a .389 on-base percentage.)

But for a team with as much unwritten future as the White Sox have, wouldn't it be nice to have a plan for every eventuality — and to have it all in the form of one guy? While Manny Machado and Bryce Harper grab all the free-agent headlines this winter, perhaps the White Sox could slip in and convince Gonzalez to help another transition from rebuilding to contending. He was a part of two 100-loss teams in 2012 and 2013 and along for the ride to the top of baseball's mountain. That's some good experience to have.

3. Dallas Keuchel

Now we arrive at Keuchel. Would the soon-to-be 31-year-old former Cy Young winner be a good fit for the rebuilding White Sox? Absolutely he would. Signing him to a long-term deal would not only solve a pitching problem in 2019 but it would provide a safety net should Kopech, Cease or whoever go through the to-be-expected growing pains that young players go through in their first tastes of the major leagues. He would be an anchor of future rotations with plenty of young arms around him.

Signing Keuchel — who has a combined 3.39 ERA and 278 strikeouts over the last two seasons — would be similar to the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester, a proven veteran climbing aboard a team heading toward a bright future, and his experience and talent could help them reach that future faster. Like Gonzalez, he experienced back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2012 and 2013 and also got a World Series ring as the Astros completed their journey from the bottom to the top.

But being a good fit is only half the battle for the White Sox. A lot of other teams, including good ones capable of pitching a win-now roster, are going to be vying for Keuchel's services this winter. And while he might not be the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free-agent market — that's expected to be Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his current contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he's going to be no lower than the No. 3 starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Most of the contending clubs in the game are likely to have starting pitching on their shopping list, teams that can pitch present-day success and the ability to win a championship in 2019 against the White Sox promise of planned success down the road. And then there's the financials on top of that. Hahn has said the White Sox will have the financial flexibility to do what they need to do, but will it be enough to outbid baseball's biggest spenders?

Keuchel would obviously be a good fit for the White Sox. But the competition is going to be really stiff.

4. Tony Sipp

Sipp, a 35-year-old reliever who White Sox fans might remember from his days as a Cleveland Indian, was excellent for the Astros this season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 42 guys in 38.2 innings during the regular season.

But while the White Sox could use bullpen help — their 4.49 relief ERA ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams — that performance kind of elevates Sipp from the level of sign-and-flip guys they've acquired in recent seasons. Sipp might not be under the radar enough for the White Sox to take a flier, get a good few months and trade him away for a prospect.

Spending the kind of money Sipp might command on a 35-year-old reliever in a season where you're not expected to compete might not make for a good match.

5. Brian McCann

Yeah, the White Sox don't need Brian McCann.