White Sox

How the White Sox shifted their draft philosophy to emphasize more data analysis

How the White Sox shifted their draft philosophy to emphasize more data analysis

For a second straight year, Nick Hostetler and the White Sox amateur scouting department have taken an added emphasis on objective data into the field when evaluating draft talent.

The White Sox haven’t at all abandoned their scouting-based philosophy but merely supplemented their previous approach with an additional tool. Though it has only been in place for one draft, the strategy’s impact on the franchise is easily recognizable. Last year’s first three position players selected -- Zack Collins in the first round, Alex Call (third) and Jameson Fisher (fourth) -- all rose up the team’s draft board because of objective data analysis.

“A guy that you may tools-wise may downgrade a little bit, it may put him back in play for you,” said Hostetler, the club’s amateur scouting director. “No part of the analytics ever makes a decision or gives us our order.

“It’s just another piece of the puzzle, just like the makeup part of it, just like the signability part of it. It’s weighted along those lines. It’s more of a supplemental piece to what we’re doing scouting-wise.

“The scouting aspect of it is still number one, that carries the heaviest weight for us. Then the analytics part comes in to supplement it, good, bad, indifferent.”

The philosophical change came about when the White Sox reshuffled the amateur scouting department in August 2015. Then-scouting director Doug Laumann was named the senior advisor to scouting operations while Hostetler was elevated from assistant amateur scouting director.

In discussing the direction they wanted to head, Hostetler and general manager Rick Hahn did a routine review of three- and five-year old draft classes. They looked hard at successful players who were selected earlier by other franchises compared to where they ranked on the White Sox draft board.

If Player A was drafted 75th overall by Team B and the White Sox had him ranked 112th, they wanted to know why. The goal was to determine if analytics had played a significant role in the other team’s evaluation. A scout since 2002, Hostetler said for him the exercise was a pivotal moment.

“I think when I saw proof of what other teams were doing I realized at that point with Rick that this needs to be a major part of what we’re doing because we’re not using all of our tools and you’ve got to use all of your tools,” Hostetler said.

Whereas the White Sox had previously used analytics, they moved to place a higher emphasis on that usage.

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“I don’t think any organization would pass up knowledge or background on any player regardless of whether its as many quality subjective scouting evaluations as you can make, video, video analysis, understanding of a player’s makeup as well as the objective performance data,” Hahn said.

As they prepared for the 2016 draft season, Hostetler addressed a staff that includes 21 full-time area scouts, nine cross checkers and four analysts. He hoped his enthusiasm would sway the department.

Midwest cross checker Garrett Guest said the message -- that the subjective portion of scouting is still critical to the process and won’t be abandoned -- was clearly articulated.

“When (Hostetler) was talking about injecting analytics into what we’re doing he was very clear that he didn’t want this to completely uproot everything that our guys had done and the way they had done their job in the past,” Guest said. “But he wanted to make sure that if there was data available that could help you make a better evaluation and if there’s data available that can maybe either challenge an opinion you made from being at the park, or a previous conceived notion, or previously held belief about a player, and that can challenge your thought process on a guy, that’s a healthy thing.”

Hostetler likes how his staff has responded. He said he felt a liveliness within the club’s draft room last June.

“It was pretty invigorating,” Hostetler said. “That draft room was exciting. I haven’t been a part of a room with that type of energy before.”

The White Sox drafted Collins -- who produced a .319/.472/.601 slash line in three seasons at University of Miami -- with the 10th overall pick. They grabbed hard-throwing right-hander Zack Burdi at No. 26 to end the first day of the draft.

But it was Day 2 where Hahn said the team’s draft board held up well. The White Sox selected pitcher Alec Hansen in the second round and were pleased when Call, who had a .955 career OPS at Ball State (.425 on-base percentage/.530 slugging percentage) was still available in the third round. The were equally happy when Fisher was still undrafted in the fourth round. Fisher missed his junior season at Southeastern Louisiana but rebounded to slash .424/.558/.692 as a senior. He finished his career with a .483 on-base percentage.

“It was our intent to target/acquire as many well-rounded players as we could, still wanting that athletic type of player, but also one who brought a certain ability to play the game and understanding of the game,” Hahn said. “Nick and his staff had those guys in order and we wound up being able to convert on a pleasant number of them.”

Even though he and several members of his team are in the midst of their second straight four-week road trip, Hostetler gets excited whenever the topic shifts to the upcoming draft.

The White Sox have the 11th pick in the first round. They like how they’ve been able to implement the improved information derived from systems like TrackMan into their process. TrackMan is available in a growing number of college stadiums and boasts the tracking of 27 data points per play. If some of the numbers, such as spin rate, indicate a pitcher might have a problem with extension, a scout can evaluate the player in person to determine if the issue is fixable. If it is, a player who might be undervalued based purely on scouting can climb up a draft board.

But Hostetler said the shifted philosophy wouldn’t matter unless the rest of the department was on board.

“A lot of credit goes to our guys who are willing to adapt and adapt to some of my crazy ways,” Hostetler said. “They followed suit.

“They deserve the credit for understanding what I was trying to do and buying into it.”

Remember That Guy: Rocky Biddle

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AP Images

Remember That Guy: Rocky Biddle

The movie Rocky premiered on November 21, 1976. However, exactly six months earlier, Lee Francis Biddle was born in Las Vegas. You may remember him by his nickname, Rocky.

The 6’3” 230 lb righthander was drafted by the Padres out of Temple City (CA) High School in the 25th round in 1994, but did not sign. He did sign, however, when the White Sox took him with the 51st overall pick in 1997 out of Long Beach State. The Sox selected Jim Parque five picks before Biddle, who was one of five White Sox compensation picks at the end of the first round; his selection was awarded to the White Sox for failure to sign 12th overall pick Bobby Seay the year prior.

Rocky’s road to the Majors was detoured by Tommy John Surgery on March 2, 1999 which wiped out his entire season. When he returned to the mound in 2000 for Birmingham, he thrived, finishing up at 11-6 with a 3.08 ERA, including a pair of shutouts and a Southern League All-Star nod.

The big righthander got the call to the Majors on August 10 as Manager Jerry Manuel wanted to break up lefties Mike Sirotka & Jim Parque in the rotation. Biddle was the fourth White Sox pitcher to debut in the Majors since July 1, after Jon Garland (July 4), Mark Buehrle (July 16) & Lorenzo Barcelo (July 22), which was unusual for a team with an 8-game lead in their division, but the Sox rolled with their rookies (as well as veteran James Baldwin) all the way to an AL Central title at 95-67.

A demotion for Kip Wells & elbow injury for Cal Eldred opened up a spot for Biddle to stay. Rocky the rookie had a rough start in his debut (8 Hits, 6 Runs in 5.1 innings) but a veteran spoke up in his defense (quote from the Chicago Tribune):

"The guy has major-league stuff," Frank Thomas said. "He handled [Alex] Rodriguez, [Edgar] Martinez and [John] Olerud, three of the best hitters in the game. They were 0 for 9 against him. He looked like a veteran. So, he made some mistakes to [Mike] Cameron and [Joe] Oliver ... so what? Those are two good hitters too. Rocky doesn't deserve that kind of [criticism] after one start. Give the kid a chance. He's going to be a very good pitcher."

After all, not many pitchers can claim to have retired Alex Rodriguez AND Edgar Martinez in their first career Major League inning.

Biddle readied himself for his next start by kicking a hacky sack in front of his locker. When asked for comment, he said:

"No one else plays it here, I guess it's not kosher."

Maybe it worked. He collected his first career win in that second start, August 15 at Baltimore, as the White Sox went on to win big, 14-4.

Biddle did just fine, with six hits and four runs allowed in seven innings before being relieved by Mark Buehrle. There was a piece of White Sox history hidden in the box score of Rocky Biddle’s first big league win: future Hall of Famer Harold Baines hit his final career MLB home run (#384) – a 3-run blast off Jason Johnson in the 4th inning to give the Sox a 9-2 lead.

After the win, Rocky received a cold beer shower and when asked about it he replied ` . . . I think it froze part of my brain.'

Unfortunately, Biddle’s run of success was short-lived. He allowed 15 runs (11 earned) over his next two starts before being sent back down for the remainder of the season. He posted an ERA of 8.34 in his first taste of MLB action.

Biddle competed for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring 2001. A 9.42 ERA in eight spring appearances didn’t help his cause, though he still made the roster as a reliever. A few weeks into the season Biddle was back in the rotation due to Cal Eldred’s continued injury struggles. 2001 was a big letdown for the White Sox, falling to third in the standings, as Jim Parque & new addition David Wells went down with injuries. Even Frank Thomas suffered a season-ending arm injury while diving for a ball in May. Eventually Biddle himself needed shoulder surgery at the end of the season. He started 2002 on the DL and when he was healthy he spent most of his time in the bullpen with an occasional spot start here and there.

On September 19 he had his best start of the season – his lone quality start of 2002 with six innings of two-run ball against the Royals at Comiskey Park. Unfortunately what should have been remembered as a solid pitcher’s duel between Biddle & Paul Byrd was overshadowed by a father and son duo who attacked Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in the 9th inning. Biddle finished his season with a win in his next start – a five-inning effort against the Red Sox. It was the last time he pitched for the White Sox.

The White Sox dreamt of a rotation with promising arms such as Rocky Biddle, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Kip Wells & Jon Rauch. While Buehrle & Garland went on to huge things, it never quite happened for the other three.

In January 2003, the White Sox sent Rocky Biddle to Montreal along with Orlando Hernández (who had been acquired from the Yankees that day), Jeff Liefer & cash for Bartolo Colón & minor leaguer Jorge Nuñez.

Biddle posted a 4.65 ERA in 73 relief appearances in his first season for the Expos – not the greatest numbers -  but he did record 34 saves. It’s the last 30+ save season in Montreal Expos history, as well as the only 30-save season by a pitcher born in Nevada, though Brandon Kintzler (29 in 2017) and Mike MacDougal (27 in 2003) both have come really close.

After one more season Biddle was released by the Expos, who not only moved on from Biddle but moved on from Montreal to become the Washington Nationals for 2005.

In five career Major League seasons, Biddle posted a 20-30 record with a 5.47 ERA and 46 saves in 198 games for the White Sox & Expos. He’s one of four Rockys in White Sox history, along with Rocky Krsnich (1949, 1952-53), Rocky Nelson (1951) & Rocky Colavito (1967).

Rocky Biddle. Remember that guy? 

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State of the White Sox: Right field

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Right field

The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to right field.

What happened in 2019

In a word, disappointment. The guys who were supposed to man the position at the big league level barely did.

Daniel Palka went from a 27-homer rookie season to 0-for-his-first-32 and then to Triple-A Charlotte after picking up his first hit of the season. He briefly returned for an 0-for-10 stint in the middle of the summer and then went 8-for-his-last-39 as a September call-up. Even if his defense in the outfield was a huge question mark heading into the season, his bat wasn’t supposed to be. But after his breakout rookie year, he fizzled and ended up being a non-factor in 2019.

The same status befell Jon Jay, one of the team’s veteran offseason additions who was, at the very least, supposed to bring a strong presence to the clubhouse and better on-base skills to the lineup. But an injury suffered in spring training kept him from even entering a major league game until late June. He played in 47 games, with an underwhelming .267/.311/.315 slash line, before hitting the injured list again at the end of August, undergoing season-ending surgery on his hip.

All that led to a rotating cast of right fielders, few of whom produced in any significant way at the plate. Ryan Cordell and his .221/.290/.355 slash line played by far the most games out there, 72. Leury Garcia’s trip around the outfield included 45 games in right. Jay played 33 out there, Charlie Tilson played 30 and Palka played 23.

And so at season’s end, it was unsurprising to see some horrific numbers from the position: a .220/.277/.288 slash line, numbers that ranked 23rd, 29th and 30th, respectively, among baseball’s 30 teams.

As bad as that was, though, the even more concerning developments for the long-term fortunes of the team took place at the minor league level. The White Sox future in right field was always less certain than elsewhere on the field, but until this season that was because of the sheer volume of possibilities to emerge from a promising second tier of prospects.

Nearly all those outfield prospects — save Luis Robert, of course, who’s ticketed for center field — fell victim to an organization-wide rash of injuries and under-performance, leaving few promising options left standing:

— Luis Basabe broke his hamate bone in spring training and slashed .246/.324/.336 at Double-A Birmingham.

— Blake Rutherford slashed .265/.319/.365 at Birmingham, big dips in all three averages from his strong 2018 campaign at Class A Winston-Salem.

— Micker Adolfo had Tommy John surgery in 2018, only to have another season-ending surgery in 2019, this one arthroscopic surgery on his elbow.

— Luis Gonzalez went from a batting average north of .300, an on-base percentage north of .360 and a slugging percentage around .500 in 2018 to a .247/.316/.359 line at Birmingham in 2019.

The only one to emerge relatively unscathed was Steele Walker, who slashed .284/.361/.451 with 36 doubles in 120 games split between Class A squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. But success in A-ball won’t put Walker on a track to help the big league team anytime soon, leaving the cupboard relatively bare in right field for the time being.

What will happen this offseason

So it’s no shock that Rick Hahn has right field as one of the biggest items on his lengthy offseason to-do list.

The White Sox will almost certainly have an outside addition starting in right field when the 2020 season begins. The question now is just who it will be.

As that sampling of the fortunes of the second-tier prospects in the organization illustrates, it might be difficult for the White Sox to pull off a trade for a truly impact player at any position this winter, right field included. That leaves free agency as a more realistic option, and there are definitely some interesting names set to be a part of that market.

Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Marcell Ozuna make up kind of a “big three” in that department. All three would be big-time adds to the middle of the White Sox lineup. Castellanos was obviously excellent with the Cubs in the second half of the season after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers, with whom he made a habit of crushing White Sox pitching. Puig’s numbers were also good following his intra-state trade to the Cleveland Indians, slashing .297/.377/.423 in 49 games there. Ozuna had a down year by his standards, but his excellent performance in the NLDS is part of the reason the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing October baseball.

All three of those players have another thing in common besides their pending free agency, and that’s their right-handedness. The White Sox lineup of the present and future is almost exclusively right-handed, meaning Hahn might take the opportunity this winter to balance that out a bit by adding a left-handed bat. He talked about it at his end-of-season press conference, expressing a desire to do so while also saying getting good players regardless of where they stand at home plate is a bigger priority.

“Ideally, you'd like to balance that out and that would require adding some left-handed power,” Hahn said. “We don't want to get too hung up strictly on handedness in the end and sign an inferior, say, left-handed hitter when a better right-handed hitter is available and fits. But it's a consideration, and in an ideal world we would balance it out.”

If Hahn sees the hole in right field as his best opportunity to add that left-handed hitting, the best free-agent options available who fit such a description are Kole Calhoun, who hit 33 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels this season, and Corey Dickerson, who slugged .565 splitting time between the two Pennsylvania teams. Neither player really revs the engines like Castellanos, Puig or Ozuna would, but that shouldn’t override their potential usefulness. Either would probably look like a pretty solid addition if Hahn were to fill the hole at designated hitter with a star like J.D. Martinez.

And then there’s the trade market, which could also bear fruit if Hahn’s able to cobble together an attractive package. That list of candidates is a mile long, and we went through a number of possibilities on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast.

The bottom line is that this offseason will almost surely feature the White Sox acquiring a brand-new everyday right fielder.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

It’s hard to figure out what to expect next season before we know who the White Sox right fielder will be. You’d have to expect significant offensive improvement at the position as a whole simply because there’s nowhere to go but up.

If Hahn makes a splash in right by adding someone on the Castellanos/Puig/Ozuna level, even if it’s not one of those three guys, that would figure to be a longer-term solution. But a shorter-term fix is possible, too, with an eye kept on the minors to see who among that list of prospects could have an entirely plausible bounce-back campaign that thrusts their name back into those long-term projections.

In other words, the future in right field remains the mystery it’s been all along.

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