White Sox

Are you ready for Star Time on the South Side? Just how good can Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson be?

Are you ready for Star Time on the South Side? Just how good can Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson be?

Is it time to get ready for Star Time on the South Side?

No, James Brown isn't walking through the gates at 35th and Shields. But the White Sox duo currently tearing the cover off the ball is looking like a pair of future stars right now, big news for a franchise and a fan base who missed out on the opportunity to add one of the game's best young players over the winter.

Fans are still stinging from the result of the Manny Machado sweepstakes, the four-time All Star passing on the opportunity to jolt the White Sox rebuild in favor of serving a similar purpose for an up-and-coming group of San Diego Padres. While no one's saying that 16 good games this spring have suddenly turned two White Sox infielders into players of Machado's annually impressive caliber, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada are racking up big hits and memorable moments not even three weeks into this campaign.

Their performance is sparking the kind of big thinking a front office trying to build a future contender has been dreaming of for years now. Are these the stars the South Side has been craving? Just how good can these guys be?

"Good," designated hitter Yonder Alonso said, with a emphatic tone that made it seem like "good" was perhaps putting it mildly.

"They've started off really well," manager Rick Renteria said after Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Kansas City Royals. "I think they're more and more comfortable in their own skin. I know it's just the beginning of the season, but those are signs of the possibilities of these guys being able to be consistent. And that's all we're looking for, for them to give themselves a chance to use the skills that they have. To this point, they're showing those signs."

One reporter asked Renteria before the game if a player would ever hit .400 in a season again. The reference to Ted Williams' famous feat was clearly in regard to Anderson, who entered Tuesday's game with a .453 batting average, the best in baseball. He went hitless Tuesday night but still boasts a .421 average that as of this writing ranked behind Cody Bellinger but ahead of everyone else in the game.

No one, probably not even the uber-confident Anderson, is expecting that number to stay above .400 all the way through the end of September. But his emergence in the season's opening month has been eye-popping. He did it all in Monday night's win, scoring a run thanks to good base running, making an artful tag on a would-be base stealer and doubling ahead of Welington Castillo's game-winning home run. He's being interviewed multiple times a day, his confident talk during and since the offseason making him a focal point and a leader in that clubhouse.

"Everybody knows what kind of player he is," Castillo said Tuesday. "He's a talented guy, a talented player. And he's a guy that brings so much energy to the team inside the clubhouse and outside on the field. That's a guy that goes out there and competes. And every time he's on base, we know what we can do and what he can do running the bases, and every time he's on base we have a chance to score a run. We need him to stay hot."

Tuesday night, it was Moncada's turn. He smacked a pair of home runs on a night where the ball was flying out of The Rate, the first multi-homer game of his major league career.

While his hot start from the season's opening days has stabilized a bit, he's still the owner of a tremendous .333 batting average and remains a different-looking hitter than the guy who struck out 217 times during a disappointing 2018 campaign. He's got five home runs on the season, good for the team lead. Same goes for his 16 RBIs. And Moncada, who committed 21 errors at second base last season, is looking like a changed man in the field, as well, at his new position at the hot corner. He started a slick double play Tuesday night that turned a potentially dangerous inning for Reynaldo Lopez into a quelled threat that allowed the until-this-point struggling starter to last six innings with just one run allowed.

"Everything," Alonso responded when asked what's different about Moncada this season. "Just a guy who's focused, a guy who comes in here with a mission, a guy who comes in here with a purpose. It's fun to watch."

"I worked a lot during the offseason and during spring training," Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. "It feels good. When you work hard, you are able to see these results and have success. ... Last year was last year. I passed through many different things. It’s in the past. I learned from them. I learned from all the experiences I had last year. Now I’m just enjoying this moment and just enjoying this season and doing my best."

It's definitely too early to suggest that Anderson and Moncada have made everyone on the South Side forget about Machado. The perennial MVP candidate would have done quite a lot for the ongoing rebuilding effort, including bringing it some legitimacy by having a big name from outside the organization buy in and show faith in what Rick Hahn has brewing. As good as Anderson and Moncada play this season, they can't provide that aspect, a part of this rebuilding effort for some time now. That part will have to wait until another round of free agency or a big outside acquisition via trade.

But Anderson and Moncada can legitimize things in their own way. Their continued success can be the payoff for the patience required of everyone involved in the organization during this process. Hahn has said numerous times that it's impossible to construct a World Series champion with solely homegrown players. But if the biggest stars on that team can be homegrown, well that'd be pretty nice. Are Anderson and Moncada those stars? Are we watching them develop from question marks to exclamation points before our eyes?

The rest of this season, the rest of seasons after this one hold those answers. But right now, fans and the front office can dream big about what these two can become. Because at least for the time being, they're showing potential of bringing Star Time to the South Side.

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Buckle up, White Sox, here come the best two teams in baseball


Buckle up, White Sox, here come the best two teams in baseball

Things are about to get tougher for the White Sox. Much tougher.

The upcoming road trip features seven straight games against first-place teams, the Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins. Those two teams are, by their winning percentages as of this writing, the two best teams in baseball.

The much-bemoaned makeup of this season’s American League means seeing top-shelf competition is a rarity for any team playing outside the AL East. The Astros are a mile ahead of the rest of the AL West. The Twins have appeared, so far, as the only team capable of winning an aggressively weak AL Central. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays — three teams the White Sox have already seen one time apiece — will battle it out for the AL East crown all season long, but let’s be honest, they all seem safe bets to make the postseason.

The fact that the five teams likely to make the playoffs have already put themselves ahead of the competition and it’s not even Memorial Day is its own discussion topic as the rebuilding trend sweeps through the Junior Circuit. But for the 2019 edition of the Chicago White Sox, specifically, it just means that this week is not likely to be a good one.

In the 10 games they played against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox, the White Sox went 3-7. They were pasted by the Rays and Red Sox, who combined to outscore them 58-18 in seven games on the South Side, and they took two of three from the Yankees in The Bronx.

Of course, any expectations can be dashed in a small portion of a 162-game season. Cast your mind back to 2017, when the White Sox swept a three-game series from the soon-to-be world-champion Astros. The South Siders finished with 95 losses that season, but for three games in August, they had the champs’ number.

Will this week go similarly? Maybe. But it doesn’t seem likely.

The Astros are on fire, or at least they were before the Red Sox snapped their 10-game winning streak Sunday. That doesn’t change the fact that the Astros boast a plus-92 run differential that counts as the best in the game. Or their 3.43 team ERA (second in the AL). Or their .279 team batting average and jaw-dropping .353 team on-base percentage, both marks the best in baseball.

The Twins, the division rivals the White Sox will see for the first time in 2019 beginning Friday, aren’t far behind. That offense has been sensational, too, through the season’s first two months, owning baseball’s second best run differential (plus-77) and its second best team batting average (.270). No team in either league has hit more homers than the Twins, who have launched 87 of them in 45 games.

The White Sox, meanwhile, have a fragile, injury-affected starting rotation — after Sunday’s game, manager Rick Renteria did not share who’s starting Monday’s game — and a pitching staff with a 5.09 ERA that’s given up 68 homers this season. Sunday, Reynaldo Lopez made it through six innings of one-run ball, only for the White Sox bullpen to cough up a pair of two-run homers to the Toronto Blue Jays (one of baseball’s worst offenses) in the game’s final two innings. It was the sixth time this season the White Sox bullpen has allowed multiple home runs in a single game.

“Gulp” might be an appropriate reaction to hearing the White Sox have to go up against the Houston and Minnesota offenses seven times in the next seven days.

This isn’t to say the White Sox are merely a punching bag for these two giants of the American League right now. Certainly most of the teams the Astros and Twins have faced have suffered less than desirable fates. But the gaps between the rebuilding White Sox and this pair of contenders are not small.

The White Sox are trying to accomplish the same thing the Astros did, spending several frustrating years being patient during a rebuilding process only to come out the other side a perennial contender and World Series champion. These same Astros who are now bullying the rest of the AL lost a total of 416 games in the four seasons prior to their first playoff season in a decade in 2015. By the end of the 2017 campaign, they were world champions. That’s the template the White Sox are trying to follow.

But the White Sox aren’t to the mountaintop yet, and that might end up being painfully clear by the end of the upcoming road trip. It doesn’t mean their climb won’t get them to that same point, but don’t try to compare the 2019 White Sox to the 2019 Astros this week. That’s not the comparison that counts.

The Twins are a little different, having revamped their lineup over the offseason with free-agent acquisitions who have paid huge dividends. C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz (currently on the IL) have combined for 31 homers in 45 games. But homegrown guys like Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler are all playing well, too. That quintet has accounted for 43 of the Twins’ 87 homers this season. That’s a strong core of homegrown young hitters, the kind of thing the White Sox hope to have real soon, the kind of thing that’s taking shape with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson off to good starts and Eloy Jimenez at the major league level (and likely to come off the injured list Monday).

The White Sox have obviously had their positives this season, and they’re clearly in a better place now than they were at this point last year (a 21-24 record after Sunday’s game compared to 14-31 through the first 45 games of 2018). But their rebuilding process hasn’t yet reached the point where they’re going to be trading blows with the two best teams in baseball.

There could be some surprises on this road trip. But they don’t figure to be easy to come by. Buckle up, here come the two best teams in baseball.

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The key to Lucas Giolito's success

The key to Lucas Giolito's success

Lucas Giolito has looked like a different pitcher this season, particularly over his last five starts, where he has posted a miniscule 1.67 ERA in 27 innings, striking out 32 and walking only 9. But even if you take his entire 2019 body of work into account, he has been so much better through eight starts than he was in 2018.

Of 109 pitchers who entered Sunday with at least 40 innings pitched, 24 of them are averaging 10 or more strikeouts per 9 innings, and Giolito is one of them, at 10.47. Giolito finished 2018 with 6.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, which is far from ideal. Going by strikeout percentage, he’s way up from 16.1 percent to 28.6 percent.

Comparing his first eight starts of the season in 2018 and 2019, the difference is staggering.

Lucas Giolito – first eight starts of season

  2018 2019
ERA 6.91 3.35
IP 41.2 43
Hits 37 32
K/BB 23/32 50/18
HR 4 3

Maybe the ERA stands out most to you, but to me, the strikeouts are much more critical.

But why? How is he doing it? The answer certainly seems to be the changeup.

Lucas Giolito first seven starts of 2018 and 2019.

Strikeouts by pitch type (pitch type data from Statcast)

  2018 2019
4-seam fastball 11 17
Curve 2 1
Slider 8 12

Giolito over his first seven starts of 2019 recorded 16 strikeouts on his changeup, whereas he didn’t record any strikeouts through seven starts last season. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you have watched him work this season. That pitch is nasty and hopefully it continues to be a weapon going forward.


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