White Sox

Why Sammy Sosa was second to Mark McGwire AND Albert Belle in 1998

Why Sammy Sosa was second to Mark McGwire AND Albert Belle in 1998

When you think about Chicago baseball in 1998, the first thing you think of is likely to be Sammy Sosa and the great home run chase with Mark McGwire. Sosa ended up four home runs behind Big Mac’s 70, but he took home the NL MVP award and exploded into the national spotlight. Sosa crushed the single-season Cubs home run record by 10, and baseball fans across the country were imitating his trademark home run hop and kiss salute.

And Sosa wasn’t even the best Chicago outfielder in 1998.

On November 20, 1996, the White Sox stunned the baseball world by signing Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract. After becoming the first player in MLB history to hit 50 doubles and 50 home runs in a season with the Indians in 1995, Belle followed it up with another monster campaign with 48 home runs and 148 RBI in 1996. When he dipped to .274 with “only” 30 home runs and 116 RBI in his first season with the White Sox in 1997, he was seen as a bit of a disappointment. So in the backdrop of the Sosa and McGwire (and Ken Griffey Jr.) home run extravaganza of 1998, Albert Belle flew under the radar. And he quietly had a historic season.
Better than Sosa, even, despite Sammy’s considerable fanfare.

Through May, Sosa was red hot; Belle was on pace to duplicate his 1997 season.

                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    54          .264       .348       .508       10          40
Sosa                    52          .343       .415       .583       13          39
In June, Sosa had a month for the ages – at least as home runs are concerned. His batting average and on-base percentage are probably less than you might remember.

                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    28          .295       .360       .518       7            23
Sosa                    27          .298       .331       .842       20          40
But make no mistake about it, that was an amazing June for Sammy. At the All-Star break, this is where they stood:

                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    87          .278       .354       .517       18          66
Sosa                    83          .324       .384       .667       33          81
Belle didn’t even make the All-Star team! But then he went on a second half tear unlike anything we’ve seen since.

                             Games  BA         OBP       SLG        HR         RBI
Belle                    76          .387       .451       .816       31          86
Sosa                    76          .290       .369       .626       33          77
After the 1998 All-Star break, only Belle (31), Sosa (33) and McGwire (33) hit at least 30 home runs. Belle’s 86 RBI were seven more than anyone else (Jeff Kent was next with 79). Belle was tied with Derek Jeter for the major league lead with 109 hits. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Belle’s .387 batting average was second only to Larry Walker (.402). His .451 on-base percentage was fifth in the Majors. His .816 slugging percentage was by far the best; Mark McGwire was the only other player over .700 (.734).
And with that white hot finish to 1998, here’s how Belle stacked up with Sosa at season’s end:

              Games   BA         OBP       SLG        OPS       Runs     Hits       2B   HR    RBI    BB    K
Belle     163        .328       .399       .655       1.055    113        200        48    49    152    81    84
Sosa     159        .308       .377       .647       1.024    134        198        20    66    158    73    171       

Belle took the edge in all three slashline percentages. He reached 200 hits – he’s the only White Sox player with 200 hits in a season since Nellie Fox in 1954. He set White Sox single season records in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases and extra-base hits. All five records still stand. He trails Sosa in runs and RBI, as well as home runs. In fact, it was Belle’s second season with 48+ doubles and 48+ home runs. At the time Belle had the only two such seasons in MLB history. Since then, only Todd Helton (2001) has done it. Belle walked eight more times, and struck out EIGHTY SEVEN fewer times.
Belle also has an edge in advanced metrics

                             OPS+     wRC+    wOBA   WAR (baseball-reference)           WAR (fangraphs)
Belle                    172        165        .437       7.1                                                    7.1
Sosa                    160        159        .425       6.5                                                    7.1
Both OPS+ and wRC+ are metrics which measure total offensive value, with 100 being league average and any point over or below 100 representing one percent over or below league average. So according to OPS+, Belle was 72% above league average and Sosa was 60% above league average. These measures also take into effect the ballparks in which they played, so if you wanted to argue that New Comiskey Park was a better hitter park, and thus Belle had an advantage, OPS+ and wRC+ both account for that. As far as wins above replacement is concerned, Belle has a slight edge in the baseball-reference version and they’re even according to fangraphs.

Better batting average. Better on-base percentage. Better slugging percentage. More walks. Half the strikeouts. While Albert Belle may not have hit as many home runs as Sammy Sosa in 1998, he was a better hitter. And the numbers back it up.

RELATED: Albert Belle: 'I had a better year' than Sammy Sosa during 1998 season

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Nick Madrigal's four-hit day shows what White Sox newest core member can do

Nick Madrigal's four-hit day shows what White Sox newest core member can do

We knew we'd see a bunch of base hits off the bat of Nick Madrigal.

We didn't think we'd see them all in one day.

After going hitless in his first two games as a big leaguer, Madrigal ended his 0-for-8 start to his major league career with a four-hit game in Sunday's White Sox win over the Royals.

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"I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, I’m going to be honest with you," Madrigal said after the game. "It’s something I was thinking about, and it’s a huge of sigh of relief one I got the first one."

He got the first four in four consecutive trips to the plate Sunday, the second of back-to-back offensive eruptions the White Sox capable lineup unleashed on Royals pitching this weekend. A 1-4 start has yielded to a four-game winning streak for the South Siders, a team that looks more complete with Madrigal in the lineup.

Pegged as the second baseman of the future since he was drafted two summers ago, he's now the second baseman of the present, with manager Rick Renteria declaring, regular days of rest aside, that you'll see Madrigal in his lineup every day moving forward. You wouldn't expect anything less for the newest member of the White Sox impressive young core.

Folks have been anticipating the arrival of Madrigal's different kind of hitting style for a while now, simultaneously wondering if a high-contact, singles-hitting guy can thrive in modern baseball, which is so often defined by patience and power.

Madrigal's just three games into his career, so the answer to that question will have to wait, even though it's already looking like his approach is a valuable addition to a potent White Sox lineup. But Sunday, he delivered as advertised. He knocked out four singles, going the other way to right field for his first big league hit and bouncing one up the middle for No. 2.

If you were playing Madrigal bingo, you would've marked off spots on your card.

You would have, too, after a display of his much touted high baseball IQ. A game that finished 9-2 was still a low-scoring tie in the seventh inning, and it was Madrigal who broke the 2-all deadlock. He led off the inning with a single and went from first to third when Luis Robert followed with a base hit. It was a heads-up play that allowed him to score when José Abreu grounded a ball through the infield two batters later.

Considering the White Sox ended up hanging a seven spot on the scoreboard that inning, it's not like Madrigal's base-running play made the difference in the ballgame. But it certainly showed off what the team's new everyday second baseman is capable of.

"His approach has been making adjustments to everything," Renteria said. "I think he was a little calmer, and after the first hit he was even much more relaxed. When you get to the big leagues, you want to get that one out of the way, and everyone was extremely ecstatic for him. It loosened him up."

RELATED: White Sox prospect Nick Madrigal arrives, was 'a little mad' missing opener

It's perfectly reasonable to suggest that Madrigal should've been doing this kind of thing at the major league level since Opening Day. Certainly he'd argue that.

"Once they told me (I wasn't going to be on the Opening Day roster), it was kind of hard to hear," Madrigal said. "Once I went down to Schaumburg, I stayed positive. I knew my time would come. ... I was hoping it would be soon and just a couple of days in. It was definitely tough to hear, to be honest with you."

But while the White Sox have talked about 2020 playoff expectations since January, the ultimate goal is to be a contender for as long as possible. While the supposed "developmental years" of this rebuilding project are over, that doesn't mean there aren't two guys in the White Sox lineup — at the top and bottom of it Saturday and Sunday, with Robert batting leadoff and Madrigal in the No. 9 spot — who can count their major league games without taking their shoes off.

In other words, there's still developing and growing and figuring things out to be done.

But it doesn't look like Robert is having much trouble adjusting to major league pitching, though, and Madrigal, now the owner of a four-hit game in just one weekend of big league action, might follow suit. If the new second baseman can strengthen the lineup even further — a lineup he said, by the way, hasn't even fully clicked yet, despite the 20 runs and 35 hits it amassed over the last two days in Kansas City — then those playoff expectations could become reality.

"That was one of the things they said once I went down," Madrigal said, "once I got here, they would be looking at me for a big role on the team."

He's here now. And he's already showing off what he's capable of doing.


Streaking White Sox turn slow start around: 'All these games are must-win'

Streaking White Sox turn slow start around: 'All these games are must-win'

Playoff mode, from Day 1.

Remember? That’s how the White Sox were approaching this most unusual, 60-game season, a two-month sprint to October where every game was said to mean so much. A fast start was critical. And so the players were going to treat every game like a playoff game.

Well, if the season was a best-of-seven playoff series, the White Sox would have been eliminated after five games.

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Thankfully for them, it isn’t, and after a 1-4 start that had plenty questioning whether this was really a team poised for a leap into contention mode, the White Sox have rattled off four straight wins — including a sweep-capping 9-2 thumping of the Royals on Sunday — and are above .500.

“The morale is way better,” starting pitcher Dylan Cease said after Sunday’s game. “We're back over .500 now. Nobody was panicked. We have enough vets on the team to calm everyone down. It definitely feels better to be on the positive side of .500.”

There’s limited opportunity for a team still learning how to win to evolve into a winner in this short season. But that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity at all, and the White Sox are growing nonetheless.

It might end up being proven that this recent surge was perhaps an anomaly caused by a weekend series against a team that lost 103 games last year. While 20 runs and 35 hits in back-to-back offensive eruptions sure looked like a completed puzzle showing what it was capable of, we’ll see what happens when that same lineup gets another taste of Indians pitching or has to go toe to toe with the Twins again.

But there’s been more change than just the competition.

“I think we're in a pretty good spot,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “I think the first two series, it was more of trying to feel each other out. Even though a lot of these guys have played together for a while now, we have a lot of young guys who haven't been in the big leagues for a while. It's almost like a brand new team, if you can think of it that way. I think we're getting a sense of what we can do and how we can help each other out in different situations.

“It's starting to learn how to make adjustments. Obviously Minnesota got on us early for two games, but we went right back at them. We ended up losing the first game, but we started making adjustments from then. With the Indians, same thing, ended up winning the last game and we kind of saw and started feeling exactly what we can do in certain situations so that we're not giving up outs.

“We're getting on base, we're making pitches. I feel like making adjustments from one series to another, from one game to another, is going to be the biggest thing.”

RELATED: With Luis Robert on fire and Nick Madrigal aboard, the White Sox future is now

Grandal was one of a couple new White Sox veterans who predicted during “Summer Camp” that the team’s youth could result in either a really good start to the campaign or a really bad one. Who knows how long a “start” lasts, numerically, in a 60-game season. If it’s nine games, then neither of those ends of the spectrum came true and instead the White Sox are right down the middle.

But since the start looked anything but fast midway through last week, the positives have started coming in in droves. This young lineup has looked particularly excellent, with the trio of Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada putting up big numbers. Jiménez has a .997 OPS, with Robert and Moncada following with marks of .979 and .890, respectively.

Then there’s Nick Madrigal, whose big league arrival alone had a positive effect, seemingly completing the puzzle at the big league level for a White Sox fanbase that’s been drawing up lineups of the future for so long. But he did more than just be in the lineup Sunday, putting together a four-hit day in just his third career game.

After shaky starting-pitching performances the first time through the rotation, not everything’s exactly fixed just yet. Reynaldo López is on the injured list, Gio González lasted just 3.2 innings in his first start for the team that drafted him 16 years ago, and Carlos Rodón hasn’t yet had the chance to bounce back from his first outing of the year. But Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease solved whatever was bothering them in their first starts of the season. Giolito responded with six shutout innings against the Indians, and Cease shone with two runs in six innings against the Royals on Sunday.

The small sample sizes and momentum-swinging stretches of this squeezed-down 2020 season could cause a whiplash of emotion and perception for the next two months. But for right now, things are looking up on the South Side.

“You can see, immediately, how much talent is on the roster, and to be out there with those guys, it’s a lot of fun,” Madrigal said. “I really don’t even think all of us have clicked at once yet. There have been glimpses of some guys getting hot, but I’m excited once everyone kind of clicks in the same game. There’s a lot to look forward to.”

As should come as no surprise, these pro athletes aren’t going to ride that same emotional roller coaster, at least not in their public comments. “Taking it one day at a time” is one of sports’ most used cliches — and for good reason, as it often seems to work, especially for teams that are really good to begin with.

But these White Sox are sticking to their guns that “one day at a time” means a whole lot more in 2020. Playoff mode isn’t going anywhere.

“We know all these games are must-win,” Cease said. “I think we're treating them like playoff games pretty much at this point.”