Tuesday, April 4, 2017

White Sox Manager Survey: And a Ceviche Chef Will Lead Them

And a Ceviche Chef Will Lead Them: Renteria's short managerial
track record holds immense promise for the South Side.

I've been dragging my heels about getting this Manager Survey series started, but with the season kicking off today in remarkable fashion—a 6-3 pasting in nanook weather—well, perhaps it's time for a bit o' sunshine.

When Rick Renteria was the instantaneous hire to follow Robin Ventura, I shook my head. Under Ventura, the White Sox had suffered years of mediocrity and malaise under a manager whose personality made Jerry Manuel look like Ozzie Guillen.

Yet the same bizarre rationalizing used to hire Robin (among other things, then-GM Ken Williams mused that Ventura could have been a great military general) seemed to be repeating itself (GM Rick Hahn noted with unnerving confidence that had the White Sox not snapped up Renteria, another team would have hired him away. Yes, the bench coach. Of a 78-win team).

There was no harm in talking to a few candidates. After all, Guillen crashed Williams' 2004 managerial search at the last minute, and the feistmeister's hung-over bravado convinced Ken to switch his hire from the dulcet tones of Cito Gaston to all-brass, no-bass Ozzie. For all the criticism levied on Guillen—and 2011's charges are beyond reproach—Ozzie ended his tenure with the seventh-best winning percentage in White Sox history, and as the sixth-best manager overall (more on that in a minute).

But after engaging in a pretty exhaustive investigation of every managerial performance in White Sox history and slotting in (sample size alert!) Renteria's one year in the big chair (2014, with the Chicago Cubs), I'm a lot more comfortable.


Because in Renteria's one season managing the Cubs, before being jettisoned in rather ungainly fashion once everybody's favorite quirky badass grandpa, Joe Maddon, became available, Renteria tore it up.

Sorry, I know Cubs GM Theo Epstein is a genius and he poops inconceivably delicious Skittles, but his decision to can Renteria was 100% optics, 0% methodology. Yeah, yeah, he'll point to a manila folder bursting with dot matrix research dating back to his junior high years to support Maddon as a better choice than Renteria, but, nope. 

(Maddon is basically a wash as a manager, costing his team 10.69 wins over the course of his 13-season, 1,833-game career. Bizarrely, in his 2015 season with the Cubs, Maddon had his best season as a manager, with a 7.5 WAR identical to that of Renteria in 2014. Must've been something in the water.)

Hell, after Renteria's food truck schtick stretched all winter, I'm not even convinced Maddon brings a higher "crazy uncle" factor to the table than his South Side counterpart. 

How do I know Renteria projects to be a terrific manager? Because it's nearly impossible to manage better than Renteria did in 2014. Yup, those baby Cubbies who grew up to become World Series champeens won just 79 games—but by all accounts, they were lucky to crack 70. 

Here's how great Renteria's season on the North Side was: By my measure of managerial WAR (jesus, I said more on that in a minute!), Renteria logged a 7.5 WAR helming the Cubs in 2014.

Want some perspective? You got it, bub.

Great 5th: Only three White Sox managers, over four total seasons, have logged better than a 7.5 WAR.

Predecessorily Speaking: Ventura cost the White Sox about two wins per year (-1.98 WAR) during his tenure. To give you an indication of how bad White Sox managers have been over time, that kind of career mark places Ventura in the top half—18 of 31—of White Sox managers.

Context, Baby: OK, so White Sox managers have generally sucked. But in my admittedly random survey of mangers in history (small sample size, ranging from a "Hall-of-Famer" like Bobby Cox to a, er, really good hitter like Ted Williams) finds just eight better seasons out of 187 I've studied so far.

Now, do these stats, particularly given Renteria's small sample size, mean anything? Dunno. But White Sox fans are being asked to accept Cody Asche as a major league designated hitter, so perhaps a pinch of slack should be offered here.

And now, for the fine print...

The Methodology
I'm going to keep my explanation basic. 

I prefer to use something I'll call team WAR, which adds replacement WAR (~48 wins) to the sum total of player WAR, and subtract that from actual wins.

In Renteria's 2014, replacement WAR + team WAR added up to almost 72 wins. Subtract that from 79 actual wins, and Renteria's WAR is 7.072.

That's one half.

As a bit of a control to the above method, I do the same thing, but with the team's Pythagorean (generated by run differential) wins and subtracting them from its actual wins. Pythagorean WAR is less nuanced than the team WAR method, but again, I'm applying it as something of a control.

In 2014, the Cubs had 71 Pythagorean wins, so the team's win total under Rick, 79, gives him 8.0 WAR in my book.

So in combining both methods, I get a 7.5 WAR (actually 7.536) for Rick in 2014.

Renteria's 2014 is rare. Pythagorean WAR is almost always a more modest figure than the team WAR method.

Yeah, before you say it, I understand that manager WAR can be credited 100% to dumb luck. So if you choose to call this "lucky WAR" for managers, fine, go ahead a be a jerk about it.

I happen to believe a manager has a ton to do with performance on the field. Yes, he fills out the lineup and chooses his pitchers. But he's also creating a clubhouse culture, supporting his players, sensing when to give a guy a day off, juggling the batting order. And, for sure, whipping up some tasty queso.

A manager can benefit from trades or call-ups, health, weather, and hell, even a lack of travel delays. So you could term Managerial WAR something like "off-field WAR" instead, and spread the credit around. 

But that's not my style. I'm crediting or debiting the manager, period.

Hahn may have been right in insisting he'd unlock greatness in Renteria. The new White Sox skipper may truly be a keeper.

Yeah, it's just one year to work off of, but lighten up, man. It's a bleak season ahead.

A Note About the Bleak Season Ahead
Yes, I plan to write more White Sox Managerial WAR articles, to discuss the best managers in White Sox history, who's had the best individual seasons managing the White Sox (indisputable, it's the same guy, in successive years!), and who's the worst manager in White Sox history (shockingly, it's not Terry Bevington). I'll get to it, someday, some way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

So, You Don't Like the Chris Sale Trade?

Collector's Corner: There's a new reason to snap up a Chris Sale pajama set.

Well, OK, neither do I.

The Chicago White Sox traipse through season after season, a big-city club in small-market clothing. Under owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the team made a big splash in stealing Carlton Fisk from the Boston Red Sox 35 years ago and "broke the bank" to sign Jim Essian, Ron LeFlore, and Greg Luzinski to boot. Short of acting on a bizarre tip by Frank Thomas (!) to ink Albert Belle after Reinsdorf had hawked MLB execs into abandoning the 1994 season and the ill-fated "All-In" 2012 White Sox, that 1981 signing flurry represents one of the bigger bait-and-switches in Chicago baseball history.

But that's the hand dealt by ownership. No one is going to wave a magic wand and pretend the White Sox will up payroll by a third or buy up so much international talent that even the Los Angeles Dodgers or Red Sox cry foul. This is a team that scrimps its way into an infamously tone-deaf new ballpark naming rights deal, then ends up making little or no money from that deal.

The White Sox must do more, with less. That means fielding a high-priced team at the major league level at the expense of the minors (i.e. the All-In Ken Williams route), or fattening up the minors at the expense of the big club. Not both. You'd need dumber luck than Donald Trump to pull that off. Nothing to bet on here.

Yes, t fact that White Sox management hasn't proven adept at building a consistent winner over the last decade via either route is uninspiring by definition: How can we trust these clowns with a rebuild if they put us in this position to begin with? Yeah, yeah, I get it. But again, that's the hand dealt. Reinsdorf is loyal. Deal with it.

So the hue and whine over the Chris Sale trade to Boston for Yoan Moncada, Michael "Goldilocks" Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Ruiz is much ado about shredding. The Rick Hahn-Williams brain trust played the situation masterfully, period.

No. 1, and it's No. 1 because it CANNOT be overstated: Sale was on borrowed time on the South Side. And that's true not because he's one dugout-thrashing or uniform-burning or pickup-truck tumbling away from ending his career injured or arrested for upper management assault—although Sale going full Rodman/Rondo was always a remote possibility.

Truthfully, Sale's time was limited with the White Sox because three years from now, when Sale is bandied about as the free agent gem of the class and projected to destroy record contracts issued Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Masahiro Tanaka, whichever your flavor, the club will be twiddling thumbs, earmarking its compensation pick, and contemplating bringing back James Shields, John Danks, or Edwin Jackson on a fifth-starter flier.

What they WON'T be doing is preparing an offer to retain Sale, because Chris Sale is going to GET PAID in 2019.

From the moment he signed his "yes, I attack the plate like a Condor and everyone and their aunts have told me my shoulder/elbow/wrist/brain is going to disintegrate and jeezopete even my own club wants me to be a closer" financial comfort contract in 2013, Sale has had to hear about being the "greatest value" and "most underpaid player" in baseball.

Pro tip: Constantly hearing about being a "great value" or "underpaid" does not breed contentment or pride in professional athletes. See: Pippen, Scottie.

So in 2019, Sale is GONE. New York, L.A., Boston, Texas, Miami in one of their once-a-decade cash vomits, somebody is going to offer Sale stupid money. What's stupid money in 2019, $30 million, $40 million per year? Reinsdorf will choke on elotes before signing away that kind of cash, and that would happen even if he's re-signing three-time Cy Young Award winner Chris Sale or World Series Complete Game 7-winner Chris Sale, rather than his current incarnation, .500 pitcher and K machine Chris Sale.

Presuming the White Sox don't want to lose Sale for a first-round pick (or whatever the new CBA has reduced free agency penalties to), a move had to be made. Arguably, the White Sox dealt him at peak value—three years for the acquiring club to justify the deal, track record of solid health meaning less likelihood of complete shoulder disintegration, and still that undeniable "greatest value" moniker.

The White Sox, on the other hand, are trading a club 18 WAR over the next three years at a comically low pay rate, and have a right to demand a premium for it.

That's what they did in this trade with the Red Sox. It's truly a win-win.

The Red Sox, to be honest, have the greater risk. They get three prime years of Sale, then have to fight like hell to keep him at just the time at least one of the plum prospects dealt to acquire him is blossoming for the White Sox.

They have to feel a touch nervous that Sale can withstand the pressure of Boston. Virtually unprovoked, Sale shredded jerseys and defended clubhouse teens in bizarre outbursts on the South Side. What in the hell happens when a tool like Dan Shaughnessy gets a little Mariotty with Sale regarding, I dunno, his Florida upbringing, tats, what-me-worry 'tude, or, heaven forbid, his performance on the mound?

The White Sox were in the catbird seat, and they upped that cushion with a crafty, dastardly, hang-out-to-dry of nemesis GM Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals. The Nats hit the pillow last night thinking a heist of Sale for Schilling-or-Ruffcorn prodigy Lucas Giolito and low-minors star Victor Robles was going to get Sale to the Capital.

Nope. I've said it all along, there is major beef between Chicago and Washington stemming from Rizzo's rash turnabout on a deal agreed to in 2010, acquiring Edwin Jackson and pieces from the White Sox for the disaster awaiting that was Adam Dunn. Williams was furious then, and what makes you think a lifelong Oakland Raiders fan lets beef drop softly?

The swiftness with which things moved today proved a frame-up to a spectacular degree: The White Sox woke up and before even scraping the sleep from their eyes, were like, Nationals who? and commenced dialing up Boston, Sale's long-rumored destination and Hahn's most desired trade partner from the get-go. Rizzo was still at the buffet line, crunching out crumbs in lockstep to the SportsCenter crawl, when suddenly he had to drop the danish and start texting WTF! to all his junior lieutenants. For KW, revenge is a dish served in absentia, at Winter Meetings, six years gone.

And, you know, the White Sox didn't get Gaines Burgers by settling on Boston as a destination for Sale. They pocketed arguably the two top prospects in the rich Red Sox system, Moncada and Kopech.

Moncada is the top prospect (at worst, top-10) in all of baseball and Baseball America's reigning Minor League Player of the Year. He's a switch-hitting masher with Robinson Cano as a probable—not possible, probable—comp. And if he turns out to be more Ray Durham than Robbie Cano, uh, that'll be OK.

Kopech is ballyhooed as a guy who has hit an improbable 105 mph on the radar gun—apparently that is miles, not kilometers. But he's not a power arm, he's a pitcher. He changes speeds and boasts four strong pitches. Yeah, he's a head case and he's rocking the WWE locks, but figuring out what's rolling around between Kopech's ears is why the White Sox pay Dr. Don Cooper those manager's bucks, yeah?

The toss-ins ain't shabby, either. Foremost is Basabe, a switch-hitting center fielder with five-tool potential. The 20-year-old has been playing baseball for only five years, so his above-average defense and baserunning are products of pure, raw ability. At six-foot, 160, he'll fill out that frame and his already surprising power could see an uptick.

[Side note: Naming twins Luis Alexander Basabe and Luis Alejandro Basabe (the new White Sox has a brother on the Arizona Diamondbacks)—essentially the same name en español y inglés—is pure Foremanian awesomeness.]

Diaz is the fourth piece, a hulking fireballer tabbed for short relief. It's no stretch to peg him in the same place upon acquisition as Frankie Montas was just three years ago when Hahn nabbed Montas from Boston. Reading Diaz's profile: big promise, massive arm, control issues, weak slider, I smell more than a touch of Matt Thornton. Dr. Coop did all right with Matty Ice, you'll recall.

Did a spot of Kool Aid power me through this take on the trade? Hell yeah. But listen, we know the very best Sale will provide Boston, and it's massive—as many as two dozen extra wins over three seasons, for a salary of sawdust.

But the White Sox—by their own hand, a stance I will neither understand nor agree with, ever—are a small-market team playing with the big boys. Half-assing as a major market club wasn't working, due both to poor scouting of major league talent and an unwillingness to get all Kershaw or Greinke or Pujols on a player.

"The best that they could do" is not exactly an inspiring season slogan for the White Sox. But it also beats getting caught with their pants down, and the club has suffered too much of that over the past decade.

So now, what bright bulb out there is putting a Moncada 1976 Throwback up on eBay?