Chicago White Sox 2023 Season Preview
As far as I’m concerned, the biggest disappointment in baseball last season was the Chicago White Sox. Injuries took a huge toll on the position player group and the dugout was beyond toxic with Tony La Russa at the helm. Lineup leader Jose Abreu is gone, but there are a lot of redeeming qualities to the White Sox for this season and I think new skipper Pedro Grifol is a good fit for the team.
Abreu’s absence hurts, but I could argue that this is still the most talented team on paper in the Central Division. I spent most of last summer looking for the first time to buy in on the White Sox and ultimately did, just for them to lose the division by 11 games. There weren’t a lot of silver linings to last season, besides Dylan Cease reaching his potential, but this is one of the most fascinating teams to me for the upcoming season.
Public sentiment and projections seem to be a little low on the White Sox. Will they be able to alter the narrative after such a disappointing season?
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Chicago White Sox Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 8, click for updates)
World Series: +3500
AL Pennant: +1700
AL Central: +240
Win Total: 83.5 (100/-120)
Make Playoffs: Yes +125 / No -145
Chicago White Sox Offense
In thinking about the teams that could be helped out the most by the league’s ban on shifting, I don’t think the White Sox are at the top of the list for most people. But, they put a ton of balls in play because of their aversion to drawing walks. They also don’t strike out a lot as a very aggressive lineup that will swing early in the count.
They ranked 27th in Pull%, so it isn’t like they had a lot of hits taken away necessarily, and they also have a lot of right-handed bats and teams shift much more against left-handed hitters. However, that contact-heavy approach is an interesting storyline to follow. What separates the White Sox from a team like the Guardians, who also walks at a low rate and rarely strikes out, is that Cleveland has a lot of really good baserunners capable of stealing bags or getting extra bases on singles and doubles. Cleveland had more than double the steals and scored 12 more runs with 22 fewer home runs.
So, that’s what I’m curious about with the White Sox. They’re still not going to steal a ton of bases, but an uptick in power is very much a possibility. They also shied away from trying to generate power, which is how Abreu went from 30 homers to 15. Their hitting philosophy under Frank Menechino did not jive with what the big leagues had become. Menechino hit 36 homer runs over his seven MLB seasons and brought that mindset to his job.
This was a group that posted a 99 wRC+ with a really pedestrian .256/310/.387 slash. You have to hit for power if you don’t walk. This was a top-five team by batting average that ranked 18th in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The only other team to hit at least .250 to finish outside the top 12 in SLG was the Guardians.
The White Sox have a new hitting coach in Jose Castro, who was previously a hitting assistant with the Braves. The Braves were one of the first teams to explore the launch angle craze and have taken off as a power-hitting organization since. New assistant hitting coach Chris Johnson even said “We’re not up there trying to hit singles.” This is a dramatic change in philosophy and the players will have the opportunity to embrace analytics at a higher level.
Unleashing this type of offensive philosophy with more selective aggression and an emphasis on power has the potential to unlock dudes like Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez. Jimenez had an absurd 54.9% Hard Hit% with a 14.7% Barrel%, but he was limited to 327 games because of injury. This should help a guy like Andrew Vaughn, who had a 48.4% Hard Hit%, but only a 7.9% Barrel% because of a lowered launch angle. The same for Robert, who makes a good rate of violent contact, but hasn’t stayed healthy in his own right.
Chicago ranked eighth in Hard Hit%, even with all of the injuries to key position players, but 27th in average launch angle and 16th in Barrel%. It’s important to note that a “Barrel” is a batted ball that falls into a certain range of launch angle with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph and has an expected batting average of at least .500 and an expected slugging percentage of at least 1.500. Most doubles and home runs are barrels.
The White Sox made a lot of hard contact, yet finished 13th in doubles and 22nd in home runs. The cold weather in April and May hurt, especially with the really dead baseball early in the season, but a lot of the problems were ideological in nature. Those are gone now with a new coaching staff and a much better hitting philosophy. Chicago will probably strike out a bit more often, but the trade-off will come in the form of power.
The Braves hit 94 more home runs than the White Sox but struck out 3.9% more often. They also scored 103 more runs. That’s not to say that the White Sox can immediately replicate what the Braves did, but that’s the goal. Atlanta was second in Hard Hit% and first in Barrel%. In the light-hitting AL Central, the White Sox may take a big leap forward, provided the key contributors stay healthy.
That last part is the great unknown, but I really do think this offense has a chance to take a huge leap with a philosophy and a coaching staff that fits so much better.
Chicago White Sox Pitching
Pitching coach Ethan Katz was the one main holdover from the La Russa regime. The new emphasis on data and analytics on the hitting side has been more of the norm on the pitching side, but it sure seems like mixed messages were present on TLR’s watch. That gives me some hope moving forward with this season.
That being said, you can explain a lot of the offensive issues by pointing at injuries and a bad approach. On the pitching side, Lance Lynn was limited to 21 starts, but a lot of guys seemed to regress for one reason or another. It was Johnny Cueto who was actually something of a savior over his 158.1 innings worth of 2.4 fWAR pitching. He’s gone now, so it falls back on the usual suspects plus Mike Clevinger, who did not receive any discipline following the investigation by MLB for domestic abuse claims brought about by his girlfriend in January.
I probably would have gone out and signed Michael Wacha to add some depth, but the White Sox could still look at a few different free agent options or look internally with Jonathan Stiever and Jimmy Lambert. If nothing else, I do like the top four here and the promise of that group.
It should also be mentioned that Yasmani Grandal missed big chunks of last season with injury. He’s one of the game’s top pitch framers and a trusted veteran backstop for this staff. Backup Seby Zavala did an incredible job defensively, but he’s an awful hitter, despite the .404 BABIP that artificially propped up his numbers last season.
Cease was the unquestioned ace of this staff. From May 29-August 11, he made 14 starts and allowed 16 total runs. Only six of the runs were earned and he had 103 K over 82 innings and allowed just 50 hits. For those counting at home, that’s a 0.66 ERA over effectively half the season. As insane as that run is, the most impressive thing for me is that Cease lowered his Hard Hit% by more than 7% and shaved 3.7% off of his Barrel%. He always had the swing-and-miss stuff, but he sequenced and located better to stay off the barrel and stay away from hard contact.
Unfortunately, his improvements in those departments were counterfeited by what happened to Lucas Giolito, whose Hard Hit% ballooned to 39% to go along with a 2.5% drop in K% and a 1.5% spike in BB%. His BABIP against was .340, which is a big reason why he had a 4.90 ERA with a 4.06 FIP and a 3.66 xFIP. The projection systems are kind of split on Giolito, who had posted an ERA range of 3.41 to 3.53 from 2019-21 and a FIP range of 3.19 to 3.79. Katz was Giolito’s high school pitching coach and was instrumental in his turnaround from 2018 to 2019, so I’m ready to buy some Giolito stock at a discount.
Some of the same bad luck touched Lance Lynn, whose season got off to a late start because of a knee injury. He actually had the lowest BB% of his career, but also his highest HR/FB% since 2017 and lowest LOB% ever. Through it all, Lynn still turned in another sub-4.00 ERA because he was great in the second half. He allowed seven homers and a .303/.355/.480 slash in his first 36 innings coming back from injury, but locked down in the second half with a .222/.257/.374 slash against.
I have worries about Michael Kopech after reaching 119 innings for the first time since 2018. He also had a huge 11.5% BB% and an unsustainably low .223 BABIP to go with a 41.3% Hard Hit%. As mentioned, this White Sox rotation is depth-shy, as there aren’t a lot of good options beyond the top five. Now that Clevinger has been cleared, we can dig a little deeper into him. He missed all of 2021 and returned in 2022 with 114.1 below-average innings for the Padres with a 4.33 ERA and a 4.98 FIP. I do look favorably on guys that go from rehabbing in the offseason to preparing for the season and Clevinger was a thoroughly effective pitcher from 2017-19.
Evidence of how poorly the White Sox played defensively could be seen with several starters, but also with the bullpen. The White Sox had a 4.00 ERA, but a 3.58 FIP, as their 69.1% LOB% was a bottom-five mark. Liam Hendriks is out indefinitely while receiving treatment for Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, so the team’s best reliever is sidelined, but there are some really interesting arms here and Garrett Crochet should be back in the first half of the season after Tommy John surgery. I like this group without Hendriks and really like it with him.
Another thing that power can cover for is bad defense. The White Sox were a bad defensive team last season. They were -35 in defensive runs saved, -16 in Outs Above Average and the third-worst defense by FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Def metric, which does take catcher defense and framing heavily into account. The White Sox were really awful in the outfield, where Andrew Benintendi should help and now Vaughn can play first base instead of the OF, where he was -14 DRS. Elvis Andrus was also signed to play second base and he’s got a chance at being a plus defender there.
The White Sox were actually 27-16 in one-run games, which normally leads to a pretty good season. They actually finished with a negative run differential and overperformed against all the expected record metrics. Normally that would be a red flag for me, but not with the changes made over the offseason.
Player to Watch
SP Lucas Giolito: Giolito had some weird things in his profile last season to say the least. He had a 6.08 ERA with a .362 wOBA against at home and a 3.83 ERA with a .328 wOBA against on the road. Righties also crushed him with a .391 wOBA in 403 plate appearances, which was a huge departure from the .294 wOBA against in 2021 and the .306 wOBA against in 2019. He gave up a .372 BABIP to right-handed batters last year. As long as he's healthy, I feel like these issues are correctable, so I'm ready to buy some stock as I mentioned. Hopefully, I won't want to sell it at a loss early in the year.
Chicago White Sox Season Win Total Pick
I seem to like this White Sox team more than most, so I was a little surprised to see their win total hung as high as it was. PECOTA strongly dislikes the White Sox with a 79-83 record, but their projections have always heavily weighted defense. Also, it is important to note that PECOTA produces a range of win percentage outcomes and the reported record is the most common outcome. FanGraphs also has the White Sox with a losing record of 80-82.
One big difference this season is that the AL Central is a legitimate three-team race. Usually, you have one top dog and one contender, but the Twins, Guardians and White Sox all look legitimately good in their own ways. But, I think the White Sox have a higher ceiling than the Twins with a clean slate in the dugout and hopefully better health.
I typically wait until right before Opening Day to place any non-win total futures (to make sure teams are healthy) and I may find myself invested in the White Sox to win the World Series at +3500 or the best market price out there. They could very well win the Central and I really do believe their offense will make significant strides this season. They have little margin for error on the pitching side with injury, so I’m not eager to jump on the win total one way or the other, as there is some bust potential, but there’s a lot of boom potential in my mind as well. Projection systems aren’t going to be able to account for philosophical changes like new managers and hitting coaches. In fact, they’re probably punishing the White Sox for last season when this year’s team could be completely different.
So, with that, I lean over with the White Sox and will give some serious thought to having a World Series ticket in pocket. If they’re that good and get Hendriks back, it’s because their big three starters performed well and the offense did what I think it could do.
Lean: Over 83.5