White Sox, Tigers, and Early Returns from Defense

The iron-gloved, power-hitting Tigers are currently tied with the surprising White Sox for the AL Central lead—in part because the White Sox have given up substantially fewer runs, thanks to good pitching, and perhaps a superior defense.

White Sox Tigers

 

Sports Illustrated just released its MLB Power Rankings, and unlike most “power rankings"—lite-entertainment listicles-slash-news roundups—it attempts to use sabermetric data to note how teams are doing behind the usual win-loss records. As such, it’s caused some consternation, or at least puzzlement, but since power rankings are pretty useless anyway, it’s… well, at least it’s a bit more entertaining use of the form. And, with the usual caveats for small sample size, possibly enlighting, and even encouraging for White Sox fans, who’ll see their team much higher than anyone expected.

For instance: during the offseason, the Tigers acquired Prince Fielder, one of the best hitters in the National League, to go along with one of the best hitters in the American League in Miguel Cabrera, and the best AL pitcher in Justin Verlander. The White Sox acquired… Kosuke Fukudome. Whom, to put it gingerly, is a known quantity, and a decent fourth outfielder/good-contact pinch hitter. Oh, and they lost Mark Buehrle. This caused some concern.

On the other hand, the Tigers promised a historically bad infield: Fielder is a below-average first baseman, who forced below-average first baseman Miguel Cabrera to an unpredictably awful role at third. And, mirabile dictu, neither was projected to be as bad as iron-gloved utility man Ryan Raburn, playing his worst position, second base (though Rayburn’s atrocious 3-41 start has kept him out of a full-time role there). Their outfield is better, save for Delmon Young.

The White Sox, on the other hand, have Brent Morel (.287 OBP in 2011) and Gordon Beckham (.296 OBP) in the infield, bringing down the team average but providing good defense.

Both teams are tied at 10-6 at the top of the division: about what people expected out of the Tigers, better than expected for the Sox. And defense likely plays a role.

Right now the Sox have a team ERA of 2.96, compared to the Tigers’ 3.51. Some of this can be attributed to a rotation that, if it stays healthy and plays up to potential, makes up for in depth what it lacks in standout talent like Verlander. But the Sox have a FIP and xFIP (measures of “fielding-independent pitching") considerably higher than their team ERA. The Tigers’ FIP and xFIP are slightly lower and slightly higher, respectively. The two Tigers pitchers who have been shelled this year, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, both have fielding-independent pitching numbers well below their actual ones. Both teams have scored about the same number of runs, but the Tigers have allowed 12 more than the Sox.

Meanwhile, Tigers’ opponents have a .319 batting average on balls in play; White Sox opponents have an (unsustainably low) .253.

This is all very, very early, of course. And while the Tigers were getting beat up by the reigning league champions, the Sox got four straight wins off the punchless A’s and Mariners. But it portends well for the White Sox, or at least might give them leeway to move Jake Peavy for a prospect before he becomes a free agent.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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