* The White Sox fell behind the Tigers by one game in the AL Central last night (they have to beat the Tigers to make the playoffs, because they’re six games out of the Wild Card). And they did so in spectacularly depressing fashion: walking twelve and giving up nine hits against an abysmal Cleveland team, yet only giving up six runs and losing by two. (The Indians can’t hit—I read somewhere that they’re replacement-level over the past month—which makes the 12 walks more depressing still, but also explains how the Sox managed to play terribly while keeping the game close.)
Throughout the season the Sox have struggled against quality opponents, going just 32-36 against teams over .500, and beaten up on the weak, at 50-37. They’re the only playoff-competitive team with a losing record against teams with a winning record, so dropping two of three to a team as bad as the Indians is a missed opportunity with four games against a good Rays team to follow (fortunately, they close against the Indians, but Detroit closes against the mediocre Royals and the Twins, tied with the Indians for the worst record in the American League).
At South Side Sox, Jim Margalus ran the numbers and found that the Sox threw the third-most pitches the team’s thrown in a nine-inning game since they started keeping records. This led to some chatter about the Sox’s pitchers wearing down, and it’s true that September has been their worst month by ERA. Their walk rates have also gone up over July, August, and September, to a very bad 3.76 per nine innings, which over a season would be the worst in baseball (just behind the Cubs).
But it’s also possible that luck, or bad defense, has played a role. Consider the following.
Their BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is at a season high, and it’s very high—third in the league this month, behind the awful Rockies staff and the generally terrible Astros. BABIP varies a lot, but usually falls between .290 and .310, and varies because of luck, defense, and skill, and it can be difficult to tell which. The Rockies have the highest BABIP in baseball over the season, .326, and they have awful pitchers, so some of that is skill. The Tigers are third-worst at .310; given what we know about their pitchers and defense, we can probably blame a lot of that on the latter.
FIP, meanwhile, is fielding-independent pitching, meant to isolate a pitcher’s performance from his defense and from luck, a measure of things a pitcher can entirely control: home runs, walks, hit by pitch, and strikeouts. It’s a small sample size, so take it with a grain of salt, but the difference between ERA and FIP does suggest a measure of bad luck.
The Sox hit worse in March and April than in September, but their pitching more than made up the difference. But September has been the only month they’ve been outscored on average, aided by—again—a below-average BABIP.
There’s talent and strategy involved in hitting ’em where they ain’t, and in making the opponent hit ’em where they are. But baseball’s hard enough that it’s not all a matter of skill; the difference between a run-scoring grounder and the final out of an inning can be inches, inches that aren’t all up to the hitter, pitcher, or fielder. Insofar as we can measure that kind of luck, the Sox look pretty unlucky this month.
* Dmitry Samarov visits the Cell:
Many have wondered why a team that’s been in first place for much of the season, and is a week away from making the playoffs, hasn’t been able to capture its fans’ interest. All I know is that this year’s team has brought me almost as much joy as the 2005 team that went all the way. Perhaps it’s that no one expected the 2012 Sox to contend, or maybe because of all the new faces—as well as the welcome absence of some of the old ones—this team makes me happier than those of the last few years.
* In happier news, Adam Greenberg will return to the big leagues next week. He’s the once-promising Cub whose major-league career was seemingly ended in his first at-bat when he was hit in the head by a fastball; Jonathan Eig chronicled his years of recovery and his struggles to return for Chicago. It was a Cubs fan who brought Greenberg’s story to the attention of the Marlins, who are adding one more Chicago snowbird to the roster.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune