If, in late March, you told an avid Chicago White Sox fan that one third of the way through the baseball season, his or her team would sport one of the best records in the Major Leagues, you would probably have gotten a grumpy response to the tune of “shove off you fucking delusional asshole,” and that would be a response toward the polite side of the spectrum.
Since winning the World Series in 2005, the White Sox have given their fan base reasons to not be cheerful. Each season has arrived with high hopes and–save for 2008– mediocre results while two division rivals, the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers passed the Sox as American League Central powers. Last season it seemed to all crash and burn. The team finished 79-83 with a team that performed far worse than the record indicates. Expensive investments blew up in their face. Designated Hitter Adam Dunn had a historically bad season. Pitcher Jake Peavy posted a 4.92 earned run average in only 19 starts. Another expensive investment, outfielder Alex Rios posted an OPS of .613, one of five everyday players with an OPS that failed to top .700. Manager Ozzie Guillen left with two games to go in the season. The team was ageing and expensive. The future didn’t look bright.
If this doesn’t scream “fluke” then you’re not listening. However, is it? The White Sox went into 2011 with valid postseason dreams only to have several players do performance related face plants. This season Peavy (6-1, 3.05) a former Cy Young winner, is pitching like he wants another award on his mantle. Dunn’s 921 OPS and 17 home runs are on pace with expectations, and Rios OPS has rebounded to .781, perhaps not what you’d expect for a right fielder but a substantial improvement. Meanwhile Second Baseman Gordon Beckham has broken out of a years long slump and is hitting like he did in his rookie year when he looked like a future all star and Paul Konerko, one of the holdovers from the 2005 team and perennial all star level performer is having an MVP caliber season batting .366 so far.
Most of these performance bumps seem sustainable (it isn’t likely that Konerko will hit .366 all season, though). The team has also benefited from the rise of several young players from a farm system that is notoriously bad. Starting pitcher Chris Sale, 23, has joined Peavy at the top of the rotation with a 7-2 record and an E.R.A of 2.30. Another 23 year old pitcher, Addison Reed, has overcome a rough start and taken over the closer role. His 21 strikeouts in 18 innings bode well.
The primary case for optimism among Sox fans is that not everything has gone well. The rest of the starting rotation, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Phillip Humber, sport E.R.A.’s over 5.00. Their track records suggest that they will pitch much better during the rest of the season. Third Base is still such a black hole that waiver wire pickup Orlando Hudson has actually improved the performance there despite hitting .184
What the White Sox performance suggests is that maybe the meltdown that was the 2011 season was the fluke. The Sox best performers have a history of performing at this level, some of their underachievers should improve, and though it will take some creativity, there are clear holes to be filled at the trade deadline.
When a team outperforms expectations as thoroughly as the White Sox have this year, there’s really only one appropriate fan response. Pour yourself the drink of your choosing and enjoy the ride. It might crash and burn in heat of the August. It might during the early rounds of the playoffs. Or maybe…. After all, neither the 2010 Giants nor the 2011 Cardinals went into the regular season as a lock to hold a parade in October.