It’s been a “chicken or the egg” kind of question all year long:
Do the typically fun-loving, attitude-packing White Sox lack fun and attitude because they’re losing? Or are the White Sox losing because they lack the fun and attitude that defined them the two previous years?
Well, enter Rick Hahn to offer up a diagnosis.
“I know that it looks like, at times, that we’ve lost a little bit of that swagger,” the general manager said last week, after his front office came up frustratingly empty at the trade deadline. “2020-ish, even last year, we were an exciting, energetic young team with some swagger and a chip on its shoulder. I think we need to recapture some of that.”
That’s proving to be a whole lot easier said than done as the White Sox are still mired in the muck of a .500-ish record, and the guys in the clubhouse who were responsible for all that swagger during the winning seasons in 2020 and 2021 have come up with a pretty easy explanation for where the swagger has gone.
“When the results are there, it’s obviously an easy thing to say,” Lance Lynn said a day after Hahn spoke on the subject. “Day in and day out, we just have to keep playing hard, put quality at-bats together and make our pitches. When it’s all said and done and we do that and start winning some games, that’s when the swagger comes back.
“It’s hard to have swagger when you’re playing like shit, to be honest with you.”
Everyone’s definitions of “playing like shit” might vary, but undoubtedly the White Sox have been a remarkably disappointing crew to this point in 2022, playing vastly below the preseason expectations that had players, fans and prognosticators alike envisioning a championship-caliber club. But a confoundingly underachieving lineup teamed with inconsistent pitching and repeated mistakes in the field and on the base paths have had the South Siders looking like anything but.
Even if Hahn had been able to pull off the moves he wanted on Aug. 2, it wouldn’t have been enough had the current roster continued its season-long scuffle. The GM could have added a bat at second base or in right field, but struggling hitters like Yasmani Grandal and Yoán Moncada – heck, even Tim Anderson has slumped for the last month-plus – would have remained in the lineup. He could have deepened the starting rotation, but Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech would still be trying to solve what’s preventing them from being up to snuff.
But Hahn’s diagnosis of a swagger shortage dealt with something well apart from those somewhat glaring issues.
“There’s plenty of personality in there. We’ve seen it. When things are going right, we’ve seen it,” Hahn said. “Even though things haven’t gone quite as well as we would have hoped over the course of this year, I think it’s time that we see a little bit more of that personality on a daily basis. A little more of that energy and a little bit more of an attitude that we’re going to beat you.
“I’m not saying that we’re just flipping a switch and the swagger is going to come back. I’m just saying that we have confidence in the ability of this group in there. I know they have confidence in themselves. But I do feel that we’ve lost a little bit of our swagger, and I’d like to see that come back.”
Certainly fans would agree. They’ve been decrying what they’ve called a “lifeless” team all season.
But Lynn’s right. It’s hard to have swagger when they play like they did for the majority of this weekend in Texas.
It was a split of a four-game set – the White Sox haven’t lost a series since the first week of July – and for three of the four games, the offense was absent, as it has been all too often this year. The bats produced a mere four runs over the series’ first three contests, failing to give Johnny Cueto enough run support Thursday, winning with just two runs thanks to Dylan Cease on Friday and getting shut out while mustering only two hits Saturday.
An 8-2 roll came Sunday, a much needed awakening for the offense, but the awakening was supposed to have come already. The White Sox registered double digits in the hit column in all three games of their prior series with the Royals, including back-to-back wins in the wake of the front office’s quiet deadline.
Heck, it was supposed to have come a lot earlier than that. This was supposed to be an offense that struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Instead, it’s been a singles machine that despite ranking third in the game in hits and fifth in batting average is middle of the pack in runs scored, toward the bottom in home runs and dead last in walks.
In the first two games in Texas, the White Sox showed how small the margin for error is for their pitching staff, and when a struggle came from Kopech in the third game, the result was a blowout defeat.
So where’s that swagger? Well, it’s hard to have swagger when you “play like shit.”
“It’s there when we’re loose and having fun playing. Unfortunately, it’s not very fun to lose,” Giolito told CHGO last week. “Losing as much as we have been, it’s tougher to just kind of get into that groove where everybody’s free and having fun.
“It’s been a very up-and-down year. Dealing with the injuries and stuff early was tough. … Getting our ass kicked a little bit in the first half was definitely kind of a wake-up call to play more focused. At the same time, it’s hard to say that we weren’t putting in effort or trying. But there’s a difference between trying and doing, right?
“There’s a lot of importance now placed on coming together each day and really giving it our best shot to win each game. Every single game’s so important.”
And yet the White Sox continue to hover around .500, the same old story, the same old song and dance.
No wonder there’s a swagger deficiency.
Of course, that’s been another one of the unexplainable things in this shockingly disappointing campaign. Just like it’s been a mystery how so many productive hitters can go cold for so long, it’s been a mystery how a team with these personalities has lost its mojo. That’s led even entrenched team leaders without answers.
Confidence had never been an issue for these White Sox previously. These are the guys who swapped superlatives like “the Babe Ruth of our generation” and “the next Mike Trout” as they were coming up through the minor leagues. Anderson took center stage with his bat flip heard ‘round the world, leant his words to the “change the game” marketing campaign and starred with last summer’s dramatic homer to win the Field of Dreams game.
Confidence? This is the team that turned Billy Hamilton into “Billy the Hitter.”
But here we are in August, and the White Sox remain a third-place team.
They might not be that way for long, and with every description of disappointment, reality must be recognized: The White Sox woke up Monday two games out of first in the AL Central. The two teams ahead of them have not played good baseball this season either, and both the Guardians and Twins are extremely catchable and passable. It could happen this week, and it wouldn’t even require the White Sox figuring things out all that well, it wouldn’t require them finding this supposedly misplaced swagger.
That said, if the White Sox are going to do anything with this opportunity – grabbing a relatively easy-to-reach playoff berth thanks to their weak division – and come anywhere close to meeting those lofty preseason expectations, that swagger will probably be necessary.
There’s just a whole lot better baseball and a whole lot of winning that has to come first, which has proven hard to come by for the last four-plus months.
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