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In four straight games, the White Sox’ offense has scored all its runs in one inning.
Meaning it put up goose eggs in all the others.
That’s a lot of zeroes for a lineup that was built to hit and hit in a big way. The core of this team is the same that ranked near the top of the game in power way back in 2020. This year? It’s biggest bopper, Eloy Jimenez, is still searching for his first home run of the season, while Andrew Vaughn, another hitter with enormous power potential who led the team in home runs a season ago, just hit his first home run of the season Wednesday, in Game No. 19.
Pedro Grifol has stuck to the same reasoning exhibited by his predecessors in the South Side skipper’s chair, saying a lack of home runs is no great shakes. He scoffed at the idea of Vaughn and others’ power outage dragging on much longer, saying that in a week’s time, the present-day discussion could be looked back upon as “nonsense.”
But the truth is that Grifol’s team is struggling to hit, the latest streaky performance in the first three weeks of the White Sox’ season. The offense was having no trouble racking up big hit totals in early-season games against the Astros, Giants and Pirates, with 10-plus knocks in eight of the first nine games.
Since, however, the hits have not come in such bunches, and neither have runs. The double-digit hit totals that were commonplace through the first nine games have vanished, with the White Sox banging out more than eight hits in just one of their last 10 games.
Through the first nine games, the White Sox averaged 5.8 runs on 11 hits a game. In the 10 games that followed, the White Sox averaged 3.1 runs on 6.7 hits a game.
Surely, some of the offensive doldrums can be chalked up to the absences of Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, who are on the injured list. But that doesn’t explain the sub-.300 on-base percentages of half the lineup: Jimenez, Luis Robert Jr., Oscar Colas and Elvis Andrus.
So what’s the remedy?
Grifol and his coaching staff were brought in specifically to return this group of players to the offensive capabilities of old in the wake of a massively disappointing 2022 season that saw nearly everyone turn in career-worst years. Reasonably, that can still be viewed as a work in progress, but it’s Grifol and his players who are already talking about needing to avoid falling too far behind in the AL Central race in mid April.
Grifol spent the home stand — and specifically, the four-game stretch of long offensive dormancies — expressing his unwavering faith that the bats will awaken. Briefly, he would reveal problem areas, and his main diagnosis seems to be the same one Tony La Russa repeatedly offered up last summer: The White Sox are swinging at too many pitches outside the strike zone.
The White Sox are not a team that racks up the walks; only two teams in baseball, the Royals and D-backs, have fewer this season. But the White Sox can be a team that makes the opposing pitchers work a little bit harder, a team that sees a few more pitches while waiting for mistakes.
Fans spent the 2022 season vilifying hitting coach Frank Menechino for the team’s consistently swing-happy, power-free approach at the plate. Well, Menechino’s gone. And this is happening again.
“When you don’t score the runs and you don’t produce like we are capable of producing or we want to produce, there’s always some pressing going on,” Grifol said after Wednesday’s loss to the Phillies. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to just be a little more disciplined in the strike zone and shrink it and not be afraid to hit with two strikes.
“These guys aren’t going up there trying to make outs. They are preparing and they are going up there to compete and it’s not happening, just as (was the case) the last three days or whatever it is.
“You know it will turn around. That’s all I can say. It will turn around.”
If only, though, the White Sox’ offensive woes were their only concern.
The pitching side has its own issues, Mike Clevinger lasting just three innings Wednesday, the shortest outing by a White Sox starting pitcher this season. His 44-pitch third inning was enough for Grifol to pull the plug on the outing just 75 pitches in.
White Sox pitchers have walked an astounding 88 batters this season, which only ranks second in the league because the A’s are a special brand of terrible as they eye a move to Las Vegas and away from the opossum-filled confines of the Oakland Coliseum.
The bullpen ERA, a source of much consternation, was lowered considerably during the three-game series with the Phillies, but at 6.68, it’s still the third highest in baseball, behind those of the Royals and, you guessed it, the A’s. The relief corps did good work the last three games, with a two-run homer off Jimmy Lambert and back-to-back RBI doubles off Tanner Banks the lone run scoring done against the ‘pen.
Aaron Bummer might have coughed up a shot at a combined no-hitter in the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but he and the two other bullpen arms that threw after Lucas Giolito’s marvelous work were otherwise solid as a rock that night.
But as has so often been the case for the White Sox in the early going of 2023, when they succeed in one facet of the game, they can’t come through in another. The same day Giolito & Co. almost no-hit the Phillies, Lance Lynn was talking about his need to start pitching better, the reliable veteran knocked around in the first game of the doubleheader for five runs on 10 hits as he watched his ERA soar to 7.59. After a thrilling performance on Opening Day in which he walked nobody, AL Cy Young candidate Dylan Cease has walked five in two of his last three starts. Michael Kopech has taken the mound three times this year and already surrendered seven home runs.
Grifol’s insistence that a turnaround is coming, on all fronts, echoes the front office’s work this winter, when it placed its faith in the same group of players who disappointed in 2022 returning to form and delivering on the promise that had these White Sox pegged as a future championship contender. But in a feared sequel to last year, fans are playing the same painful waiting game — with no performance-based, on-the-field reason given to believe that such results are on the horizon.
In other words, a team that spent the spring talking about its need to “prove it” hasn’t proven anything yet.
And now, these scuffling White Sox face a whale of a test, heading to Florida to take on the best-in-baseball Rays, who started the season with 13 consecutive wins, lead the league averaging seven runs a game, have clobbered 42 home runs and own a 2.57 team ERA that’s nearly half of the White Sox’ mark of 5.44.
The White Sox will face off against these Rays seven times in the next 10 days, trying to make their fixes while going up against baseball’s current juggernaut.
While the “it’s early” refrain has already gotten stale for frustrated fans, it’s certainly not without merit, and math allows the White Sox plenty of time to get sorted.
But the to-do list of fixes is growing longer by the day, it seems, whether it’s health, inconsistency from the pitching staff or a quiet offense. Even the thing that’s going right, Jake Burger’s home-run barrage as a fill-in for the injured Moncada, comes with a challenge: how to keep Burger’s baseball-bashing bat in the lineup once Moncada returns.
With twice-daily media sessions, catchphrases are bound to emerge for managers, and indeed, Grifol has made a habit of saying “it’s hard to win a major league game.”
His job is undoubtedly a difficult one right now. And without successful fixes from Grifol and the rest of these White Sox, they’re going to find out just how hard it is to win major league games all summer long.
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