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During the miserable 101-loss 2023 season, the White Sox ranked dead last in on-base percentage. They were bottom five in slugging.
It’s safe to say their offense is downright broken.
Called in for repairs? That would be new hitting coach Marcus Thames, announced earlier this week as a part of Pedro Grifol’s new-look coaching staff for 2024. Thames is central to Chris Getz’s strategy when it comes to making the lineup far more threatening than it has been in years past.
“Gosh, the endorsements for Marcus Thames were impressive,” Getz said last week during the GM meetings in Arizona. “Whether it be players I spoke to, coaches that worked with Marcus, (the reviews were) just glowing. He has an incredible ability to relate to all types of players. He has coached in different markets, players with different backgrounds, higher profile, younger players. So that type of starter skillset was really important for where we’re headed. That really stood out.”
Getz hammered home last week that his top priority this winter is improving the White Sox defensively, but that’s not to say he’s staying away from the offense entirely. And in his quest to establish an organizational identity and implement a preferred style of play, improving the way this team hits, and more specifically how it approaches hitting, is going to be a big piece of the puzzle.
In addition to swapping in Thames for José Castro — whose tenure as the South Side hitting coach lasted all of one year, to give you an idea of the nature of the gig — the White Sox changed Mike Tosar’s title from major league field coordinator to assistant hitting coach. It’ll be on those two to help turn Getz’s vision into reality.
“We certainly need to have more competitive at-bats,” Getz said. “You look at whether it be our ground-ball rate, our chase rate, we’ve got some work to do offensively. And that’s certainly why we made a change, brought in Marcus and (have) Mike now focusing more on the hitting. It’s something that’s a focal point for us.
“It’s really putting together quality at-bats. It’s nothing profound. It’s understanding how pitchers are attacking you, having a distinct plan to attack the pitcher that night.”
It’s a nice idea, obviously, but we haven’t seen these White Sox hitters do it, generally speaking, over the past two disappointing seasons. Are they capable of making those changes and heading to the plate the way Getz wants them to?
“They’ve shown the ability to do it,” he said. “They need to be more consistent.”
In another example of the life of a major league hitting coach, this will be Thames’ fourth organization in four years. But rather than being a red flag, that experience working with players across the game could be a positive for a White Sox team that, by Getz and Grifol’s admission, struggled to break through to their players at times last season.
As has been explained by multiple managers in recent years, hitters aren’t always as receptive to coaching as pitchers are, and it can be a challenge to get them to heed a coaching staff’s advice on changing what got them to the big leagues in the first place. That is Thames’ No. 1 task, not necessarily coming in and making sweeping declarations about what the team needs to change, but simply getting through to guys and getting them to make the small, individual changes that vault them to where they’re supposed to be.
“I know people are always asking, ‘What’s the hitting philosophies in this?’ I’ve been around the game long enough, and that term is used loosely,” Thames said during a media session last week. “For me, the No. 1 thing when it comes to hitting, you got to be able to swing at strikes. And educating guys on what they do well, letting them know their strengths and really conquering that, that’s how we’re going to get to it. It’s going to be an individual thing.”
While we’re far from knowing exactly which individuals Thames will be working with — Getz needs to plug holes at shortstop, at second base and in right field, as well as perhaps bring in a new catcher — it’s safe to say that giving attention to a group of core players who have, mostly due to injuries, failed to live up to expectations will be one of his primary focuses.
Eloy Jiménez hit 31 home runs as a rookie but hasn’t hit more than 20 in the four seasons since. Yoán Moncada had a breakout offensive year in 2019 but hasn’t found similar results since. Andrew Vaughn has yet to show he’s the middle-of-the-order bat that was touted coming out of college. And Andrew Benintendi’s first year of a five-year deal didn’t go well at all, leaving fans scratching their heads as to how he landed the richest free-agent contract in club history last winter.
Benintendi has been around the block and sees a return to health and a focus on strength bringing about a return to the type of numbers he’s posted in the past. The other three, though, are still searching for consistency at the major league level, and Thames and Tosar will have to turn their fortunes around if this White Sox offense is going to look dramatically different than it did in 2023.
“I think some guys can get better,” Thames said. “Helping educate them on what they do well and what zone they should be swinging in and when they should be doing it, it’s up to me and Mike. We’ve really got to educate these guys and make sure that they’re prepared before the game, and I think that’s going to be the huge difference.
“A lot of guys worry about their swing so much in this game now, they forget about the approach side of things. I’m really heavy on being prepared and the approach side of the game, and that’s going to help clean up some of it.
“You’re not going to change it drastically. But when we have guys that are swinging at pitches on the fringes, getting early outs, and you applaud them for not swinging at those pitches, it starts getting contagious. And that’s what we’re going to start building in that clubhouse.”
Getz’s goal is to have this White Sox team play much differently than it did last season, and that’s what he’s talking about when he describes a new identity and a new way of playing the game. He talked up the speed and defense elements, and there are offensive parts, as well.
Asked what attracted him about this opportunity with the White Sox, Thames talked about Getz’s vision and perhaps gave some insight into what the team will look like if all goes according to plan.
“I love the vision they’re trying to do. They’re trying to reshape the team,” Thames said. “I heard Getzy’s interview (from the GM meetings), and he’s trying to make some moves to make the team a little more athletic and get some guys to put the ball in play a little bit more. And I like that vision.
“I think the game has come to a point where situational hitting has been a lost art until the postseason, and then you see teams trying to bunt and hit-and-run and stuff like that during the postseason. We’re going to start hitting that in spring training and we’re going to change our identity a little bit, and I like that vision of what they’re trying to get done.”
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