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Baseball by the numbers: White Sox’ ‘D’ still needs improvement

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI
For the Sun-Times

Entering this season, White Sox fans hoped they would see improved defense from their team. With Dayan Viciedo (minus-17 last season in Fielding Bible runs saved as listed at BillJamesonline.com) no longer in the outfield and Adam Dunn (minus-5) no longer in the mix at first base, there was room for a leap forward.

It hasn’t worked out that way, and the need to improve the defense led to the Sox demoting second baseman Micah Johnson and promoting Carlos Sanchez. Can an upgrade on defense help the Sox sustain the surge that has gotten them back to .500 with a five-game winning streak entering play Monday?

Through Sunday, the Sox ranked 14th among American League defenses with minus-18 runs saved. That means their defense has cost them 18 runs when compared to a team of average defenders. That’s a slightly weaker pace than last season, when they ranked 12th at minus-49 for a full season.

One trouble spot has been second base, where Johnson was a minus-8 before his demotion. That represents a fall-off from 2014, when a collection of Sox second basemen combined to go plus-2.

Johnson had committed three errors in 98 chances. That’s not outlandish. The bigger problem is range. Adding putouts to assists and dividing by games played gives Johnson a range factor of 4.01 plays per game; the league average is 4.51. Johnson was turning one fewer play into an out every two games than an average second baseman.

Fielding Bible runs saved is more sophisticated, charting how many balls are hit into a player’s zone, how hard the balls are hit, whether each ball was on the ground or in the air, good plays vs. misplays and more.

Balls a defender doesn’t reach that an average fielder would mean extra hits charged to the pitchers. You can see that in the early numbers for Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana. All have been inconsistent, but all have FIPs — fielding independent pitching — stronger than their ERAs when you filter out defense.

Samardzija (4.09 FIP, 4.58 ERA), Sale (3.55, 5.09) and Quintana (3.15, 4.39) all could benefit from a boost in the field. Opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .322 against the Sox; the league-average BABiP is .290. That indicates more balls are getting through the Sox’ defense for hits.

There have been gains. Jose Abreu, who was a minus-11 at first base last season, has stepped up to a plus-4 so far in his second season. Melky Cabrera
(plus-1 in left) and Avisail Garcia (minus-1 in right) are about at the league average.

But second base has been a problem, and center fielder Adam Eaton, who was eighth-best in the majors last season at plus-9, is 33rd this season at minus-5.

The Sox still can improve defensively over last season, though, and stabilizing second base could go a long way toward getting it done.