"But on the plus side, I knocked over the Sun Sphere." --Nelson Muntz, The Simpsons
Well, at least the White Sox got five hits today. Kudos to A.J. Pierzynski for picking up two of them, with Juan Pierre adding a pair of his own and Alexei Ramirez registering the fifth and final one of the game. Omar Vizquel, Adam Dunn and Brent Lillibridge each took walks, too. But the Sox never were in business offensively—when Detroit scored a run in the fourth, the Tigers' lead seemed more like three or four. While John Danks did a fantastic job holding Detroit to one run after loading the bases, it was a Pyrrhic victory. One run was going to be tough to come by Sunday.
Yesterday, the Sox faced a pitcher who had been nothing more than bad in 2011. And Brad Penny threw seven shutout innings, allowing just one hit. It was maybe the worst offensive performance of the year for the Sox, and that's saying something. This team has been awful lately, but you don't need to be reminded of that.
Today's shutout at the hands of Max Scherzer is a little more acceptable. Given Scherzer's stuff, he's capable of throwing eight scoreless innings any time he takes the mound. And when he's getting and taking advantage of an expanded strike zone, he's going to be tough to beat.
Image via Brooks Baseball's pitch f/x tool.
The image above is a normalized strike zone plot. The black box represents an average strike zone for an umpire. Anything red is a strike, with the Tigers as squares and the Sox as triangles. The view is from the umpire's perspective.
What the map shows is Gary Cederstrom gave pitchers the outside corner to left-handers and the inside corner to righties. For Danks, this worked well as most of the red triangles off the plate were against right-handers. But for Scherzer, it worked even better, as he was able to mow down lefties by locating his fastball well off the plate, getting quite a few called strikes. The map doesn't show swings and misses or balls in play, but Scherzer did get a few whiffs and outs by using the extended outside corner.
Credit Scherzer for exploiting the strike zone—while it wasn't a great strike zone, Cederstrom was consistent with it, so the Sox shouldn't have anything to complain about. They knew Cederstrom would call the outside strike and didn't adjust—instead, Scherzer lived there the entire game, barely throwing inside to both righties and lefties. Scherzer's sinker/slider/changeup combo obviously lends itself to the outer half of the plate, but had the Sox forced him to throw inside a little more maybe they would've mustered a hit total higher than five.
What's scary about this poor offensive stretch is that the White Sox haven't been the victims of bad luck. Heading into Sunday, the Sox had a .319 team BABIP* with the third-highest line drive percentage in baseball. They're hitting home runs on 9.3 percent of fly balls, which is in the top half of baseball in that regard. So why is the offense so bad?
*Correction: As The Wizard pointed out, the Sox actually have a .272 BABIP—I used the wrong data. That's pretty low, but it's not incredibly low. Last year, the Sox had a BABIP south of .260 for most of the season's first two months before it regressed to the mean in June and July. I'd expect the Sox BABIP to go up at some point, but .272 isn't horribly unlucky.
The Sox, heading into Sunday, had the third-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of any offense in baseball at 2.68. Their seven strikeouts and three walks (2.33 K/BB) today will slightly lower that, but the news remains bad. When the Sox put balls in play, usually they're hit weakly. And they're not taking enough walks while striking out far too much, a pretty good indicator that most of this offense is pressing, in-between, or just completely off.
Maybe a trip to the home run haven of Yankee Stadium will cure the Sox's offensive woes, although New York's staff boasts a nice 3.79 FIP. At some point, the Sox will break out of this slump—they're too talented a group to not—but we may have to endure a few more frustrating offensive series before that happens.