Manager of the Year?

On June 1, 2012 the White Sox will be leading the AL Central by a 1-1/2 games over the Cleveland Indians and may have a 6-game lead over the Tigers, the only team I’m concerning myself with in the AL Central. Yes, Indians’ fans your team much like last year has played well above their abilities and are beginning that decent to the bottom of the division. So that leaves rookie manager, Robin Ventura’s White Sox, against seasoned veteran, Jim Leyland’s Detroit Tigers, in a battle for the AL Central.

Speaking of Robin Ventura let’s talk about him, as I promised in a post back on October 7, 2011 (Robin Ventura?) where I stated, “I’m going to remain positive and reassess Ventura in May, since it’s unfair to pass judgment on someone who’s never even managed, I mean it’s not like we hired Manny Acta… thank God that never happened.”

I’m happy to report that Robin Ventura and his coaching staff have turned out to be pretty good, leading the Sox to a 29-22 record and first place. Outside of a few rookie mistakes Ventura and his somewhat seasoned staff look like pros on the field, and definitely have made the difference in little areas of the game that have had big results.

Fundamentals – I was once enjoying a Sox/Tigers match-up at the Cell with Smitty and our friend, John Knopic, and the Sox were not playing extremely well on defense. Knopic landed one of the best one-liners in baseball trash talk, “Maybe the Sox should go to the Fundamentals deck between innings.” For those of you who are not familiar with US Cellular Field, there is a Fundamentals deck for kids to learn different aspects of baseball from coaches and trainers on game days.

It seems Ventura and his staff is taking this part of the game seriously, as the Sox are hitting the cut-off man, our catchers are throwing runners out, and our pitchers are holding runners on. While these seem like simple things, they were all absent while Ozzie Guillen managed the Sox, well that’s not totally fair. Fundamentals were absent after the Sox won the World Series and Ozzie made himself bigger than the team.

The Sox catchers over Guillen’s tenure had a 24% caught stealing percentage, nothing to write home about. If you look at it in a different way that means that over 75% of attempted steals put a runner in scoring position. This season the combination of AJ Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers has thrown out 58% of would be base stealers; you have to like that ratio. Hitting the cutoff man, a simple duty has allowed to the Sox to get out of many innings with the double play or minimized damage in the inning. The Sox are second in the majors in DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating), a stat that used to measure the number of outs that are recorded when a ball is put into play excluding homeruns. The Sox have .723 rating behind the Mariners with .725 and only trail three teams in the majors with a .988 fielding percentage. The White Sox were ranked 22 in DER in 2011, which goes back to hitting the cutoff man or getting the throw into the right base.

Hitting – It seems obvious to me that Greg Walker’s hitting philosophy was not working for the White Sox, and I’m not sure it ever really did. Sure they had some huge power numbers while he was there, but never really timely hitting. Also, even in 2005 they didn’t really blow anyone out, they won because of their pitching being able to maintain one run leads. Jeff Mantos brings a new hitting perspective; in fact, it’s the perspective that allowed hitters like Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro DeAza to put up solid minor league numbers. He also seems to have corrected Adam Dunn’s issue, who leads the AL in walks, third in homeruns, and fourth in RBIs.

The Sox are also fourth in the league in hitting with runners in scoring position. Mantos has also turned things around for most of the Sox question marks for 2012, Alex Rios is hitting the ball well, Gordon Beckham has climbed well above the Mendoza line he lived under in April, and Viciedo who needed to replace Carlos Quentin’s power numbers is doing just that. He’s tied for second in homeruns with Paul Konerko on the Sox with 11 and is fourth in RBIs with 28. His OPS is fourth on the team at .827 and he’s batting .291, which is third highest on the Sox.

Cooper – I give pitching coach, Don Cooper, his own category because he’s a difference maker on the coaching staff. His approach to pitching has only had positive effects on the White Sox, and probably has been the most consistent part of their game since his arrival in 2002. Coop and his staff have put together a bullpen of youngsters that has turned in an A+ performance for the first two months of the season, and his work with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy has paid dividends as both are having career years. Sale’s would be his first as a starter, but you know what I’m saying.

Coop’s biggest challenges will be to get Gavin Floyd back on track or that might be mine this Saturday at Target, and to get John Danks to pitch like a number one.

Protection – The Sox are always in near the top of the league in hit batsmen, but never near the top of hitting their opponents. I think Guillen drew so much scrutiny from his other antics that he chose not to protect his players.

This season, you hit one of ours with intent you are going to get drilled. Now, to quickly cover off yesterday’s incident with the Rays. AJ was drilled and it was up high, something I do not condone, but he also had it coming as went out of his way to spike Ben Zobrist at second base in game two of the series; completely unnecessary. Not only does AJ get drilled, but also Beckham had been drilled in the first inning, so the Sox might have told Jose Quintana to take care of business. While there was definitely intent from Phil Humber in the Cubs series after Jeff Samardzija intentionally drilled Paulie in the face, I have to question a ball 15 feet behind a batter below their knee as sending a message to the opposition. I really do believe in this case the ball slipped, and Zobrist and manager Joe Maddon where making a bigger deal out of it to deflect the fact they just got their ass handed to them at home by the Sox.

I digress; the bottom line is the Sox are not going to allow their hitters to take intentional lumps anymore without sending one back.

Attitude – This may be the most important aspect of White Sox baseball in 2012 with the attitude and approach to the game as professional and fun with no one making themselves bigger than the team. When you listen to everyone talk in interviews their responses are not about individual accomplishments, but team goals. Ventura and his coaching staff have instilled this approach to the game and it shows on and off the field. I do not miss the sideshow at all.

So, I can’t give Robin Ventura anything but an A+ at this point in the season and he has to be considered for manager of the year, especially with a team that was predicted to finish last in the AL Central pretty much across the board. I must admit I’m kind of shocked that this is how things have gone, but how often does every question mark going into a season answer the call? The last time for the White Sox was 2005.