Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Whose Fault is it that Donald Rumsfeld Wears White Sox?

With the White Sox sputtering through another lost series -- this time in Philadelphia, Joe Crede likely done for the year, and Jose Contreras looking every bit his 83 years' of age, I thought now would be a good time to highlight a category in which the Sox actually lead the AL: Rumsfelds.

Rumsfelds are a new Baseball Prospectus statistic. Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, "You go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the army you want." Ok, so I may be paraphrasing a little, but you get the idea. Rumsfelds measure how far the army you have is from the army you'd ideally want. A team's Rumsfeld Number is the percentage of that team's at-bats handled by players with a negative VORP, ie. a value below that of a freely available replacement player.

The Tigers grade out best in the AL at 4.2%. Less than one in 20 at-bats for the AL champs goes to a guy with a negative VORP. The White Sox? They grade out worst in the league. Their 49.6 Rumsfeld Number is the highest in the AL. Go Team! Yes, this is just one more statistic that confirms the Sox have the worst offense in baseball. Half of the team's at-bats go to guys who could theoretically be replaced by a career minor leaguer or waiver-wire pick-up, and the team would get better.

So, how do we explain this abyss? Last year the Sox were a good offensive club. This year, with the starting pitching improved, the team should be right in the thick of things. But they've fallen off a cliff offensively. Could management have seen this coming? Should they be blamed?

First, even if this disaster was predictable, and even if management should have acted to avoid it, I'm not suggesting anyone lose his job over it. This management team put together a World Series Champion. They deserve a lot of leeway. It will take much more than this to undermine their credibility.

But this year's collapse was largely predictable. Now, a chunk of the blame lies at the feet of Jermaine Dye. His 240 plate appearance represent 10% of the team's total, and his -1.8 VORP makes him the biggest contributor to that Rumsfeld Number. You can't blame the team for Dye. He was outstanding last year, and has been good his whole career. This year, he's an offensive black hole into which rallies are sucked, their light forever extinguished.

Many of the team's other black holes were all to obvious. Juan Uribe and Rob Mackowiak have each collected more than 100 plate appearances with sub-zero VORPs. Pablo Ozuna and Alex Cintron also have below replacement-level numbers and just under 100 PAs. The offensive ineffectiveness of all four of these Rumsfeld contributors is hardly shocking, and the team never should have committed to a plan in which each received major playing time. When the team's big boppers were playing their best, the ineffectiveness of the rest of the line up didn't derail the offense as a whole. But the shallowness of the lineup made it very vulnerable to slumps by the team's offensive forces. With Dye and Paul Konerko struggling, the team has been sucked into a quagmire of easy outs that team management should have seen coming.

Ok, so the team though Scott Podsednik would be the everyday left fielder, not Rob Mackowiak. But that points to another problem. They also expected Darrin Erstad to play every day, rather than sub-zeros Brian Anderson, Ryan Sweeney, and Jerry Owens. And, they expected Joe Crede to play every day, rather than sub-zero youngster Josh Fields. But the team should have realized that aging, injury-prone, (overrated) players like Erstad, Podsednik and Crede were a risk to spend substantial time on the injured list. Not only did the team have too many weak hitters, it had too many question marks at other spots in the order.

Speaking of Crede, he has struggled to play through his ailing back. It's a valiant effort, but he did contribute 178 negative VORP plate appearances before finally succumbing. And, I wouldn't rush to get Erstad back. He's only .5 VORP from adding his 200-plus at-bats to the Rumsfeld Number and driving the team above 60%.

So, yes, management could have largely seen this coming. A shallow line up with too many weak spots and injury risks was asking for this kind of collapse. But now that the team has fallen out of the race, I don't think they should worry about their Rumsfeld Number creeping even higher. As mentioned, right now guys like Fields, Sweeney, Owens and Anderson are contributing to the Rumsfeld Number. These guys need all the at-bats they can get now, so that the team knows whether they can be a part of the next contender. Hopefully, their VORPS will climb above zero, and they'll cut into the Rumsfeld Number, but if they get a bunch of at-bats, don't find success, and that Number creeps even higher, it doesn't necessarily mean the team has done something wrong. Alex Gordon, the Royals best prospect has contributed 9.4 to that teams Rumsfeld Number of 29.8. First, it's depressing how much higher the Sox' Number is, but second, can you fault the Royals for giving Gordon every chance to prove he's the real deal? Of course not. And no matter how it plays out, the Sox should give their young guys the same opportunity.

So, yes, it is Sox' management's fault that Donald Rumsfeld wears White Sox, but they shouldn't worry too much about continuing to allow him to do so. The team's Rumsfeld Number at the end of the year will tell us less about management's decisions the rest of the way, than who contributes to it. If it's Erstad, Uribe, and Mackowiak, for example, then they should be criticized for wasting at-bats on aging, ineffective players. If it's Sweeney, Fields and Owens, on the other hand, then at least they began evaluating their assets moving forward.


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