Chicago White Sox: 7 2nd-Half Improvements Needed to Win AL Central
Few White Sox fans may remember that the team was only four games out of first place last season on August 18th.
While the White Sox struggled early last year under the weight of lofty expectations going into the 2011 season, they still had a shot at playoff contention late in the summer.
The Tigers ended any White Sox playoff hopes by surging late, highlighted by a 12-game winning streak and 30 wins in their last 40 games, topping the White Sox in the AL Central by 16 games.
The White Sox have been clicking for most of the 2012 season, sitting atop the AL Central after the midway point of the season.
They are in the top five in runs scored by American League teams and are sixth-best in pitching. The team also has the best fielding percentage in the league.
Despite their first-half success, the White Sox hold a slim lead over the second-place Indians and the third-place Tigers.
In order to make a surprising visit to the postseason this year, the White Sox need to improve some aspects of their game, while continuing their solid performance.
Here are seven second-half improvements the White Sox need to make in order to ensure meaningful October baseball games are played in Chicago this year.
White Sox Need to Improve Team OBP
While the White Sox finished the first half of this season amongst the top five American League teams in run scoring, the team's on-base percentage ranks in the lower half of the league.
The hallmark of playoff teams is their ability to grind out at-bats, with plate discipline and a willingness to take a walk. Without baserunners, it's pretty difficult to score runs with great frequency.
While the 2012 White Sox have by no means been a team that struggles to get men on base and drive them in, an extended team slump may be in their future once White Sox hitters fail to deliver timely hits.
Paul Konerko's OBP has comfortably sat above .400 in recent weeks, and Adam Dunn leads the league in base-on-balls.
With the addition of the famously nicknamed "The Greek God of Walks", Kevin Youkilis, the White Sox now have a battle-tested hitter who can wear down opposing pitchers, as well as grind out at-bats in the most important situations.
If the White Sox can get hitters such as Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo to improve their hitting eyes just a little in the second half, the team will find themselves with more baserunners and perhaps more runs as the result of mistake pitches being thrown by opposing pitchers.
The aforementioned trio currently each possess OBPs south of .300, and their lack of patience is evident based on their combined 39 walks in 906 plate appearances this season.
Key Players Need to Avoid Extended Slumps
With high expectations weighing the team down, the last two seasons saw the White Sox struggle as a team in the first months of each season, digging huge holes which they could not climb out of.
While some players occasionally enjoy monster seasons that are outliers compared to their career averages, most hitters' statistical outputs are generally consistent, year in and year out.
For the White Sox to continue their potential run towards a division crown this season, it's vital that White Sox hitters don't suffer the mass slumps that all but sank their last two seasons.
The good news for White Sox fans is that some Sox hitters should be ready to heat up in the second half. Unfortunately, others might regress a bit towards their statistical career means.
One White Sox hitter who generally posts better second half numbers is Gordon Beckham. While Beckham, in his fourth season, has somewhat of a small sample size, the second baseman has a career OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) that is 112 points higher in the second half.
Newly acquired Kevin Youkilis generally cools off in the second half of seasons, with an OPS that is 86 points lower in the second half. 2012 should be different, however, as Youkilis struggled in Boston amidst trade rumors and repeated run-ins with manager Bobby Valentine.
Youkilis appears to be taking off on a return to his career norm, heating up just in time for the White Sox to sweep the Texas Rangers at home this past week. Youkilis knocked out two homers and had a walk-off single during the three-game series.
Other players who might regress in the second half based on their career splits are Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and A.J. Pierzynski. The three White Sox sluggers have combined for an OPS that is 137 points lower in the second half.
Again, the key for the White Sox to hold off the Tigers and Indians is for most of the lineup to avoid an extended second-half slump, a guarantee to be a season killer.
White Sox Need to Get It Done at Home
The White Sox's recent sweep of the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers was a great reminder of the energy and excitement that has been lacking in recent years at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox.
The team recorded solid attendance figures for the three-game sweep of the Rangers, and the fans were treated to three fantastic wins. The White Sox lit up the scoreboard in game one of the series, won in dramatic fashion in game two and enjoyed fantastic pitching from cast-off Jose Quintana in the series finale.
A common trait of division winners are great home records. For whatever reason, the White Sox have struggled at home in recent years, playing .500 ball at home the last two seasons, and are currently only one game over .500 at home this season.
While blame should not be passed on to the White Sox fans as the team ranks only 10th in the league in attendance, maybe the buzz created by the sweep of the Rangers will mean more fans will fill seats this summer.
Not counting the White Sox, the rest of the division leaders, combined, are currently 55 games over .500 at home this season, an average of 11 games per team.
When a division rival comes to town, or the White Sox need to win important home games in August and September, they will need every edge they can get. A loud, boisterous home crowd and a confident home team will help keep the White Sox's postseason hopes alive.
White Sox Need to Win Close Ballgames
While destroying teams 19-2 is a good way to roll, the White Sox can't always count on putting up softball scores to win ballgames, especially down the stretch.
When every pitch is hotly contested during September and October, and when divisions and playoff games are on the line, a team's success in close ballgames is key to staying on top.
While the White Sox have not performed badly in close games this season, they could use some improvement, especially to withstand the expected run by the Detroit Tigers.
The White Sox are currently 11-11 in one-run games, a respectable record, but not quite champion-caliber. Just looking at the White Sox's playoff teams of the last 20 years, the current version of the team needs to step it up in close games.
The four White Sox teams who made the postseason in the last 20 years were a combined 34 games over .500 in one-run games, with all four teams having winning records in one-run games.
As the pressure builds during a potential playoff run, the ability to finish off close games, especially with a young bullpen as the White Sox have, can be a difficult area to improve on. It is a vital need, and hopefully for the White Sox, the team will avoid the kinds of losses similar to the two they dropped in L.A. against the Dodgers this past June.
A Healthy Starting Rotation Needs to Solidfy by Season's End
While the White Sox pitching staff is currently ranked sixth in the American League, the team's starting rotation has seen its share of peaks and valleys this season.
This past offseason, White Sox brass invested long-term in left-handed starter, John Danks. The team extended his contract for five years and agreed to pay him $65 million.
Danks came into the season as the team's ace yet failed to live up to expectations, posting an earned run average of 5.70 in nine starts before landing on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Despite pitching a perfect game against the Mariners earlier this season, Philip Humber has an ERA over six this season and is also nursing an arm injury.
The White Sox have found pitching success from some unlikely arms this season. Twenty-three-year-old Chris Sale is now an All-Star, and Jake Peavy, who has struggled on the mound and in the trainer's room since joining the White Sox, nearly became an All-Star this season.
Jose Quintana, released by both New York teams in recent years, has excelled since filling in for the injured Danks. The left-handed Quintana currently has an ERA of 2.04 in eight starts and will be hard to kick out of the rotation once either Danks or Humber returns from the DL.
Before late August and September rolls around, the starting rotation should be set in stone, and manager Robin Ventura should be able to choose from six or seven healthy arms to preserve Sale and Peavy before a potential division race and playoff run begin.
The Bullpen Needs to Hold Up All Year
A potential road block to the 2012 White Sox's blueprint for success seems to have been hurdled with the emergence of Addison Reed as the team's closer.
Reed, who has a strikeout-per-nine ratio over nine this season, has saved 12 games while only blowing one after winning the closer role in May.
Demoted closer Hector Santiago has stayed on in the White Sox bullpen, yet he has a tenuous hold on his role based on recent struggles.
With recent news that veteran Jesse Crain has landed on the disabled list, the White Sox's young bullpen continues to be in a constant state of flux.
While the team can still rely on veteran Matt Thornton and continues to get solid contributions from rookies Nate Jones and Addison Reed, manager Robin Ventura still has options to lock down games in the late innings.
If the White Sox suffer any further injuries to their relievers, or extended slumps from their youngsters, the team might see its grasp on first place vanish quickly. The organization does not have an unlimited supply of young arms in the minors and actually has a notoriously thin farm system at the moment.
Win the Season Series Against the Tigers
The White Sox, who have split eight games with the Detroit Tigers this season, must get the best of the defending AL Central champs in order to get a ticket to the postseason.
Despite struggling a bit this season and residing in third place for the last six weeks, the Tigers are still clearly the team to beat in the AL Central.
With slugging first baseman Prince Fielder now calling Detroit home, and the always-dangerous Miguel Cabrera still bringing it every day, the Tigers are not going to go quietly into the night. A hot streak by the Tigers is imminent, and the best way for the White Sox to hold off the Tigers is to beat them when they get the chance.
The White Sox get to match up with the Tigers ten more times this season, and beating them is critical to the White Sox holding off a team that, in addition to Cabrera and Fielder, has the defending AL Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, in their arsenal.
While the White Sox hold the best record against division opponents this season, it is important that they not only take care of weaker division opponents, such as Minnesota and Kansas City, but they also take down Detroit.
The Tigers are clearly the team that is going to challenge the White Sox, and if they get hot and the White Sox go into an extended funk, Detroit will surely run away with the division once again.