It is really unexplainable—hard to put a finger on, at least—but after two consistent years, it is impossible to ignore: Alejandro De Aza is a good player.
The most amazing thing is that it really came out of nowhere.
De Aza was claimed off waivers in late October 2009 and generally was not seen as the White Sox answer to their perpetual hole at center field. In 2010, his only action for the Sox was in late September, with the season already a lost cause.
While he showed signs of being a solid player, the sample size was too small to make even an educated guess as to what was going to come. His major-league track record wasn’t exactly a beacon of hope either, as a .232/.279/.311 in 185 plate appearances with the Florida Marlins.
The 2011 season, like 2010, started with De Aza on the outside looking in, until he was inserted in center field on July 27 against the Detroit Tigers. De Aza never left, ending the year as the White Sox outfielder (bouncing between RF and CF).
It was clear the Sox were onto something with De Aza, but again, the sample size was small, and all signs pointed to regression. Not only was De Aza’s .329/.400/.520 line out of this world compared to what he had given the Marlins, he also had a .404 BABIP. Regression was a good bet.
Fast forward to today: regression in 2012 did not happen.
In fact, De Aza maintained a 2.7 WAR in 2012 as the White Sox everyday center fielder. The regression in BABIP came as De Aza went down to .339, but it hardly mattered. Yes, his OBP fell from .400 to a still-respectable .349, his OPS+ went down from 145 to 104 and his defense appeared to falter, but this is just nitpicking.
Largely, De Aza had a good 2012 for the White Sox.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly how the White Sox got to this two-plus WAR level with De Aza. When looking deep at his stats, nothing has really changed. He swings at similar pitches as he did with the Marlins, he is seeing the same frequency of pitches and he’s making contact on the same types of pitches.
Nothing dramatically changed, which makes his “transformation” so interesting.
More than anything, De Aza’s power emerged. His first career home run came on that fateful Wednesday afternoon (July 27) when he took the reins of the White Sox outfield. What followed was, at least in De Aza’s case, a power surge. De Aza hit four homers, had 11 doubles in 2011, and followed it up with 9 homers and 29 doubles in 2012. For someone like De Aza (37 career HR in 677 minor league games), this is a power surge.
Of course, popular opinion might be that De Aza would likely hit more homers playing in one of the best HR-hitting ballpark in the majors, U.S. Cellular Field. Well, think again, because seven of De Aza’s nine homers were on the road in 2012.
De Aza also established himself as one of the White Sox most consistent clutch players. I am not a huge fan of the concept of “clutch” but there is no denying that De Aza played well in 88 high-pressure plate appearances (.293/.384/.373).
More importantly than the raw stats was the importance De Aza had on White Sox wins. Six of his home runs, 35 of his 50 total RBIs and 20 of his 26 stolen bases came in White Sox victories. His stat line of .296/.373/.433 really shows the importance an effective leadoff hitter like De Aza had on a White Sox victory in 2012.
One potential issue is his struggles against lefties, as all nine of his homers were against right-handed pitching and his .250/.314/.367 line against lefties is not glamorous by any means.
His defense seemed to suffer in 2012, which is a small concern but nothing to worry about. His defensive metrics showed a pretty huge falloff from his outstanding numbers in 2011, but it's possible the natural fluctuation in advanced defensive metrics can explain the fall, in addition to his becoming a full-time center fielder as opposed to the utility outfielder he was for much of 2011.
Defensive Runs Saved showed a drop from two in 2011 to minus-five in 2012. Even at minus-five, it's not much of a concern, considering Alex Rios regularly put up negative DRS during his time in CF. If anything, he's an upgrade over anything currently present on the White Sox roster.
Otherwise, it is hard to pick out anything to criticize De Aza about. That could be a byproduct of low expectations going into the season, but he really does not have any fundamental flaws in his game.
I am not saying he’s a star by any means, but he’s done a fantastic job filling an important and even vital role for the White Sox. Since the departure of Aaron Rowand after the 2005 season, the White Sox have had issues filling the CF spot with a consistent, everyday player.
With De Aza, the White Sox finally seem to have that wrapped up for the short term. He certainly came out of nowhere, and while there is still some personal nervousness about his regression, it is hard to argue that not only is De Aza a good player, but for the time being, he’s here to stay.