The Chicago White Sox have more than one cause for concern following the loss of A.J. Pierzynski. There is, however, one reason the White Sox could be in trouble without Pierzynski that stands above the rest.
Pierzynski was arguably the best situational hitter the White Sox had, and they will be hard pressed to replace him.
Let this argument be prefaced by noting that he is not one of the league’s best in any given set of circumstances. Quite the contrary—Pierzynski is better than average, but not great.
These are the White Sox, though, and offense has been difficult to generate the past few seasons. Losing Pierzynski to the Texas Rangers will be next to impossible to overcome and is evidenced in the statistics.
Specifically, Pierzynski is at his best in what Baseball Reference defines as high-leverage situations.
When he hit with runners in scoring position (RISP), for example, Pierzynski stood above the rest of his White Sox teammates. In 2012 he finished with a .316 average, had a .899 OPS and drove in 47 runs in only 136 plate appearances with RISP.
As a comparison, White Sox team captain Paul Konerko finished with three more RBI but trailed the former catcher in both batting average (.285) and OPS (.835) in the same situations.
Furthermore, over the course of his 12-year career, Pierzynski is a .286 hitter and has generated a staggering 78 percent of his RBI with men in scoring position. Simply put, he delivers when it counts.
And for as good as he is with RISP, the White Sox will miss Pierzynski most with a runner on third base and less than two outs. He is a career .357 hitter with 222 RBI in those situations, and in 2012 he hit .455 with 18 RBI.
All told, his career OPS jumps from .753 to .812 and his batting average goes up to .299 when the pressure to perform is at its greatest.
It is quite amazing, really, what he has been able to accomplish.
A point could be made that some of that is attributed to Pierzynski’s unprecedented show of power in 2012. That is inaccurate. He has been consistent throughout his career.
To be fair, he swung at the first pitch too many times and could look disinterested for games on end. He also had a tendency to pull the ball far too often, which could be problematic with a runner on first and no outs.
He more than made up for those shortcomings.
Now, Pierzynski brought more to the White Sox than just situational hitting. He had an uncanny knack for making the most of any given opportunity.
During the 2005 ALCS he took what looked like a strikeout and turned it into the defining moment of their World Series run. Last year, Pierzynski scored from first base against the Oakland Athletics on an infield ground out.
He takes what the other team gives him—sometimes more—without regret. Yahoo! Sports's David Brown called him the “Great Instigator” and noted that Pierzynski was “too alert” to let a moment pass him by. He's right.
It is Pierzynski's ability to produce runs, however, that trumps all the subtleties.
Say what you will about statistics being overrated, or that they can be misleading and too easily manipulated. When it mattered most, Pierzynski did his job.
He will be missed.
I believe the White Sox will still win the AL Central thanks to their pitching staff, but will struggle in high-leverage situations without Pierzynski.
And yes, one player can make that much of a difference.
*Statistical splits courtesy of BaseballReference.com