The High Flying White Sox

The Chicago White Sox are flying high, with the best record in the American League. The betting markets are reacting accordingly. The White Sox are now a 9-5 favorite to win the AL Central, narrowly ahead of two-time defending American League pennant winner and defending World Series champion Kansas City. And after being priced as high as 45-1 to win the World Series at the start of the year and 30-1 only a week ago, the White Sox’ odds of pouring champagne in October are down to 18-1. Are they still good enough to justify that?

Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, everything revolves around Chicago’s starting pitching. The Big Three of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Mat Latos are off to blazing starts, each with sub-2.00 ERAs. Quintana just opened a high-profile series with the Boston Red Sox by silencing the bats of one of the league’s best lineups.

The bullpen has been no less stellar, with five pitchers, anchored by closer David Robertson combining to work nearly fifty innings and every one having an ERA under 2. It seems no matter where an opposing lineup turns, they’re stuck facing an arm with a sub-2.00 ERA.

But that very excellence invites questions. How realistic is it to sustain that sort of pace? If it’s just about the dazzling ERA numbers, there’s no chance at all. But what if we lower the bar a bit, and just ask if this is really the best pitching staff in the American League.

Sale, Quintana and Latos are all at the age that suggests growing into peak performance. Sale and Quintana are both 27, and Latos is 28, though it seems like he’s been around a lot longer. Sale has already established himself as an ace, finishing in the top six of the Cy Young voting each of the last four years.

Quintana hasn’t gotten the same media attention but since 2012 when he came up, he’s clearly established himself as a quality major league pitcher. He made 22 starts in ’12 and finished with a 3.76 ERA. Each year after that have seen him make 30-plus starts and his ERA has ranged from 3.32 to 3.51. If you’re looking for a point in his career arc for a breakout year and a Cy Young-caliber season to happen, it would be eminently reasonable for it happen this season.

Latos has had more of an up-and-down ride since since making 31 starts for San Diego in 2010 and finishing with a 2.92 ERA at the age of 22. He looked like he might come into his own as an ace and over the next three years made at least 30 starts and had an ERA in the low 3s. This included the period when he was traded to Cincinnati, eliminating the possibility his early success could have been due to the pitching-friendly Petco Park in San Diego. But Latos had injury problems in 2014, bounced around to three different teams in 2015 while pitching poorly the whole way and opened this season is a big question mark.

The back end of the Chicago rotation is a major problem. Hector Rodon is mediocre at best and the fifth spot is up for grabs, with veteran John Danks having just been designated for assignment.

Given all that, it’s reasonable to except the White Sox pitching rotation to be a strength, with Sale and Quintana at the top. But there are significant depth problems and if we’re talking about this team being priced like a division favorite we have to assume a big year from Latos.

There’s no getting around the fact the bullpen has no track record of this kind of success. The five main pitchers—Robertson, Matt Albers, Nate Jones, Zach Duke and Dan Jennings are all 29 or older and none, save perhaps Robertson in his Yankee days, are this good.

Offensively, Chicago is in the middle of the league in runs scored. There’s a similar dynamic at work in that the best players in the early going—second baseman Brett Lawrie and rightfielder Adam Eaton are each just moving into what should be the prime of their careers. Eaton has a .371 on-base percentage and at age 27 is the real deal, having been around a .360 OBP each of the previous two years.

Lawrie is another story. He’s off to a blazing start, with a .382 OBP and .495 slugging percentage. He’s 26-years-old, so you can make the case that this is his breakout year. But unlike the pitchers, Lawrie has never come anywhere close to this type of production. He’s never had an OBP higher than .324 or a slugging percentage higher than .421 in previous stints at Toronto and Oakland.

Chicago can reasonably count on first baseman Jose Abreu to hit better than he has thus far. An excellent power hitter, Abreu is only slugging .398. But even if you assume Abreu improves, he could end up just canceling out a decline from Lawrie. Which leaves the offense league-average at best.

And that brings us back to the pitching. Over one month, a hot top of the rotation can carry a team. But if there are problems on the back end, problems in the bullpen and a mediocre offense, Chicago is going to come back to the pack and making them the favorite over a battle-tested team like Kansas City, who sports a deep bullpen is going to look silly.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to eventually support the White Sox at the betting window. Their frontline pitching can make them an excellent move day-to-day, including with run-lines and parlays. If they simply get into the playoffs, pitching depth would matter less and a futures wager to win either the AL flag or the World Series can offer value. But right now, perhaps it’s a better course of action to wait and see, let the White Sox hit the inevitable slumps all teams do and see if the numbers improve.

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