Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

Historical myth #1: The White Sox won the 2005 world championship through 'small ball'


By Roger Weber


I attended a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field last July and noticed several things. For one, during rain delays the White Sox liked to have fun – several pitchers from the bullpen ran out and slid face first across the soaked infield tarpaulin. But more relevantly I also noticed that the White Sox' 2005 lineup looked very average or even poor. Most of the players in it were either new names to me or had never been that high on my list of impressive players.


But somehow the White Sox dominated. They benefited from a "hot" start and cruised to the division title although Cleveland gave them a little run at the end of the year. The common conception is that they did it with pitching and "small ball," the convenient term for trying to score runs via singles, bunts and aggressive base-running. There is a perfection that many fans see in small ball, and despite the repeated evidence that it is generally less productive than "big ball," it still has an allure because it is a simple, aesthetically nice form of baseball.


The first claim about the White Sox' success cannot be disputed. Their pitching was excellent. They led the league in team earned run average (although finished behind Cleveland and Anaheim in runs allowed per game). They gave up the third fewest hits per game and the sixth fewest walks per game.


But the second idea that they won playing "bunt and run" baseball is less valid. They had a lineup that forced them to sometimes play that way but they did not win 99 games because they played "small ball."


The idea is fed with facts that don't totally support it. The White Sox ranked seventh in the American League in runs scored in 2005 despite having the second best record in all baseball. In games they played in, on average 8.55 runs were scored, a little less than one below the league average.


While the 2005 White Sox have been lauded as a perfect example of a team that won playing "small ball", in fact they ranked eleventh in the American League in batting average, a measure of getting hits, and seventh in the league in slugging average, a measure of power and ability to get big hits. The White Sox won more as a result of strong pitching and good defense than through this so called "small ball." And offensively they were more of a power team than most fans suspect.


The 2005 Sox hit 200 home runs, a very lofty total for a team with few "pure" power hitters other than Paul Konerko.  


The White Sox did play some "small ball," though. The team had the third most stolen bases in the American League. It also had by far the most caught steal attempts. So the stolen bases, while it may have given the Sox what some fans like to call a "mental edge," they got less benefit from their aggressive base stealing than did the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In fact according to the Stolen base runs theory (which in fairness has been shown to under-represent the value of stolen bases), the White Sox only gained between one and three runs last season through base stealing, a small proportion of the 96 they scored more than their opponents.


There were probably other ways speed and aggressive play helped the White Sox in 2005 that do not show up in the basic statistics. Often a team with many triples has been playing "small ball" and stretching doubles into bigger hits, but the White Sox ranked eleventh in the league in triples.


While they were known not as a power team, to a great extent they were a classic good American League team – they had good pitching and big hitting. They used a "hitter's park" to their advantage throughout the season. Because most of what fans saw of the White Sox was in the postseason, where teams play more conservatively and struggle for runs generally – and the White Sox played well this way – many fans saw them as a team led by their stellar pitching and speedy aggressive offense, but not their slew of unknown power hitters.


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