Chicago White Sox Poor Hitting and St. Louis Cardinals Superb Pitching: What Gives First?

Apr 22, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) throws during the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago White Sox offense has been horrific, sitting second-to-last in the majors in both runs per game (3.42) and total runs scored (123), only besting the embarrassment that is the Florida Marlins in each category. On the flip side, the St. Louis Cardinals have been predictably impressive to start the 2013 season, and their pitching has keyed the overall performance of the club with an otherworldly 3.06 team ERA heading into play on Tuesday night.

Is the White Sox offense really this bad? For a club that stayed in relative contention for most of 2012, the South Siders were expected to pressure the Detroit Tigers in a weak division, but remain in last place in the A.L. Central and six games behind Detroit. Will the Cardinals rotation maintain this level of run-prevention and the pace that they have set so early in 2013? Obviously the Cardinals are a great organization and a very good team, but to have a five-man rotation with the worst individual ERA sitting at 2.88 is unreal, not to mention unsustainable.

For starters, the White Sox don’t have a single regular with a batting average higher than Alex Rios’ .279 mark. Even worse, Chicago usually starts three players that are batting well south of the Mendoza Line in catcher Tyler Flowers (.198), first baseman Adam Dunn (.133) and second baseman Jeff Keppinger (.183). Dunn is now the worst-hitting player in the majors by batting average, and incredibly, Keppinger has not walked a single time in 128 plate appearances this year and has a line of .183/.180/.198. You read that right, his batting average is higher than his on-base percentage. Yikes.

Keppinger has been a mostly solid offensive performer over the past couple of years with Houston, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay, so a modest bump in numbers should ensue at some point. It’s hard to say what will happen with Flowers, as he has a minor league track record of getting on base and hitting with some power, but his first three-plus seasons in the majors have been nothing short of terrible.

And Dunn, well….it’s starting to look like 2011 all over again. He’s always struck out a ton, and his strikeout rate is actually as low as it has been since his 2010 campaign with the Nationals. As a true three outcomes hitter (over his career, Dunn’s plate appearances have ended in a walk, home run, or strikeout exactly 50% of the time), Dunn needs to maintain his always impressive walk rate in order to maintain the production of anything resembling a replacement-level player.

But that’s the problem – so far in 2013, Dunn’s walk rate is the lowest that it ever has been, sitting at just 10.3% after posting marks of 15.1% in 2011 and 16.2% in 2012 with a career rate of 16.1%. In addition, his strike percentage (taken and swinging) is at a career-high of 60%, and his contact rate is nearing a career-low. It appears as though pitchers are challenging him more and more and Dunn is simply failing to make them pay.

The rest of the White Sox’ offense has more or less performed as expected, save for the scuffling Paul Konerko (.214/.273/.349). Assuming Konerko bounces back and Rios’ offense-saving line of .279/.340/.507 stays consistent, the Chicago offense should steadily improve. It may very well remain in the bottom-half of the MLB, but a rise to somewhere near the middle-of-the-pack is not out of the question.

And what about that St. Louis pitching staff? The starting rotation has turned in an astonishing collective ERA of 2.29 thus far in 2013. It really isn’t a question of whether or not the number is sustainable (it’s not), but to what degree might it be somewhat sustainable.

A fully healthy Adam Wainwright is a fantastic pitcher, and while asking him to post a 2.30 ERA for the remainder of the season is unreasonable, don’t expect much regression on his part. Jaime Garcia has yet to pitch 200 innings in his still-young career, but his 3.38 career ERA says that he is likely nearly as good as his 2.88 ERA so far this season.

That leaves veteran fifth starter Jake Westbrook and youngsters Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. Westbrook’s ridiculous early season success is absolutely unsustainable, with his 1.62 ERA over just 39 innings pitched being product of significant luck. He has yet to give up a home run this season, and his 1.46 WHIP is surprisingly high for having such a sparkling ERA. It’s only a matter of time before Westbrook regresses somewhat, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to any Cardinals fan.

Lance Lynn is somewhat of a wild card, as the former first-round pick has the ability to turn into a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm for years to come. Lynn occasionally struggles with his control, and in 2013, we’ve seen an interesting trend developing over his first eight starts. While Lynn’s walk rate has jumped to 10.3% in 2013, opponents are hitting just .189 off of him thus far.

One of two things should happen: either the walks are coming at the expense of base hits, or Lynn’s been very lucky on batted balls and his control has been lacking. In looking at the peripherals, Lynn’s strike percentage is actually slightly higher than his career rate, and his opponent’s batting average on balls in play is just .250, compared to a career mark of .304.

In other words, it appears as though Lynn will regress somewhat, and unless his control improves as the year goes on, his ERA should head north of 3.00 rather quickly. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but maybe not quite the ace material that Lynn has teased fans with to this point. In fact, Lynn’s xFIP (expected Fielder Independent Pitching) is sitting at 3.83, giving us a glimpse of where his ERA is likely to end up in relatively short order.

And then there’s Shelby Miller — his filthy two-pitch mix of a 93+ mph fastball and a curveball that sits just south of 80 mph has been nearly unhittable. While we don’t have much major league data to go on at this point, Miller appears to be the real deal. It wouldn’t be fair to assume otherwise given how impressive his first 53 1/3 innings have been, but don’t expect much change in his performance.

The 162-game slate is a long, grueling campaign. With the season still less than a quarter of the way gone, it is still too early to draw any concrete conclusions. But the White Sox surprisingly poor offense and the Cardinals historically stingy pitching staff are two statistical stories to follow, and each will have a direct impact on their respective division races. Expect some movement towards the mean for both teams as the season progresses, although how much movement remains to be seen.

Topics: Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals

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