Two weeks ago, the White Sox (29-22) were in 3rd place and four games under .500. Now they're the hottest team in baseball after winning 12 of out 13 games. As suspicious as the about-face seems, it won't take long to compile a list of reasons why the White Sox (29-22) are a legitimate playoff contender.
- Second-best run differential in the AL
- 1.5 game lead in the AL Central
- Best OPS and ERA in the division
With the expectations this season started with, the reason the White Sox are contenders could be as simple as Detroit (23-27) not being what anyone though they were; a team that was supposed to crush the division.
The Tigers started slow last year (25-25 at the same point), and can't be written off after less than a third of a season, but last year's team stayed within arms reach of a White Sox club bereft with problems until the final month. Even when they recover, they'll have to work hard to overtake a Sox team that's clearly improved.
But improved by how much?
The hot streak has been fueled by a number of sterling performances, but how reliable any of them are is open to question.
Chris Sale has a gaudy 2.34 ERA and is striking out more than a fourth of every hitter he faces. There not much in his statistical profile that says him being the best pitcher in the starting rotation is unsustainable. It's more of a game of worrying about his arm angle, constantly monitoring his velocity for signs of fatigue, and driving Don Cooper nuts with questions about his pitch counts.
Paul Konerko's nutty .381/.455/.642 batting played a starring role in last weekend's run binge, but is also propped up by a .430 batting average on balls in play. That's .140 above his career average, and still .120 over what he's averaged the past two 'renaissance' seasons. His power and contact rates suggest he's still as good as he's been since 2010, yet he simply can't bat for this kind of average, and the Sox offense creeping back above league-average is less glorious if it requires Konerko to play over his head.
Part of the burden of keeping the offense sustainable lies on Dayan Viciedo, whose recent performance mirrors the White Sox recent explosion best of all. After sitting at .196/.226/.304 on May 13th, Viciedo has gone 28 for 63, with eight home runs and only four strikeouts.
Surely the 87-HR pace over that time is a temporary power surge, and he's been having a lot of hits fall in, but the amount of contact the free and powerful-swinging Viciedo has been generating is tremendous. Without the benefit of a long track-record, and a minor league career that's witnessed multiple iterations of Dayan's approach, it's hard to tell how much of this is him just being hot, or actually figuring things out and putting his talent to use.
The same could be said for Alex Rios, his battles to find his power stroke, and the 3 HR week that resulted. Or A.J. Pierzynski's blistering start. And don't forget Nate Jones, the rookie whose wildness kept him in the minors till age 26, but now leads the bullpen in innings with a 1.73 ERA.
It might not ultimately matter in the decision-making process how sustainable the success appears to be. Kenny Williams has committed to trying to contend with teams that gave far fewer reasons for immediate optimism, and not playing from behind should be a welcome change.
An aggressive GM could make these concerns trivial by the end of the season, and more rare than the extra starter or hitter that might be needed, is this type of opportunity.