Saturday, August 17, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are the final remaining original AL team that I need to cover in my Retired Numbers Series, and boy are they a lot to cover. They have retired the second most numbers of any AL team across their 113 year history. Does that sort of fast pace leave them with any near-future choices for retired numbers? Let’s find out.

Notes on the Numbers
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.

The Already Retired Numbers

The White Sox retired the first of their nine numbers back in 1975. Luke Appling’s number 4 was retired two-and-a-half decades after his twenty-year career ended (1930 to 1950, with 1944 entirely off for the war effort). In that time (all of it on the Sox), he became the franchise leader in bWAR (74.5) and fWAR (73.2), making him a more-than-worthy first honoree. He still stands as franchise leader to this day.

A year later, Nellie Fox’s number 2 was retired for the longtime Chicago second baseman. The nineteen-year MLB veteran spent fourteen seasons with the South Siders (and his remaining five season had three years with fewer than 21 games, so most of his tenure as a starter came as a White Sox). In that time, Fox managed 47.0 of his 49.0 career bWAR and 43.8 of his 45.2 fWAR.

The ChiSox would wait seven years until they honored their next player. In 1983, they finally honored their first non-Hall of Famer, Minnie Minoso. The left fielder was just three years removed from a two-game stint with the team at the age of 54, his second such short appearance. One of the earliest Latin American stars, Minoso made his mark with the White Sox, spending twelve of his seventeen seasons there. Those seasons accounted for 41.4 of his 50.2 bWAR; Fangraphs more or less agrees, crediting number 9 with 41.7 fWAR in Chicago and 50.8 in total.

The following season, the team retired number 11 in honor of Luis Aparicio. The 18-year veteran spent a decade with the team across two separate stints (1956 to 1962 and 1968 to 1970), accounting for 35.1 of his 55.7 bWAR and 31.9 of his 49.1 fWAR. His number was un-retired briefly (with his permission) for Omar Vizqul in 2010 and 2011, but it has otherwise been left retired.

Three years after that, the team had a double retirement for pitchers Billy Pierce and Ted Lyons. Lyons, number 16, is the earlier of the two, playing from 1923 to 1942 (with a short return in 1946). All 21 of those seasons came as a member of the White Sox, netting him 67.2 bWAR and 62.2 fWAR (he’s the team pitching leader in the latter). Lyons would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955.

Pierce, while a cut below Lyons, was still very good. He only managed 18 seasons, with his first two and final three coming outside of Chicago (1949 to 1961). Those thirteen seasons saw him post 49.1 bWAR and 53.0 fWAR. For the rest of his career, number 19 wasn’t noticeably better, with a total of 54.7 fWAR and 53.1 bWAR.

Their next number was a little unusual. Harold Baines had his number 3 retired in 1989 after he was traded away to Texas. He would be subsequently have his number un-retired every time he returned to the team, finally totaling fourteen seasons of his twenty-two seasons (1980 to 1989, 1996 to 1997, 2000 to 2001). That time contributed to 24.9 of his 38.4 fWAR and 24.5 of his 38.6 bWAR, as well as four all-star selections and 1773 hits.

With their next choice, 1997, the White Sox would set a major record. In retiring Carlton Fisk’s 72, they retired the highest number ever worn by a player (the Cardinals have retired 85 for owner Augie Busch, and the Indians have retired 455 for “The Fans”, however that works). The ceremony came four seasons after Fisk retired and another three years before his induction to the Hall of Fame. From 1981 to 1993, Fisk served as the primary backstop for the ChiSox, earning 28.8 bWAR and 30.1 fWAR. For his twenty-four season career, Fisk was worth 68.3 Wins in both bWAR and fWAR.

The most recent White Sox star to get his number retired was the Big Hurt himself, Frank Thomas. In August 2010, the team officially removed number 35 from circulation. Both forms of Wins Above Replacement rank Thomas’s tenure with the team the second best in franchise history, behind only Appling. From 1990 to 2005, Thomas racked up 68.1 of his 73.6 career bWAR and the same amount of his 72.4 fWAR, as well as a pair of MVP awards.

Compared to the League

There are three pairs of variables I can look at to compare different standards. I can compare the two forms of WAR, I can look at what the players did for the team in question versus their total careers, or I can look at the average WAR versus the median (to control for outliers). The ChiSox are unique, in that regardless of what combination of variables you use, the White Sox wind up in the third quartile. Generally, they wind up at the top of third quartile, though, meaning they’re close to the league average, standards-wise.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this in any other team’s piece, but to editorialize a little, I think these standards are the best. I don’t think of Hall of Fame-enshrinement as a prerequisite for a retired number; rather, I think of it as sort-of team Hall of Fame, with a bias to more players to tell a more-complete history of the team. In this regard, I think the White Sox are one of the better teams in the majors.

In any case, the White Sox’s total of nine retired numbers ties them for sixth most all-time with the Pirates, Astros, and Reds.* Ahead of them are the Yankees (16), the Cardinals (13), the Giants (11), and the Dodgers and Braves (10 each).

*Really, looking it over, I think the 9-number tier has what I would consider the ideal methodology for retiring numbers. They may not have had runs of dominance on par with the highs of those five, but they’ve all had their moments and chosen to remember all of the stars and fan favorites who played a role in those moments. What’s the harm in commemorating more players? If anything, I would argue it drives interest in the team’s history, but that’s just me.

So Who’s Next?

The White Sox propensity to retire numbers has left them without an overflowing backlog of worthy candidates. However, that doesn’t mean they’re totally lacking options. For example, one of the top three position players still doesn’t have a retired number.

Granted, Eddie Collins never actually had a uniform number to retire. That fact hasn’t stopped other similar cases from being honored in a retired number-esque fashion. And while Collins may not have the name recognition of some early stars, he was still great, Twelve of his twenty-five seasons (1915 to 1926) came with the White Sox, earning him 66.8 of his 124.0 bWAR and 64.6 of his 120.5 fWAR. Essentially, his time with the Athletics was its own Hall of Fame career just by itself. But the biggest obstacle isn’t how good Collins was. Rather, it’s trying to figure out how the team will treat an un-numbered star from nearly a century ago. It could still happen, but the fact that they’ve had nearly nine decades to do something and haven’t is telling I think.

The two forms of WAR match perfectly on the franchise’s top six hitters: Appling, Thomas, Collins, Fox, Minoso, and then Robin Ventura (both also have a slight drop off after Ventura). Baseball-Reference puts him at 39.3 of 55.8 bWAR in Chicago, while Fangraphs estimates 39.2 of 56.8 fWAR. Those career numbers are borderline Hall numbers, at least; if that information shocks you, it might help to know that both formats give him a decent bat but a great glove, to the tune of about a full extra win for every season he played.And with the majority of his sixteen seasons (1989 to 1998, to be specific) coming with the Pale Hose, he doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. I would imagine that returning to manage the team only helps his chances overall; given the recency of his career, I’m fairly optimistic that Ventura’s 23 will be retired someday. It doesn’t seem too inconsistent with what the team’s already retired, at least.

The leader boards devolve from that clearly agreed upon progression to a more general blob of players with similar value, but with minor quibbles in exact rankings. In both formats, though, George Davis and Fielder Jones rate towards the top. Their cases are remarkably similar, at least in the broad sense. Jones was a center fielder from 1896 to 1908 (with a short return for the short-lived Federal League in 1914-5). He spent eight of those seasons (1901 to 1908) as a White Sock, where he amassed 31.8 bWAR (out of 43.2) and 32.3 fWAR (out of 45.1).

Davis was another up-the-middle position (shortstop) from the turn of the century (1890 to 1909) who spent seven years in Chicago (1902, 1904 to 1909) during which time he accumulated 30-some WAR (33.0 bWAR, 32.0 fWAR). Davis, however, was better overall, earning over 80 career WAR and drawing a Hall of Fame nod. Like Jones, though, Davis never wore a uniform number. No team has honored more than two un-numbered players, and most just stay at one. I can’t imagine either of these two passing Collins on the ChiSox’s priorities, so right now, it’s probably best to assume they won’t happen.

Modern star Paul Konerko has something to make him stand out from this mass at the tail end of the team’s top 10 batters; he’s second in the franchise’s history in home runs, and helped lead the team to its first World Series since the 1910s. His WAR totals aren’t bad, at 29.9 bWAR and 26.8 fWAR across fifteen seasons. It is also worth noting that his WAR totals take a massive hit from his fielding and base running; while those are important, offense is both the most visible part of the game and the part most associated with Konerko. He is rated one of the top five hitters in team history, after all, going off of the offensive component of both WARs. I can’t imagine any White Sox fans objecting to one of their top hitters on the grounds that he couldn’t field or run well, and his importance to the 2005 team probably just push him over the top.

There really isn’t another obvious potential candidate for hitters. Magglio Ordonez (25.1 bWAR, 22.9 fWAR) is recent enough that he’d be in people’s minds, but he wasn’t overwhelmingly great and spent almost half of his career in rival Detroit (seven there, versus eight in Chicago). The same could be said for Chet Lemon (24.8 bWAR, 22.8 fWAR) except reversed in playing time (nine seasons in Detroit, only seven in Chicago). Shoeless Joe Jackson’s fame has stood the test of time, and he was great in his comparatively short time in Chicago (27.0 fWAR, 28.0 bWAR in only six seasons). But he spent more time in Cleveland, never had a uniform number, and he currently sits on baseball’s banned list. Sherm Lollar (26.1 bWAR, 32.1 fWAR), Ray Schalk (28.7 bWAR, 22.4 fWAR), and Willie Kamm (26.5 bWAR, 23.7 fWAR) all rate well, but are neither as famous as any of the other players listed nor any better (despite Schalk’s confusing Hall of Fame selection). In this case, I’d side with the players who are at least remembered. We’ve probably exhausted the batters at this point.

There are a handful of interesting pitchers to discuss. Hall of Famer Red Faber rates as one of the team’s top two pitchers in both forms of WAR, with 68.4 bWAR and 59.2 fWAR in his twenty-year career (all of it with the White Sox). He spent most of his career without numbers, although the team finally started using them in his final three seasons (1931 to 1933). In that time, he wore two different numbers. Without a particularly strong link to a particular number, it’s probably best to consider him numberless for the intent of retiring a number. While he is a Hall of Famer, he still faces a collection of problems; Collins is better remembered, and certainly the better player, meaning he’s the more likely representative of the team’s pre-number era. Faber’s eight decades away from his playing days, meaning no one remembers. And really, he wasn’t especially fantastic; both forms of WAR say about a third of his total value came just from the 1920-1922 seasons; his other seventeen seasons were just not bad. I can’t say I see this number retirement as particularly likely.

Ed Walsh is probably the better-remembered early ace; he at least still holds the record for career ERA (1.82). His career was also more or less entirely in Chicago, with only a final failed comeback attempt in 1917 with the Boston Braves. However, the biggest distinction with Faber is that Walsh’s career was much shorter; Walsh needed only thirteen season with the White Sox (1904 to 1916) to rack up a fairly similar 63.2 bWAR and 53.9 fWAR. It still isn’t as good, but it does show greater dominance. It’s also worth noting that Walsh was the runner-up in the first two AL MVP votes ever. He didn’t wear a number, but I would say that the dominance and ERA record make him more likely than any non-Collins pre-number player.

A more recent name to make a mark on their leader board is Mark Buehrle. Fangraphs has him clearly in the top five among White Sox pitchers with 43.8 fWAR, while Baseball-Reference has him in a virtual tie for fifth at 49.0 bWAR (Billy Pierce and Eddie Cicotte lead him by less than a win each). It’s also worth noting that Buehrle managed his value in less time with the team; at 2476.2 innings over twelve seasons, he has fewer innings with the team than anyone ahead of him other than Eddie Cicotte (an interesting case we’ll get to). And like Konerko, he was popular with fans and played a key role in 2005. I would say Buehrle has better odds than anyone else on this list.

Now that we’ve mentioned Eddie Cicotte, it’s probably best to cover him next. Cicotte was good in his nine seasons with the team (1912 to 1920) and got most of his career value there (49.7 bWAR, 39.6 fWAR). However, like Joe Jackson, he played before uniform numbers and was banned from baseball for his role in the Black Sox scandal. He’s more forgotten than Jackson, and while Jackson was the better player, Cicotte spent more time with the ChiSox. They’re both very unlikely, but I’d probably give Jackson a slight edge.

The other pitcher in the team’s “top tier” that’s separated itself from the rest of the pack is Wilbur Wood. One of the all-time great workhorses, Wood pitched twelve seasons (1967 to 1978) with the South Siders, with 51.8 bWAR and 37.2 fWAR in that time (although fWAR may underrate knuckleballers). That included his incredible 1971 to 1975 run, where he was not only solid in run prevention, but also threw 320+ innings each year (with 376.2 in 1972 and 358.1 in 1973, the most and third-most innings in a season since World War II). If his career hadn’t been ultimately shortened by an injury on a comeback line drive, this may have not even been a discussion. As is, he’s an interesting candidate, but he seems to have fallen off the map. We’re now three and a half decades since his career ended, and he hasn’t been in the news much. Maybe it will happen, but nothing seems immanent right now.

After that, there’s a drop off, followed by a lot of players from the team’s early history. Not that most of those players are bad; they just didn’t stand out, with most of their career value coming from pitching 250+ innings per year before they were allowed to leave via free agency. To stand out from the crowd at this point, a player would need something special. The only one that looks to have that is Tommy John. John more or less got his start in Chicago-the team acquired him from the Indians in the 1964-1965 offseason and gave him his first full season in the majors that following season. He only played seven seasons for the White Sox, with 23.8 fWAR and 24.0 bWAR in that time. While his Chicago numbers are a little low, his long career was arguably Hall-worthy, with totals of 75.2 fWAR and 62.3 bWAR. If John were to make the Hall, there’s a good chance he’d go in as a member of the White Sox-he pitched more innings there (1493.0 in seven seasons) than in New York (1367.0 in eight seasons) or Los Angeles (1198.0 in six seasons). And if he went in as a White Sock, then a retired number for him wouldn’t seem too out of the question. I feel like it’s highly dependent on him making the Hall eventually, though.

With the batting and pitching leaders covered, we can move on to covering the rest of the current roster. Chris Sale is the obvious favorite of that group. 24-year-old Sale, in his second season starting, so far has 15.3 bWAR and 10.8 fWAR and counting. This past offseason, I noted that he was the only pitcher his age above the Hall of Fame median (and therefore, in theory, on pace for Cooperstown). He clearly has the talent; now all he needs is a little luck.

Outside of Sale and Konerko, there’s really just long-shots on the current roster. Pitcher Jose Quintana has room to grow at just 24, but hasn’t dominated like Sale has so far. John Danks is still only 28 and is under contract for three more seasons and had an above-average start, but has faltered as of late due to injuries. Ozzie Guillen may make it as a manager, given his World Series title, but managers are a little more difficult to predict. He did have a .524 winning percentage in Chicago (678-617), but only eight seasons and two playoff appearances may not be enough.

So, In Closing...

As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Chicago White Sox in the future are, in order:

Mark Buehrle-56
Paul Konerko-14
Robin Ventura-23
Chris Sale-49
Tommy John-25
Ozzie Guillen-13
Eddie Collins
Ed Walsh
Wilbur Wood-28
John Danks-50
Jose Quintana-62
Red Faber-18
George Davis
Magglio Ordonez-30
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Eddie Cicotte
Chet Lemon-44
Ray Schalk
Sherm Lollar-10
Willie Kamm-7
Fielder Jones

No comments:

Post a Comment