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Bunt Grunt

I've tried hard. I really have. And I'll continue to make attempts to be more inclusive and tolerant while keeping an open mind about new and different ways of looking at things. However, I can't disavow my genes. Rosters of major league ballclubs are changing constantly so that many of today's players are foreign to me. Just like when I was eight years old, when I see a new guy, I want to know what he's hitting. Not his average exit velocity, barrel rate, wins above replacement, or his spray chart but what's his batting average? Then, how many homers and RBIs? This is who I am. I also like a Polish with onions, fries and a PBR.

So I wasn't as agitated as some of the analytics' followers last Wednesday after the White Sox 4-0 loss to the Cardinals, the lone setback for the Sox in a 6-1 homestand at The Grate, leaving the local crew atop the AL Central Division with a 3½-game bulge over Cleveland.

Manager Tony La Russa's hijinks, namely the use of the sacrifice bunt, was the target of the numbers people on Wednesday. He employed this tactic three times without scoring a run. So far this season, La Russa's club has laid down 13 sacrifice bunts. Last season under Rick Renteria, the Sox registered just one sacrifice bunt in the abbreviated 60-game season, although during the 2019 campaign the number was 36.

For further comparison, the White Sox are not the only team using this old-school strategy. The Royals and Angels, have accounted for 11 and 10 sacrifices, respectively. In the National League where pitchers hit - or at least make plate appearances - the Rockies have sacrificed 17 times thus far this season, while the Cubs and Padres have had batters give themselves up 14 times.

According to FanGraphs, yielding any of the allotted 27 outs statistically is a foolish move. For the uninitiated, this intriguing website measures all matters having to do with probability and numbers. I used to worship the Sporting News for publishing every box score, both major and minor league, on a weekly basis. I envisioned a congregation of laborers hunched over typewriters, recording in agate type every professional game played in America.

This was child's play compared to what FanGraphs does. Surely they must have a humongous boiler room filled with live humans and thousands of machines measuring every pitch to each batter of every game on a daily basis. The truth is you probably (that's the key word in all of this) can eliminate people. Machines no doubt don't need much help.

FanGraphs' Win Expectancy (WE) "is the percent chance a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment. These percentages are calculated using historical data . . . " As each game begins, WE is 50 percent for both teams, meaning that each club has an equal chance to win.

However, the folks at FanGraphs acknowledge that factors such as home field, starting pitchers and lineups are relevant. So it's no surprise that they have other categories to compensate for these items.

Nevertheless, Win Expectancy plays a big part in Win Probability Added, a measure of each at-bat and how it impacts a team's chances for victory. This is where giving up any of 27 outs statistically has a negative effect on the final outcome.

If we reflect on last Wednesday's game, La Russa used the sacrifice bunt in the third, sixth, and seventh innings. Each came with no outs. In the first situation, Adam Eaton, who had four hits in his previous 33 at-bats, was ordered to bunt so that Danny Mendick and Nick Madrigal could advance with Yoan Moncada, José Abreu and Yermín Mercedes coming up. None of that trio was able to drive in a run.

In the sixth, catcher Zack Collins's sacrifice moved Andrew Vaughn to second base as the Sox were battling a 1-0 deficit. Collins had had one hit in his previous 15 at-bats, striking out seven times.

Finally, Billy Hamilton bunted in the bottom of the seventh with the score still 1-0. Madrigal moved to second, but Abreu and Mercedes wound up striking out to end the threat.

According to FanGraphs, the three sacrifices diminished the Sox chances for winning by a total of almost seven percent.

However, the inability of usually dependable middle-of-the-order hitters to drive home runs handicapped the Sox to the tune of a negative 54 percent in Win Probability Added. You be the judge.

Despite being shut out last Wednesday, La Russa's club had a glorious week. Taking two-of-three from St. Louis was the perfect tonic after being swept the previous weekend by the Yankees. The Cardinals came to town leading the NL Central.

Then came the Baltimore Orioles, losers of nine in a row. They limped out of Chicago with a 13-game skid as the Sox used exceptional starting pitching, three saves in two days by closer Liam Hendriks, and home runs on consecutive days by none other than Hamilton. Billy lined a John Means fastball into the left field seats in the fourth inning of Saturday's second game of a doubleheader to give the Sox a 1-0 edge in a game they eventually won 3-1. His third inning homer on Sunday knotted the score at one as the Sox again triumphed 3-1.

Hamilton's heroics, his defense, and his general likeability have created a situation in which a difficult decision is forthcoming. Centerfielder Adam Engel played in four games at Charlotte last week and appears healed from the hamstring injury he suffered during spring training. Engel is an elite defender whose offensive production has improved steadily over the past three seasons. He's had six hits in 16 at-bats at Charlotte while patrolling the outfield for the Knights.

So whose place would Engel take when he becomes the everyday centerfielder in the absence of Luis Robert? Hamilton would be one candidate, but after last weekend it's unlikely Billy is going anywhere. There's Jake Lamb, but he hit his third home run on Saturday in just 47 plate appearances. Lamb bats lefty, a desirable commodity for this team, and he and La Russa go back to their days with the Arizona Diamondbacks when Tony was in the front office and Lamb was making the All-Star team in 2017.

That leaves Danny Mendick, who seems like the ultimate survivor every time he gets recalled from Triple-A. An adequate defender in the infield, La Russa also has used Mendick in the outfield this season. Mendick has shown some pop with a couple of homers, and he always seems like a thorn in the side of Sox opponents whenever he gets a chance to play.

Of course, the Sox could say that Engel isn't 100 percent fit as yet, but that would be untrue, and we know how front offices embrace transparency and veracity.

In the meantime, four games are looming in Cleveland beginning with a doubleheader this afternoon. The Sox are just 12-11 on the road - compared to 20-9 at home - so the next few days will be a good test before coming home to face the Detroit Tigers, who just did something the White Sox couldn't do: They swept the Yankees for the first time in 21 years over the weekend.

This combination of an outstanding starting staff, an improving bullpen and, not withstanding last Wednesday, a generous sprinkle of clutch hitting, has catapulted the South Siders to their hottest streak of the season. On Friday they'll unveil their new City Connect uniforms that have created a loud buzz. And they'll continue to surrender outs via the sacrifice bunt.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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