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Sitting at a Sox game a couple of weeks ago with my friend Dave, he remarked, "Part of this team's problem is they don't know how to win."
This charge often is leveled at losing teams, yet defining its meaning is an abstruse exercise at best. However, in this particular game, a 4-3 loss to Detroit, the first of a three-game weekend sweep against a team that would then embark on an 11-game losing streak that just ended on Sunday, the White Sox managed to provide as good a definition as any.
Locked in a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning, the Tigers had runners on second and third with one out. A high-hopper to first baseman Jose Abreu offered a perfect chance for the soon-to-be-named All-Star to nab the runner, who was going on contact, at home. Aw, shucks. Abreu for an instant bobbled the ball, and John Hicks slid in ahead of the tag. The next two hitters struck out. By the way, Hicks, who had singled, advanced on a walk and a fly ball.
In the bottom of the inning, the Sox loaded the bases with one out. Unlike Abreu, Tiger first baseman Hicks cleanly handled a grounder for a successful force play at home. Another infield grounder ended the threat.
So how's this in explaining a lack of knowledge about winning: The inability to make routine plays in key situations with the game on the line that other teams execute with regularity?
Some might call this "choking," but we need to be gentle with this rebuilding crew. In a post last year on the team's website, general manager Rick Hahn said, "One thing Ricky [Renteria] and the rest of us have tried to emphasize since the organization meetings and again in spring training is to have a culture of what it means to be a White Sox and how we expect the game played and how we expect to go about our business from a preparation standpoint and in-game execution standpoint. That's not just in Chicago. That's throughout the minor leagues."
The sentiment is lovely, but obviously it's not working at the major league level due primarily to a lack of talent.
Former Arizona State baseball coach Bobby Winkles, who served Tony LaRussa on the Sox staff in the '80s, tells the story of when he was in the minor leagues and his manager called him into his office. "There's only one thing holding you back from making the major leagues," the skipper said.
"What's that, Skip?" responded Winkles. "Just tell me and I'll work on it."
"Your talent," deadpanned Winkles' manager.
The story describes what's missing at the major league level for the White Sox, but Hahn's declaration omits another ingredient: winning.
Assuming that Hahn's legions are thoroughly prepared to execute at bat, on the bases, in the field, and on the mound, surely the wins will far outweigh the losses. Furthermore, winning tends to beget winning as confidence and knowledge grow.
Since the Sox system is laden with outstanding prospects - MLB.com puts the Sox third behind San Diego and Atlanta - the teams at the lower levels should have winning records. Guess what? For the most part, they do. High Class-A Winston-Salem is leading the pack at 48-33. Low-A Kannapolis is 44-34, and Double-A Birmingham checks in at 38-40. While Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech receive a great deal of publicity at Triple-A Charlotte, the Knights are just 38-44.
Tossing out Triple-A, Sox farm teams in Double- and Single-A have a .549 winning percentage compared to top-rated San Diego with a .515 mark. Does this not give us hope for the future? Are things not as glum as watching the Sox get pummeled 11-3 and 13-4 in Texas last Friday and Saturday nights prior to rebounding for a 10-5 victory on Sunday?
That depends on whom you ask. Many observers would argue that wins and losses are inconsequential at the minor league level. The objective is to develop players who can excel in the big leagues. If a handful of prospects on a minor league club rise to become major leaguers, then who cares if their team wins a championship? However, things are a bit more complicated than that.
Since the Baltimore Orioles have the worst record in baseball so far this season, maybe their director of player development, Brian Graham, is not the best person to comment, but he had this to say three years ago on the Maryland Sports Network: "I think everyone wants to win, but I don't think they understand how to win. Teaching players how to win is teaching how to play the game correctly. Like defensive fundamentals. Outfielders keeping a double play in order by hitting the cutoff man, infielders executing a bunt play properly, pitchers holding runners. You have catchers blocking balls, catchers calling a good game.
"From a developmental standpoint, if you are winning games and your team is playing with a lead, you have so many more opportunities to execute in developmental areas. You have more opportunities to steal bases, opportunities to execute situational hitting . . . You have a chance to hit and run or hit behind runners. Hitters can work the count. All that happens playing in a game with a lead and you play from an aggressive, positive standpoint. Those opportunities don't present themselves as much when you are losing games."
Perhaps a more credible source would be the Mariners' organization since the big league club with a 54-31 record is headed for its best season in 15 years.
"You can't really lose all these games in the minor leagues," says Mike Micucci, the Mariners' minor league field coordinator who managed in lower levels for five seasons. "Be like 50 games under [.500], then get up here [in the majors] and it's all about winning. You have to learn how to win."
When Jerry Dipoto became the team's general manager less than three years ago, he, Micucci and farm director Andy McKay instituted the Productive Team Plate Appearance (PTPA) measurement so that players throughout the system were competing against one another for the best PTPA numbers.
The PTPA takes into account far more than slash lines, RBI and extra base hits. Among the eight criteria are advancing runners, stealing bases, taking pitches, and other factors that contribute toward team success rather than individual statistics.
"It puts everything in perspective," Micucci explains. "Whatever it takes to win, just get the job done. It allows you to do other things when you previously thought you didn't have to. It's a different way to look at how to win a baseball game. Everything is a positive if you are helping the team out."
Virtually every organization preaches that it teaches the "right way" to play the game. The Sox award minor league players of the month honors, but the Seattle method seems to codify exactly what the Mariners seek in their developing players. Weekly results for PTPA are circulated, and those with the highest ratings, regardless of what level, are celebrated at the end of the season along with honoring winning teams.
Of course, any of these approaches is susceptible to the available talent. Teams can employ the best coaching practices, planning, and preparation, but if talent is absent, good luck. On the other side, an organization can have outstanding young players who wither on the vine because of faulty, haphazard methods and poor coaching.
When the Yankees were winning all their pennants and World Series' in the 1950s, their Triple-A team at Denver very well might have been superior to cellar-dwellers like Washington and Kansas City. Future Yankees Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Don Larsen, Ryne Duren, and Johnny Blanchard were members of the Denver Bears, the elite team of the American Association. Future Yankee manager Ralph Houk guided the club for three seasons, 1955-57, winning two league championships.
In an interview in the Denver Post a number of years ago, Denver baseball historian Jay Sanford said, "Most of the players on those teams would have been in the big leagues if they were in any other organization. When they got their chance with the Yankees, many became the stars of the game."
Nary a negative word has been uttered about the Sox' talent in the minor leagues. Daily reports are circulated about the exploits of the young players who are developing into future stars on the South Side. They can hit, run, throw 100 mph fastballs, and slam tape measure home runs. But can they win?
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