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The Middle Man

The Sox are better than ever on paper, but they need Anderson in center to surpass last year's team on the field.

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Last year the White Sox put together a highlights reel that played on the stadium scoreboard before games and during breaks in play. The reel expanded as the Sox advanced into the playoffs, but one of my favorite moments remained Aaron Rowand's great catch at Yankee Stadium during a series in which he pretty much stymied the Yankees at every opportunity. It was a backhanded grab in deep left-center field, Rowand running full out, leaping, catching the ball, and landing flat, and when I watched it I'd shout, "Run it down, Aaron!" as he closed on the ball.

Rowand is gone this year, traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jim Thome in a deal few Sox fans would second-guess at this point, but in the opener of a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians two weeks ago at Sox Park, Rowand's anemic-hitting replacement, rookie Brian Anderson, made an equally impressive catch. With the Sox trying to stay in a game they trailed 4-3, Brandon McCarthy gave up back-to-back singles to open the eighth inning. He struck out the next man, and then Matt Thornton, a hard-throwing left-hander, was brought in to face the Tribe's Travis Hafner. Hafner had homered against lefty Neal Cotts his previous time up to put the Indians ahead. Again he hammered the ball, deep to left center, and Anderson took after it in a manner reminiscent of Rowand's play in Yankee Stadium. I yelled, "Get it, Blondie!" Anderson ran the ball down in a full sprint, made the catch, bounced off the padded fence, spun, and fired a throw on one hop to third base to keep the runners from advancing. It was a great play, and in the bottom half of the inning the Sox rallied to score the game-winning runs: Thome walked, Paul Konerko doubled, and Jermaine Dye drove them both in with a single to center--all with two out.

That inning was the Sox season thus far in a nutshell. It reflected the new chemistry of a reconstituted championship team. The Sox, as I've written before, are a better team this year--better on paper--with deeper starting pitching (Javier Vazquez has moved in and relegated the promising McCarthy to the bullpen) and an improved lineup. Going into that series with the Indians, the heart of the Sox order--Thome, Konerko, and Dye--led all other three-four-five hitters in the majors in combined homers, walks, and runs, and the only reason they weren't first in runs batted in was the erratic performance of leadoff man Scott Podsednik. The Sox were bludgeoning their opponents.

That's not the way the Sox won it all last year. They played "Ozzie ball": they got runs one at a time by leading the league in sacrifice bunts, pitched well, and played excellent defense. Anderson has turned out to be essential in maintaining the balance between offense and defense. The bullpen has struggled this year, not just because of the loss of Jose Vizcaino--replaced by McCarthy--but because of the expected regression of Cotts and Cliff Politte. Last year both excelled in the arcane but illuminating statistic of opposing hitters' batting average on balls batted in play--a measure of a pitcher's success at getting batters to hit the ball at the fielders. Those averages more than evened out this year. Hafner's go-ahead homer off Cotts couldn't have been caught by any fielder, but contributing to the opponents' higher average was manager Ozzie Guillen's willingness to put Rob Mackowiak in center. Mackowiak is a fine addition, a reserve who can play several positions, bats ably left-handed, and generally improves a team, but no manager can get away with playing him every day in center field; he just doesn't have the range. I was reminded of how manager Davey Johnson, after his New York Mets won the 1986 championship with Len Dykstra and Mookie Wilson platooning in center, tried to get away with putting Kevin McReynolds out there the following years to add pop to the lineup. More hits dropped in, and the Mets didn't return to the World Series. Just so with the Sox and Mackowiak, who, for instance, failed to nab Michael Barrett's game-tying double against the Cubs at Sox Park, leading to the Cubs' win, which averted a sweep. Anderson might have made that play--something Guillen all but admitted afterward when he said he had lost the game as a manager.

The Sox are better, more powerful, this season, but at times there's been something missing. The Detroit Tigers made that clear the night before that game against the Indians. The Tigers salvaged the last of a three-game series with the Sox--thereby remaining first in the AL's Central Division--by beating the Sox at Ozzie ball. With the game tied at two in the sixth inning, Detroit catcher Ivan Rodriguez went from first to second on a routine fly to Mackowiak in center. That opportunism proved critical: Rodriguez scored on Carlos Guillen's single to center, and Guillen took second when backup third baseman Alex Cintron, in for the injured Joe Crede, failed to get in position to cut off the throw home. Guillen then came around to score on an infield hit when Konerko brandished the ball on a scoop-up throw from Juan Uribe and forgot about the runner. The ensuing homer by Marcus Thames put the game away.

For all their offense with the addition of Thome, the Sox have needed crisp defense to make their pitching as good as it was last year. After much debate within the organization, general manager Ken Williams decided after the Detroit loss not to send Anderson back to the minors and Guillen returned him to the starting lineup, later saying Anderson was the only player the Sox had who could play center well enough to win a championship. Baseball Prospectus soon chimed in with a statistical analysis that concluded Anderson's defense had saved the Sox 10 runs in the first third of the season, and that he was on a pace to save 24 runs more than the average center fielder over 100 games--a mark unmatched over a full season by Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Curt Flood, or Jim Edmonds. In the following weeks Anderson even began to show some improvement at the plate, raising his average to .176 as the Sox finished last weekend with a sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati and a record of 44-25 (which left them still a game and a half behind the Tigers, who swept the woeful Cubs at Wrigley Field in interleague play).

"Ozzie Guillen, then, can justifiably call Brian Anderson a championship-caliber defender," Caleb Peiffer wrote on the BP Web site, "and if Anderson starts hitting like he's capable, it could become awfully tough for AL challengers to block Guillen from backing his statements with a second ring." Go get it, Blondie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Vesely.

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