10 reasons why surging White Sox are intriguing

Rebuilding Chicago has an impressive 16-12 record in August

August 30th, 2018

The White Sox are on their way to their sixth straight losing season, though only their second since the big post-2016 selloff that saw Chris Sale and leave town, followed a few months later by , , Tommy Kahnle and . That's neither good, nor is it terribly surprising, given their obvious rebuilding situation.

But there's a difference between not being competitors and not being interesting, because while some other second-division clubs are merely playing out the string, the White Sox are full of interesting stories. Fueled largely by young players who might be part of the next good Chicago team, the Sox have actually had a pretty strong August -- at 16-12, they have the eighth-best winning percentage in the Major Leagues this month. It will be their first winning month since last September. They're a game over .500 since the All-Star Game. They're better.

That being the case, it's time to take a look at what's making this young White Sox group far more intriguing than their 2018 season record might indicate. Sure, there's and , names you know. There's all of this, too.

1. figured out how to stop walking … anyone

Acquired from Boston in the Sale trade, reports of Kopech's velocity have bordered on near-legendary as he's progressed through the Minors, with one problem: Control, or lack of it. In 17 Triple-A starts through July 4, Kopech had walked 15 percent of hitters he'd faced. He walked four or more hitters nine times in those 17 starts. On June 14, Kopech walked eight against Norfolk.

Kopech made seven more starts in the Minors after that, during which he walked two percent of hitters he faced. (That's four walks in seven games.) In his first two Major League appearances, he hasn't walked anyone. When Kopech takes the mound Friday, it will have been a month since his last walk. It's not just an improvement, it's a stunning turnaround.

We haven't even yet seen the vaunted triple-digit heat, as Kopech has topped out at 98.5 mph, along with the third-highest fastball spin rate of any starter. If that's the trade-off for improved control, so be it. If this rebuild is going to succeed, the White Sox need Kopech to pan out. So far, so good.

2. may have solved some of his problems

Speaking of highly-touted pitching prospects, Giolito was acquired in the Eaton deal, but the early results have been, well, disastrous. As recently as 10 days ago, Giolito's ERA was north of 6.00. For most of the season, it was fair to suggest he was the least effective starter in the Majors, and even at the time of the trade, there were concerns about his actual ceiling due to unimpressive velocity and spin.

Those questions still remain, for what it's worth, but we've at least seen some real signs of improvement. After allowing a .363 OBP and 6.26 ERA through the end of July, Giolito has allowed a .272 OBP and a 3.86 ERA in August. He just held the powerful Red Sox to only two hits over 6 1/3 innings on Thursday. The reasons why are more complicated than we can get into here, but let's at least point out two big changes:

A. Giolito has added a ton of velocity. His four-seam fastball averaged 91.2 mph in April, but it's up to 93.5 mph in August. Among all pitchers who threw 100 four-seamers in both months, only three, Mike Fiers (+3.1 mph), Matthew Boyd (+3 mph), and Cole Hamels (+2.4 mph) have had a bigger increase than Giolito's +2.3 mph.

B. Giolito's changeup is moving more. In April, May and June, his change had about 7 inches of horizontal movement. In August, that's over 13 inches of movement, which is a tremendous in-season change.

3. has become an elite defender

It's easy to lose sight of Engel, because his career line of .205/.258/.316 is an almost unacceptably poor hitting performance. But take a look at 2017's Outs Above Average leaderboard, and you'll find Engel third at +20. Take a look at 2018's Outs Above average leaderboard, and you'll find Engel fourth, at +15. Outs Above Average is the Statcast™ range-based metric of outfield skill, and Engel rates up there just as well as any other fielding star.

It's not hard to see why, because Engel brings outstanding speed. He's one of only nine qualified runners (out of more than 500) to average at least 30 feet per second in Sprint Speed, where 27 feet per second is "average." That's 99th-percentile speed. Now, will Engel ever hit? Maybe or maybe not, but there's progress there, too. Only three other hitters have cut their strikeout rate more.

4. The White Sox are one of baseball's fastest teams

Speaking of elite speed: At an average Sprint Speed of 27.8 feet per second (weighted for playing time), the White Sox are second only to the Rays on the ranking of baseball's fastest teams.

That's largely about Engel, obviously, but when you look at the White Sox player leaderboard, you can see it's not him alone. , Charlie Tilson, , and are all solidly above average, north of 28 feet per second. In fact, the only Sox players who fall under the 27 feet per second Major League average are catchers, designated hitters and first basemen. Everyone else can run.

5. is an exit velocity hero

Palka, a 26-year-old rookie, has enough power in his .237/.282/.468 line that he's essentially been a league-average bat (103 OPS+), and that's because he hits the ball hard. He's got a top-10 hard-hit rate, just above Manny Machado. He has nine of the 12 hardest-hit White Sox balls this year, and only five hitters -- all big-time sluggers in , , , Joey Gallo and -- have hit more balls at 110 mph or more.

Palka still needs to improve his contact rate and figure out how to fix some impressively poor defense, but the hard-hit tool is something that can't be taught, not like this.

6. may be a reliever to build upon

A year ago, Fry was a little-noticed pitcher coming off his second Tommy John surgery working to move from the rotation into the bullpen in the Minors. Now, he's pitching high-leverage innings for Chicago, with an elite 35 percent strikeout rate that's the 12th highest of 350 pitchers who have 40 innings. Looking at Statcast™'s advanced quality-of-contract metric, Fry has been a top-20 reliever this year, on par with huge names like Felipe Vazquez and .

Fry added one of 2018's most effective pitches, a cutter that he uses nearly 30 percent of the time. He's allowed hitters just a .118 average and .147 slugging against it, along with a strikeout rate that's above 50 percent. Technically, Fry is still a rookie.

7. might actually be worth watching

Every recently successful rebuilding team has had -- in addition to the big trades and high Draft picks -- a somewhat unexpected breakout. Think about for the Cubs or for the Astros. Could Rondon be that player for Chicago? Originally an Angels prospect, he was dealt to San Diego in the 2014 trade, then sent to the White Sox for cash considerations in January.

Rondon is slugging .541, though he has all of 65 plate appearances for the Sox, so let's not go overboard yet. That said, he's tied for the most home runs in the organization with 22 (combining Majors and Minors), after hitting 20 total in a pro career dating back to 2011. We've defined a "barrel" as the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle, and Rondon's barrel rate is outstanding -- again, in a limited sample.

"I think I'm elevating the ball more than before and I'm stronger than before," Rondon told The Athletic. He's only 24. He can play a credible shortstop. He's worth paying attention to.

8. has quietly been one of baseball's better-hitting catchers

Maybe it hasn't been a strong year for catchers. , and have all been injured. No matter. Narvaez, a 2013 Minor League waiver claim, is hitting .288/.378/.438 in his third year with Chicago. Among 42 catchers with 200 plate appearances, that's tied with J.T. Realmuto for the third-best line in baseball. Since June 1, Narvaez has been a top 10 hitter regardless of position. No, that's not likely to be sustainable, but he has increased his hard-hit rate each year, from 11 percent in 2016 to 19 percent last year to 25 percent this year.

9. Matt Davidson might be the position player who can actually pitch

The powerful Davidson has put up an above-average line this year of .227/.323/.443 (110 OPS+), but in this new era of position players pitching, it's been his performance on the mound that stands out. Remember, he struck out Stanton with a pretty nice curveball.

In three scoreless appearances, Davidson has picked up nine outs, allowing only one hit.

"I think doing that kind of both ways can bring a lot of value to a team," he said earlier this month. "Where I'm an extra arm in the 'pen, you can DH, third and first, do a little everything."

We agree. It's a good way for Davidson to expand his value. How about trying him in a blowout when the Sox are up

10. is looming

Obviously. Acquired from the Cubs in the Quintana trade, Jimenez is the No. 3 prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, and he's hitting .365/.407/.615 in Triple-A. While it seems unlikely he'll debut in 2018, he should see plenty of Major League time in '19, and he's not alone: Entering this year, the White Sox had the No. 3 farm system in the game.