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Defense is White Sox secret weapon

South Siders' focus on positioning helping club exceed expectations
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Tyler Saladino was talking to some White Sox coaches and players on Sunday, finalizing their plan for how to defend against the Indians with Derek Holland on the mound, when Joe McEwing offered some positive reinforcement.

McEwing, the White Sox bench coach and infield instructor, announced that the team had moved to the top of the Major League's rankings for defensive efficiency.

CHICAGO -- Tyler Saladino was talking to some White Sox coaches and players on Sunday, finalizing their plan for how to defend against the Indians with Derek Holland on the mound, when Joe McEwing offered some positive reinforcement.

McEwing, the White Sox bench coach and infield instructor, announced that the team had moved to the top of the Major League's rankings for defensive efficiency.

Saladino was surprised, because there are many flashier, more decorated units. The second baseman wasn't shocked, however.

Not like Saladino was in Spring Training, 2012, when the 41-year-old Jason Giambi came to bat for the Rockies. Saladino had made the bus trip to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, and he was playing shortstop when coaches moved him outside his comfort zone in an exaggerated shift.

"I went way over on the second-base side, and I was feeling like I was in a different country,'' Saladino said. "Giambi ended up hitting the ball into left field, and I'm still standing on the right side of the field, because it didn't even register on me that I'm the shortstop at the time.''

Five years later, the mechanics of shifting and a concentrated focus on defensive positioning has become second nature for Saladino and his White Sox teammates.

Video: MIN@CWS: Saladino makes a nice stop to rob Kepler

"It's been a process,'' Saladino said, smiling beneath his trademark handlebar mustache. "We have to figure out where to play, why to play there, when you're playing there. All the reasons -- the who, what, when and everything that goes into it.''

This is a rebuilding year for the White Sox, who traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in the offseason and remain open for business on other veterans. But so far, you can't tell that by looking at the standings, and the biggest reason for that is how well pitchers and fielders are working together to get outs on balls put in play.

"For the most part, pitching and defense has obviously kept us in a lot of games,'' Saladino said. "It's not something that happens by chance. We really try to bear down on that kind of stuff and take care of those elements. This goes back to the shifting.''

The Cubs played the best defense in more than 40 years last year, and they employed fewer shifts than anyone. But it's wrong to view this as a referendum on the need for sophisticated defensive positioning, as skipper Joe Maddon was a shifting pioneer when he managed the Rays.

"Look at their athletes,'' McEwing said. "It depends on individuals' range. You have [Anthony] Rizzo, you have [Javier] Baez, you have [Addison] Russell, you have [Kris] Bryant -- that's four pretty talented players with a lot of range. You tend to be able to cover more ground, and you don't shift as much.''

According to Statcast™, the White Sox may be more like the Cubs than they know. Through Monday, they had shifted on 72 balls that were put in play, 34 of which were grounders. That ranked 25th most on balls in play and 24th most on grounders.

But they've consistently been in the right place when the ball was hit.

On balls in play against the shift, the White Sox are allowing a .194 average, the lowest in baseball (the Braves are the worst, at .403). On grounders against the shift, that number drops to .176, the 25th lowest in baseball (Cleveland is best at .129; St. Louis is worst at .349).

Saladino credits the way pitchers like Holland, Miguel Gonzalez, James Shields, David Robertson and others have been locating their pitches.

"It helps you have confidence in the positioning you have and it gives the coaches confidence to position us places,'' Saladino said. "When they know that we're pitching effectively to where we're trying to defend, it gives them the confidence that the balls are going to end up there.''

The White Sox ranked in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency last season after being the third-least efficient defense in 2015. It's no coincidence that the improvement comes at the same time that shortstop Tim Anderson and Saladino have become regulars.

Video: CLE@CWS: Anderson makes a backhanded play at short

It wasn't that long ago that some scouts thought Anderson would need to move to center field, but he ranked 11th among Major League shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved last season.

"What everybody forgets is he's young in baseball age,'' McEwing said. "He stopped playing for four years [as a teenager] and started back up with a month left in his junior year [of high school]. The more reps he gets, the better he gets at handling the speed of the game. He makes adjustments every day. He's going to continue to get better.''

Saladino was a shortstop in the Minor Leagues, but he has shown he can be an asset all over the infield. He's been a major upgrade as the primary second baseman.

"He's a very good fielder,'' McEwing said. "I call him Tom Emanski. If I'm going to do a video, break down a video, I'm going to use him. He does a lot of things fundamentally correct, and he's so athletic. I call him 'the Tom Emanski ninja,' because he moves around like a ninja. He's a winning baseball player who can do many things for you to help you win.''

Despite Jose Quintana getting off to a shaky start as the post-Sale ace, the White Sox lead the Major Leagues with a 2.91 ERA.

This is clearly a small sample size. It seems unsustainable with the pitching staff allowing an average exit velocity of 87.9 mph (24th best) and walking 10 percent of batters (25th best).

But it's also a sign that the Sox are figuring out how to maximize the talent they have, and that's good news for the long term as well as this season.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago White Sox, Tyler Saladino