CHICAGO -- Quick, name the team most likely to give Clayton Kershaw all he can handle? Or Chris Sale? Or Dallas Keuchel? Or Jonathan Lester? Or Carsten Sabathia?No, not the Astros or the Yankees. Not the Nationals or the Rockies.Until further notice -- or the anticipated midseason selloff of talent
CHICAGO -- Quick, name the team most likely to give Clayton Kershaw all he can handle? Or Chris Sale? Or Dallas Keuchel? Or Jonathan Lester? Or Carsten Sabathia?
No, not the Astros or the Yankees. Not the Nationals or the Rockies.
Until further notice -- or the anticipated midseason selloff of talent -- the team we're talking about is the rebuilding White Sox.
Their front office may not be trying to put their team into the postseason this fall, but manager Rick Renteria is trying to wring every victory he can out of his roster, and the players have insisted all season they think they can do good things. With the help of hitting coaches Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks, they're doing that consistently against left-handed pitchers.
No team in the Major Leagues has been tougher on lefties than the White Sox, whose everyday lineup features six right-handed hitters (Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia, Todd Frazier, Matt Davidson, Tim Anderson and catcher Kevan Smith) and three switch-hitters (Melky Cabrera, Leury Garcia and Yolmer Sanchez).
You can bet that the Blue Jays' J.A. Happ is aware of the challenge he's going to face on Sunday against Abreu, Garcia and the rest of that unbalanced Chicago lineup. This will be only the second chance to face a lefty starter this month, and the last shot the club had turned into a miserable experience for the Orioles' Wade Miley, who was knocked out in the third inning.
Renteria, who served as manager Robin Ventura's bench coach last season, believes his hitters are doing a good job implementing the plan of attack they're getting from Steverson and Sparks.
"Honestly, the approaches they've been taking in general have been much better this year," Renteria said of his batters. "They've started to trust the preparation they've been doing. It's another year together for a lot of these guys. The plans, in terms of how they were presented to them, are the same [as in 2016]."
The White Sox were tough on left-handers last season (.269 batting average, which ranked fifth in the Major Leagues; .755 OPS, which ranked 10th), but they have significantly raised their level this season. They entered Saturday leading the Majors with a .294 average and an .819 OPS against lefties.
They've gone 11-7 in starts against southpaws, sticking the opposing starter with a 5.14 ERA. The starter has lasted five innings or fewer in 10 of those 18 games, including a game in which Chicago struck for 10 hits and six runs against Sale, its long-time ace.
General manager Rick Hahn didn't deliberately design a team that would crush left-handers. But after each of the past three seasons, they lost a significant left-handed hitter named Adam -- Dunn after 2014, LaRoche after '15 and Eaton last season -- and they didn't replace any of them in the lineup with a proven lefty.
Frazier was acquired in a trade with the Reds two years ago. But the right-handed hitters who have created the current dynamic are guys who had previously only teased the Sox with their potential -- Garcia and Davidson.
Garcia, who hit .245 last season, has led the American League for much of this season in hitting. He has posted a .337 average (second to Aaron Judge) and a .926 OPS.
At 26, the guy known as "Mini Miggy" when he was with the Tigers is likely headed for his first All-Star Game, looking more like a guy the White Sox will want to keep than another trade piece.
Davidson, a third baseman who has largely served as Chicago's designated hitter, is leading the Sox with 15 home runs and batting .266. He was acquired from Arizona for reliever Addison Reed after the 2013 season, but he seemed stuck in Triple-A before changing the narrative with his hitting in April (.286 with four homers and a .946 OPS) when Renteria played him regularly against left-handers.
"We've got a couple guys that are kind of coming into their own, taking advantage of certain situations, having success with those situations," Renteria said. "I couldn't say for a fact that this is the way it will be all the time, but I'm glad it's happening now, for us and them. I hope it has something to do with the approach and the preparation, because it would give us something to look toward in terms of identifying it and being able to replicate it for the future."
Davidson was known for high strikeout totals and low batting averages in the Minors. He has only 11 walks to go with 74 strikeouts this season, but he's doing damage by looking to be aggressive early in counts.
That's the game plan that Steverson and Renteria drew up for Sale's visit to Guaranteed Rate Field on May 30. It worked well, even if the Red Sox lefty did strike out nine in his five innings.
Before that game, Frazier and other White Sox hitters talked about having an approach in mind that they thought would work against their old teammate. They didn't say what it was, but it was clear watching them attack fastballs early in the count.
"I think [batters] trust our plans because they've seen it does give you some dividends," Renteria said. "It doesn't always happen. There are some games you see a guy out there with 58 pitches through six innings. You're still trying to get something done with that guy, but if he's attacking the strike zone, he's attacking the strike zone."
Renteria knows he'll soon be incorporating top prospectYoan Moncada and other young batters into his lineup, including some who are currently with other organizations. This is a time of change and uncertainty that will likely add some balance to the White Sox. Credit Renteria and the hitting coaches for using it to create a process that gets results.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.