American League Central
Welcome to the final chapter of Pozeroski Baseball! This has turned into a much more massive project than I ever expected. I realized I was in trouble the other day when I looked at the Substack App and saw that the reading time for each of the divisions was (like baseball!) just getting longer and longer and longer …
National League East (reading time: 42 minutes)
American League West (reading time: 47 minutes)
National League Central (reading time: 53 minutes)
American League East (reading time: 59 minutes)
National League West (reading time: 64 minutes)
Which means the reading time for today’s American League Central preview will be, what, the rest of April? What’s wrong with me? The approximate word count for the Pozeroski Baseball Preview is like 75,000 words — that’s a whole book. About baseball. That I’ve written and researched and updated in the last two or three weeks. And will be pretty much outdated in just a few weeks.
I’m SO tired.
I hope you’ve been enjoying it. I’ve already been thinking about ways to make it better next season (tip one: Don’t wait until the last minute to do it) and would love any and all feedback you might have. And thank you for reading and subscribing.
One thing I do want to say is that I put max effort into every one of the teams, the same effort into the Royals and Red Sox and Dodgers and Yankees as I did into the Marlins and Rockies and Rangers. That’s probably not the smartest thing in the world from a time-management standpoint, as I’m not sure there are that many fans of every team, but my goal here is to give you that same feeling I had when I saw Mazeroski’s Baseball on the newsstand. My goal here is that no matter your favorite team, this will be a great experience for you.
So here’s the finale, the American League Central. Happy Opening Day and, as always, would love for you all to come along for the ride. The next huge project (Ten Who Missed!) is only a short time away.
Chicago White Sox
Last year’s record: 93-69
Let’s start with Charley Lau. You will no doubt ask what in the heck Charley Lau, the late, great hitting instructor who taught George Brett and so many others a new way to hit, has to do with this White Sox team that is very much a World Series contender in 2022. You are not wrong to ask that question.
And I cannot promise you that I have a good answer for you.
But I have basically been in a 24-hour-a-day writing fog for weeks while putting together this Pozeroski Baseball Preview for you, and so far I’ve written 25 of these team essays. I can barely see colors, at this point, if I’m being honest. So all I can do now is follow my instincts wherever they go.
And something told me to start with Charley Lau. So here we go.
Charley Lau was probably the most influential and certainly was the most controversial hitting coach in baseball history, the Socrates of Swat, as Sports Illustrated called him. Hitting meant everything to him. He lived a hard life — Lau drank too much and smoked too many cigarettes and suffered for his craft. “It’s you and me against the world,” he used to say repeatedly to his friend and disciple, Walt Hriniak. “It’s you and me against the world.”
And so it was — Ted Williams used to say that Lau set back hitting a quarter-century. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg said he ruined more hitters than any coach in baseball history. Countless people grumped that the only thing that Lau knew about hitting was that he couldn’t do it: He hit just .255 in his big-league career as a backup catcher.
But this last charge — made so many times that Lau would simply grunt whenever he heard it — was actually at the heart of what made Lau such a hitting genius. He wasn’t always a .255 hitter. Until 1961, he was a .181 hitter who knew that he could not last much longer in the big leagues unless he figured out a way to hit.
And he went to work — not like Ted Williams or Hank Greenberg, who certainly worked hard but were also gifted beyond words. No, he went to work on trying to turn a lousy hitter into a marginal one. He began building his philosophy around balance, rhythm, starting with your weight back, striding forcefully toward the pitcher and hitting the ball where it was pitched — outside pitches to the opposite field, for example.
The most famous part of Charlie Lau's philosophy was not actually that important to him. Many of his best hitters, like Brett and Joe Rudi and Lou Piniella, would take the top hand off the bat on their follow-throughs. He didn’t mind that because the important thing to him was that hitters stay loose and don’t try to muscle the ball and follow through — for some hitters, taking the top hand off the bat helped. But he didn’t really care if they took off the top hand. He just cared that they stayed fluid.
Anyway, at age 29, Lau began putting his ideas to use as a player. And, you know what? he turned himself into a pretty decent hitter. He stopped striking out, and hit the ball where it was pitched, and for the rest of his career, more than 1,000 plate appearances — even as pitchers dominated the game — Lau hit .276/.330/.402 for an above-average 103 OPS+ and became known as a dangerous pinch-hitter (or as The Baltimore Sun called him, a “pinch-hitter deluxe.”).
Lau’s feeling was: Hey, if I could turn myself into a good hitter, I sure as heck can turn someone with actual talent into a good hitter.
And that’s what he did for the rest of his too-short life. He helped countless hitters, from Hal McRae to Carlton Fisk, from Greg Luzinski to Mark Belanger, from Harold Baines to Matthew Broderick (in the movie Max Dugan Returns!).
And he changed the life of someone else. In July of 1963 — almost 60 years ago — the Kansas City Athletics purchased Lau from the Baltimore Orioles. It’s unclear why they did it, but it’s pretty unclear why the Kansas City A’s did anything. Lau joined a ragtag team of veterans heading nowhere and, more or less, for the first time in his career, became the starting catcher. He hit .294 in 62 games.
About a year earlier, the Kansas City Athletics spent a boatload of money to sign an ultra-talented 17-year-old shortstop out of Tampa. The kid seemed to have everything — speed, great glove, strong arm, good size. The A’s owner, Charlie Finley, just had to have him, so he spent a reported $80,000 (later reported as $100,000) plus a new car, plus a college education, to sign the kid.
The problem in those days with signing someone for that much money was that it meant you had to keep the player on the major league roster for a year. It was one of those funny rules that gets funnier as the years go along.
So this kid, who should have been in the minors learning how to play the game, spent all of 1963 on the Kansas City A’s roster with a bunch of cranky and hard-living old ballplayers who were undoubtedly retracing the steps that led to Kansas City in the first place. The kid barely ever played, obviously, and he also had a bum shoulder that he had injured playing softball during the offseason.
It was a thoroughly miserable experience, and he felt alone and scared and entirely uncertain about his own future.
And then Charley Lau took the kid under his wing.
Lau had watched the kid take batting practice and noticed that he had a hitch in his swing. Lau never in his life saw a broken swing he didn’t want to fix. So they worked together, day after day, on fixing that hitch, and along the way, they talked about baseball and they talked about life, and the kid never forgot.
The next year, Lau was sold back to Baltimore. The kid was sent to Lewiston, Maine, where he didn’t hit, and he spent years bouncing around, to Birmingham and Mobile and Modesto and Vancouver, and for brief moments even to a big-league club in Oakland or Atlanta. He never really did get that hitch out of his swing. He played ball until he was 32 — he spent his last four seasons with four different Class AAA teams.
Then, he realized it was over. He was finishing up his law degree by then. “As I look at it now,” the kid said, “I’ve got three options.” One was to become an agent. Second was to become a lawyer. And third, a distant third, was to get a job with a baseball team.
“I still love the game, and I have had people tell me that if I stay in baseball, they would look at me as a coach or a minor-league manager,” the kid said. “But I need to start thinking of making some money. I haven’t made much money playing baseball.”
As it turned out, the White Sox offered the kid the chance to manage their Class AA club in Knoxville. A year later, at age 34, he would become manager of the Chicago White Sox.
Yep, you probably saw it all along: The kid was Tony La Russa.
A few years later, La Russa hired a nearly broken Charley Lau to be his hitting coach. Lau, by then, had been fired multiple times, his drinking had grown worse, and the doctors had already diagnosed him with terminal cancer. La Russa will tell you, to this day, that Charlie Lau was the best damned hitting coach who ever walked the face of the earth. In 1983, they shocked the world together, winning 99 games with a White Sox team that led all of baseball in runs scored.
Charlie Lau died less than six months after the season ended, March 18, 1984 — 38 years ago.
And Tony La Russa is managing the Chicago White Sox in 2022.
On June 28, 2016, Lucas Giolito made his first big-league start for the Washington Nationals. Fans in Washington had, for years, been hearing about this phenom, this 6-foot-6 flamethrower who would join Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer to form the most dominant right-handed pitching threesome in baseball.
And on that first day, in a rain-shortened debut, he showed all his pitches — his upper-90s two-seam and four-seam fastballs, his plus changeup and especially his breathtaking curve — and he pitched four scoreless innings, allowed just one hit and seemed only to be getting stronger when the rain came and sent him happily to the showers.
Six months later, the Nationals gave up on him and traded him to the White Sox.
A few months after that, he started in Class AAA Charlotte because his fastball velocity was off and his command had completely left him.
A few months after that he endured a nightmare season with the White Sox when he went 10-13 with a 6.13 ERA. His fastball was suddenly in the lower 90s. His curveball was hanging. It was hard to see ANY of the promise that scouts had been shouting about for years.
And a few months after that, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, where he has been ever since. It’s all so strange. There’s no telling why he lost it or exactly how he found it again. But he has regained his rhythm. The curveball is mostly gone, a devastating slider had taken its place, and the changeup is now one of baseball’s best.
If Dylan Cease can take as big a step forward in 2022 as he did last year, he’s a Cy Young candidate too. Nobody ever questioned Cease’s stuff — high-90s fastball, three absolutely devastating secondary pitches — but his control and command were harrowing. He’s probably never going to be Bob Tewksbury (as his league-leading 13 wild pitches will attest), but he has become much better at being wild around the strike zone, and his stuff is so good that he struck out 226 in 165 innings. Sky. Is. The. Limit.
A few years ago, we as a family were in Asheville, N.C., and we went to a game and happened to see 19-year-old Michael Kopech pitch. There was no radar gun, as far as I know, but we were sitting pretty close to home plate, and he threw a pitch that simply looked and felt and sounded as fast as any pitch I’ve ever seen thrown in my entire life. Kopech has thrown a big-league fastball 100.8 mph, so I would imagine that pitch was probably in that range, but in that cute little park, with a few hundred people in the stands, from where I was sitting, it could have been 150 mph.
I think about that pitch a lot. Kopech finally looks ready to be a starter for a full big-league season — he struck out 103 in 69 innings last year while mostly in relief — and I’m all for it.
Lance Lynn has received Cy Young Award votes in each of the last three seasons — he really is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and I never did understand why the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers didn’t just pick him up when the Rangers were shopping him around everywhere except QVC. Lynn will likely miss most of the first two months with a slight tear in his right knee tendon.
So that leaves a fascinating collection of pitchers to fill out the rotation, including former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, one-time Phillies phenom Vince Velasquez (didn’t he used to go by Vincent?) and the ever-joyful Johnny Cueto.
Grade (Max 10): 7.0
It wasn’t entirely clear that the White Sox knew what they were doing when they gave 32-year-old closer Liam Hendriks a three-year, $54 million deal last January. In fact, I’d say it seemed pretty clear that the White Sox had absolutely no idea what they were doing — Hendriks had kicked around baseball for more than a decade, he was waived four times, traded three more times, and while, yes, he had found a nice flow in Oakland, that is a super-friendly pitchers’ park. Not every park is Oakland.
Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago is not at all like Oakland.
But you know what? Chalk one up for GM Rick Hahn and company. Hendricks was absolutely terrific for the White Sox, striking out 14.3 batters per nine innings, walking seven men all year and leading the league with 38 saves.
Aaron Bummer has such a good name for his style of pitching, which is to either strike out the batter or make him hit it on the ground. That means most of the time, opposing hitters end up doing something that leads them to walk back to the dugout grumbling, yes, “Bummer.”
Grade (Max 10): 6.5
Yasmani Grandal hurt both knees in 2021, managed to get into only 93 games, and somehow had career highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. A 157 OPS+? Incredible. Grandal has turned himself into a walk machine, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever and he’s an above-average defensive catcher — chalk up another one for Rick Hahn and the White Sox because Grandal is making that four-year, $73 million contract look like an absolute steal.
Grade (Max 10): 7.0
There is apparently an ongoing and quite passionate Reddit thread raging in White Sox World surrounding this question: “Is Yoan Moncada good?” It actually is a pretty fascinating question. The American baseball world has been waiting for years for Moncada to, basically, change the face of the game. The Red Sox signed him in 2015 for a record $31.5 million signing bonus as a free agent out of Cuba.