CHICAGO – Bounce-back seasons have boosted a White Sox offense that desperately needed a makeover a year after an inconsistent debacle.
With first-year hitting coach Jeff Manto overseeing a revitalized offense, the Sox, once considered a fluke contender at the start of the season, are now on the brink of their first playoff berth since 2008.
Comeback performances by designated hitter Adam Dunn and outfielder Alex Rios elevated the Sox’s offense to a nuclear level, as opposing pitchers can attest.
The Sox would not be battling for a playoff spot without Rios’ turnaround. His two home runs, including a gland slam, and career-high six RBIs in Wednesday’s 6-2 win against the Minnesota Twins was yet another exclamation point in a terrific year.
Manto helped Rios overhaul his batting stance after last year’s dismal performance by raising his hands and suggesting he stand taller in the box. Although Rios, who is six RBIs shy of tying his career high, experiences the normal slumps in a season, his offensive production has prompted manager Robin Ventura to often refer to him as the Sox’s MVP.
Manto’s emphasis on the mental aspect of the game – focusing on the moment and stepping away from the big picture – has especially resonated with Sox hitters.
“He has a genuine, do-well attitude for us and wants to figure it out if we’re struggling,” second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “I think he’s done a really good job of not putting too much stock in everything, just day by day.”
Manto already knew some of the Sox from his time serving as the Sox’s minor league hitting coordinator the previous four years which helped ease the transition from former hitting coach Greg Walker, who resigned at the end of the 2011 season.
Beckham said his previous relationship with Manto helped him move past Walker’s departure, a tough situation given their close relationship.
“His vocabulary sometimes has been just been over my head almost,” Beckham said. “He’s a smart guy, understands a lot about the swing and he’s endeared himself to all of us in here.”
Under Manto’s tutelage 35-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski is putting together the best season of his 15-year career. With 26 games left in the regular season Pierzynski has already set a career high in home runs (24), crushing his previous best of 18 in 2005. His 71 RBIs – six shy of his career high set in 2004 with San Francisco – are third most on the Sox trailing Adam Dunn (88) and Alex Rios (82).
Considering Pierzynski’s big league experience, he could have ignored any of Manto’s advice and stuck with what he knows or the routine he has developed over the years. However, Pierzynski lauded Manto for improving his approach at the plate.
“I think that our whole coaching staff in general is forget about what you’ve done the last at-bat or two at-bats ago, yesterday or the day before because I think in this game you get chances,” Pierzynski said. “It’s a hard game, so if you dwell on the negatives and things that have gone wrong it can eat at you.”
The power numbers are up across the board for the Sox. Five starters have either surpassed their career high in home runs or are on pace to set a new personal best. The Sox’s 175 home runs this season are second most in the majors as they average 1.29 homers per game, and their 100 home runs at U.S. Cellular Field ranks third in MLB trailing the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers.
Despite the home run surge – they have already hit more homers than last year’s 154 which ranked 15th in the majors – doubles have not been a consistent part of the offensive game. Part of that stems from slow runners in the middle of the lineup, such as Dunn and Paul Konerko, clogging the base paths and often turning doubles into long singles.
Still, the Sox’s 197 doubles are the second fewest in baseball even after their franchise-record 10 doubles Tuesday which bumped them out of dead last in the majors. The lack of doubles is just another aspect that has concerned manager Robin Ventura throughout the season – the Sox’s inability to score runs without relying on home runs.
Manto, however, attributes fewer doubles to defensive adjustments. The stark gap between where the Sox rank in home runs and doubles is more of a quirky statistic than a true indicator of their offensive consistency. After all, home runs have saved the Sox too many times to count this year.
“All of our balls we’re hitting deep in the gaps are going over the fence; I’m not surprised by that at all,” Manto said.