The White Sox will soon welcome Eloy Jimenez back to the lineup, which would potentially cut into the number of designated hitter at-bats available to breakout slugger Jake Burger. With Yoan Moncada holding down third base (Burger’s natural position) and Jimenez taking many DH at-bats in addition to some work in right field, the White Sox are getting Burger some reps at second base, manager Pedro Grifol tells Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The experiment is “past the exploratory stage,” per Grifol — a strong indication that Burger will indeed slot into the lineup at second base at least occasionally. Logging work in the outfield is not under consideration at this time due to Burger’s history of Achilles injuries, but he’ll be mixed in at third base, second base, first base and designated hitter.
The White Sox’ desire to keep his bat in the lineup is understandable. Despite fanning in an untenable 32.4% of his plate appearances, Burger holds a robust .257/.315/.634 batting line thanks to a hefty 10 home runs in 111 trips to the plate. Burger has seen a massive 31.3% of his fly-balls clear the fence for a home run. While it’s unlikely he can sustain quite that level of power output — Aaron Judge had a 35.6% homer-to-flyball rate in 2022 and was the only hitter in baseball to even top 26% — there’s plenty of legitimacy to Burger’s power surge. Statcast ranks him in the 85th percentile of MLB hitters in terms of average exit velocity, and he’s in the 93rd percentile for hard-hit balls and the 99th percentile for barreled balls.
Beyond a pure desire to keep Burger in the lineup, the Sox are surely motivated by the catastrophic production they’ve received from the second base position so far in 2023. Elvis Andrus, Hanser Alberto, Romy Gonzalez and Lenyn Sosa have combined to take all of the team’s at-bats at second base this season. That group has combined for an unthinkably bad .144/.188/.207 while playing the position. Chicago second basemen have posted an astonishing single-digit wRC+ of 5 — indicating that they’ve been 95% worse than an average hitter when weighting for home park and league run-scoring environment.
Second base has been a black hole in the White Sox’ lineup all season, and while Burger likely won’t be an average defender at the position — he’s considered well below average at third base — the Sox are content to trade off some defensive shortcomings to bolster their run production. That’s been a familiar refrain for the Sox in recent seasons, as they’ve regularly trotted out poor defensive alignments — e.g. Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets in the outfield — in the name of improving the offense. Of course, that approach was one of many reasons the Sox fell shy of expectations in 2022; last year’s White Sox ranked 24th in MLB with -17 Outs Above Average, 27th in Defensive Runs Saved (-35) and dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-40.5). Only the rebuilding Pirates and Nationals made more errors.
The organization’s hope heading into the season was for a more well-rounded, better defensive product on the field. The Sox let Jose Abreu walk in free agency, thus clearing the way for Vaughn to return to first base after he’d rated as one of the game’s worst outfielders. Andrew Benintendi was signed to shore up left field. Andrus, long a well-regarded defender at shortstop, was brought back to handle second base. Top prospect Oscar Colas isn’t seen as an elite defender but was expected to be an upgrade over the Sheets/Vaughn/Jimenez carousel in right field and was given the Opening Day nod at the position.
As it stands, however, the Sox are only a marginally improved defensive club. They’re still in the bottom third of the league in DRS, UZR and OAA. Andrus hasn’t hit a lick but has played a sound second base, so swapping him out for Burger would weaken one of the few solid spots around the field in order to help beef up a lineup that ranks 20th in runs scored, 20th in home runs, 19th in batting average, 27th in on-base percentage and 20th in slugging percentage.
Jimenez’s return and continued at-bats for Burger figure to boost some of those offensive rankings. But the White Sox, who ranked as one of the game’s best defensive teams as recently as 2020, are trending toward a third straight season on the opposite end of that spectrum.