Even before the 2016 Major League Baseball season began, the American League looked like it was going to be a wide-open battle that any team could win in the end.

Even still, it’s surprising to see the Chicago White Sox pacing the AL in the beginning. They’ve been really good. So good, in fact, that you can’t help but stroke your chin and wonder if they’ve been too good.

But the chin-stroking can wait until after we’ve given the White Sox their due credit. They went into Wednesday’s contest against the Toronto Blue Jays riding a five-game win streak, and they pushed it to six with a 4-0 victory. Jose Quintana struck out 10 in six scoreless innings, and Dioner Navarro provided the big hit with a two-run triple in the seventh inning.

The White Sox are now 16-6, making them the winningest team in MLB and the best team in the AL by a comfortable margin.

If the AL was a town, the White Sox would be the new sheriff. They were a wildly mediocre team last year, after all, going 76-86 and finishing in fourth in the AL Central. And where it’s taken them only 22 games to get to 16 wins this year, it took them 33 games to do that last year.

How the White Sox needed to improve on last year’s thud was no a mystery. An offense that ranked last in the AL in runs and OPS needed to be fixed. The same went for a defense that finished last in the AL in efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus. Their pitching was fine, but both a top-heavy starting rotation and bullpen needed more depth.

And for now, the good news to report is the White Sox have improved on all fronts in 2016.

The White Sox’s biggest improvement has been on the run-prevention side. Their pitching staff is rocking a 2.24 ERA that edges the Washington Nationals for the major league lead, and it’s been a joint effort between their starters (2.65 ERA) and relievers (1.32 ERA).

It hasn’t all been luck, either, as Chicago’s collective 3.04 FIP (fielding independent pitching) also rates as elite. And as White Sox pitchers have done their part, so has their defense. Going into Wednesday, these were the top two defensive teams in MLB as rated by defensive efficiency:

  1. Chicago Cubs: .753
  2. Chicago White Sox: .748

That’s quite the turnaround from last season, and defensive efficiency (which measures the rate at which batted balls are converted into outs) isn’t the only metric that rates the White Sox’s defense as elite. They began Wednesday tied for second in defensive runs saved and third in ultimate zone rating.

“That’s what we focused on in spring training, and it’s kind of a culture change,” right fielder Adam Eaton told Christina Kahrl of ESPN.com. “We wanted to execute on good fundamentals, good defense, good pitching, and that’s what we’ve been getting. Defense comes to play every day.”

The White Sox’s offense, meanwhile, hasn’t been great in posting just a .683 OPS. But their lineup at least has a handful of above-average hitters after containing only two (Eaton and Jose Abreu) last season, and it’s been getting hits when they’re needed most. Navarro’s big triple Wednesday contributed to a high-leverage OPS that was an impressive .820 at the start of the day.

It all adds up to a plus-29 run differential. Just like their record, that’s the best in the American League. As far as excuses to say “See, this isn’t a fluke!” go, that’s a solid one.

But as for whether it can last, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is the White Sox’s offense can be better than merely “good enough.” It’s still waiting on Abreu to start providing his usual production, and the 29-year-old slugger presumably will get around to it eventually. Likewise, Todd Frazier is a normally dangerous hitter who’s so far been just OK. If he and Abreu get going, likely regression from guys like Melky Cabrera and Brett Lawrie will be offset.

The tricky part, though, is that the White Sox’s run production could start moving forward just as their run prevention starts moving backward.

With Eaton moving from center field to right field and Frazier in to play third base, the White Sox’s defense is certainly better now compared to last year. But only those two and Cabrera are providing standout defense early on, and Cabrera’s track record suggests his glove is not to be trusted. Add in only moderate use of shifts, and Chicago’s defense is probably playing a bit over its head.

On the mound, Chris Sale and Quintana have proved their excellence time and again, and yours truly fairly digs Carlos Rodon. And between David Robertson, Zach Duke, Matt Albers and a healthy Nate Jones, I agree with Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated that the White Sox have enough talent in their bullpen to sustain their excellent relief pitching.

But if the club’s defense comes back to earth, so will its pitching. And nobody’s going to feel that more than Mat Latos. The veteran right-hander has been a pleasant surprise with a 0.74 ERA in four starts, but he’s still struggling with diminished velocity and has put too much pressure on his defense with a minuscule strikeout rate. They haven’t yet, but the hits will come.

Once that happens, Latos‘ numbers might come to resemble the big ones attached to John Danks‘ name. That will make the White Sox’s rotation the same thing it was last year: top-heavy.

Looking down the road, the White Sox may be out of luck if they desire to fix that with help from outside. There may not be many sellers on the summer trade market, which could jack up the prices of whatever pitchers become available. And with a farm system that Baseball America ranks at No. 23, the White Sox aren’t exactly drowning in young talent.

The obligatory “long story short” here is the White Sox are overachieving. They’re an elite team in the win column, but they look less elite when you consider all the individual pieces. Their position atop the AL isn’t fixed with super glue.

However, don’t take this to mean we’re only looking at a coin with “elite” on one side and “useless” on the other.

The White Sox aren’t where they are because they’re skating by on good luck alone. With more depth on offense, defense and on the mound, they do indeed look like a better team than they were a year ago. And in this year’s AL race, that should be good enough to keep them in contention.

Maybe they won’t stay at the top of the league, but the White Sox probably aren’t going away.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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