For over a decade, I have maintained a website covering various topics related to sports without writing a word about my favorite team in sports. I have been a Chicago White Sox fan for as long as I can remember. My parents told me I learned to read in part by studying Sox box scores in the Chicago Tribune. At the moment, the Sox are nearing the end of the most disappointing season I can recall. What looked like a promising team face-planted in April and never recovered. Fans and reporters have bemoaned the team’s lack of physical and mental toughness, grit and will to win. But such criticisms make me consider the definition of mental toughness in baseball. How can you tell if a player is tough or not? And how do our preconceptions of a player’s talent and mindset influence our subsequent judgments about his performance?
In 2020, the White Sox looked like a team on the rise. Following a string of mediocre seasons, the team reshaped its roster around a group of promising young players. With this core group ascending, the Sox made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But after losing their first-round series, the team fired manager Rick Renteria. In a much-maligned move, the Sox replaced him with Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who previously retired from managing after the 2011 season. The Sox made the playoffs again in La Russa’s first year, the first back-to-back postseason appearances in franchise history.
But the team underperformed in 2022, finishing 81-81 and 11 games out of first place. Following a string of second-guessed decisions, La Russa stepped away with health problems in September. Fans hoped that 2022 was a mere bump in the road. With new manager Pedro Grifol and free agent left fielder Andrew Benintendi signed to the largest contract in team history, the Sox looked poised to contend for at least a division title in 2023. Instead, with a 43-64 record at the August 1 trade deadline and 11 games out of first place, the team opted to trade veteran players for young prospects.
Problems with the White Sox
The 2023 White Sox do a lot wrong. The team is last in baseball in walk rate and on base percentage. They rank in the bottom ten in runs scored, strikeout rate, batting average and slugging percentage, and in most defensive metrics. In other words, the Sox don’t get hits, they don’t get on base, they don’t hit many doubles, triples or home runs, they strike out a lot, they don’t score runs and they don’t catch the baseball. Not a good recipe for success. The team’s pitching rebounded after a disastrous April and seemed like a strength for much of the season. But the staff bottomed out after the Sox traded six veteran pitchers at the trade deadline.
Behind the Scenes
The team’s problems go beyond on-field issues. After the Sox traded him to the New York Yankees, reliever Keynan Middleton said the White Sox lacked team rules, clubhouse culture and player accountability. Middleton accused one former teammate of sleeping in the bullpen during games. He also claimed other players skipped team meetings and pitchers’ fielding practice. Around the same time, a report surfaced of catcher Yasmani Grandal slapping shortstop Tim Anderson during a July clubhouse fracas. ESPN reporter Jesse Rodgers elaborated on Middleton’s accusations, saying “Grandal is no friend of the pitchers. [Third baseman Yoán] Moncada is no hard worker who is there for his team or his teammates… Eloy [Jimenez, an outfielder and designated hitter,] is kind of happy-go-lucky but really isn’t the hard worker, at least according to people that I talk to.”
Other non-baseball stories round out a truly disappointing and bizarre season. A June hit-and-run outside the team’s home stadium injured four fans and left one of them dangling through the offender’s sunroof. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf threatened to move the team to Nashville when their stadium lease expires in six years. And gunshots fired during an August game injured two people. A recent report accused one of the injured parties of hiding the gun in the folds of her belly fat to shield it from the stadium’s metal detectors.
The Tipping Point
But when it comes to baseball matters, White Sox fans and reporters have repeatedly aired complaints similar to Middleton’s and Rodgers’s, bemoaning the team’s lack of mental toughness, grit and will to win. These apparent shortcomings came to a head when the Sox traded infielder and designated hitter Jake Burger and kept Yoán Moncada.
Burger vs. Moncada
Jake Burger is a fan favorite with a great story. A 2017 first-round draft pick, Burger tore his left Achilles tendon twice in 2018. He battled anxiety, depression and PTSD while enduring two lengthy rehabs. During the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, Burger was not invited to the White Sox alternate site for minor league players on the cusp of making it to the majors. Eager to play anywhere, Burger found a home in the CarShield Collegiate league, where he played his first games since 2018.
The following year, the Sox promoted him to their major league team. At the time of his August 1 trade to the Miami Marlins, he was second on the team and eighth in all of baseball with 25 home runs. However, he also had the fifth-worst on-base percentage and the sixth-highest strikeout rate of any player in Major League Baseball, and is generally considered a below-average defensive third baseman.
Yoán Moncada had an even more promising start to his career. He was the number one prospect in all of minor league baseball when the Sox acquired him in a 2016 rebuilding trade. He made his White Sox debut in 2017 and had his best year in 2019, with a .315 batting average, a .367 on-base percentage, a .548 slugging percentage and 25 home runs. Since then, he has not batted above .263 or hit more than 14 home runs in a single season. He has also drawn fans’ (and Middleton’s) ire for his perceived lack of hard work and hustle.
My goal in this piece is not to argue about the relative value of these two players, which one should have been traded or how hard they each work on their games. I am not in the White Sox clubhouse of practice facilities. I don’t see what goes on off the field. But the Burger vs. Moncada debate highlights the preconceptions generated by the use of coded language in sports.
Research has shown that broadcasters, scouts and fans use different language to describe the abilities of white athletes versus athletes of color. In one study, scouts and media were more likely to describe white athletes as “gritty,” “smart,” “tough,” “coachable” and “gamer.” They were more likely to describe athletes of color as “natural,” “fluid,” “gifted” and “talented.”
“I’m not sure we’ve ever had someone quite like him physically in our system,” Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen said in 2016. “Bo Jackson was a guy built that way. Of course, he played football, too. But no one we’ve had in our system.”
Those descriptions were never applied to Burger. Nearly every article about Burger describes him as a fan favorite and power hitter, and mentions his lengthy injury recovery. In contrast to Moncada, a 2020 scouting report said Burger “carries some bad weight” and is “maxed out physically.” So while Moncada was compared to one of the best athletes of all time, Burger was euphemistically described as a fat guy who had squeezed everything he could out of his natural abilities.
The Problem with Preconceptions
This language does a disservice to both players. Moncada is 6’2” tall and weighs 225 pounds. Burger is the same height and five pounds heavier. He’s also faster than Moncada. So would Burger make an even better inside linebacker than Moncada? Is it possible that Burger has always had better athletic tools than his former teammate but lacked Moncada’s “fluidity?”
And if Moncada looks more fluid than Burger, does it seem like Burger is always trying harder than Moncada? When the two players struggle, does it seem like Burger is giving it his all while Moncada is loafing? When they are playing well, do we tend to think Burger overcame his weight and injuries while Moncada is merely showcasing his natural talent?
I am not trying to defend Moncada’s play or denigrate Burger. As a fan, I want both players to succeed. And I’m not saying there is a racial bias in White Sox media and fans’ preference for Burger over Moncada. They didn’t see much of them as prospects. They didn’t write the scouting reports. We were all told what to expect from these two players—from all athletes—long before we saw them play a full season.
Again, I don’t have any inside information about these two players. It may well be that Burger is a harder worker, tries harder and wants to win more than Moncada. But my argument is not even about Burger and Moncada, specifically. Rather, my point is that our preconceptions of athletes, whether based on their race or on other factors, can cloud our judgments of their respective effort.
Mental Toughness in Baseball
This line of argument begs further questions. What is mental toughness in baseball? What does it look like to try hard? How do people watching the game assess a player’s toughness, grit and the will to win?
Baseball is a very different sport than football or marathon running. Success in baseball doesn’t involve running through an opponent or gutting through hours of increasing discomfort. Often, trying to swing the bat harder or throw a pitch faster can lead to worse outcomes.
Baseball is unique in that it is a team sport that revolves around a series of individual matchups between hitters and pitchers. Success in each at-bat depends on physical skill but also on mental approach and focus. Gritty teams, winning teams, don’t give away at-bats or even pitches. In some respects, each at-bat is like a fencing duel with an exchange of attacks, parries and counterattacks.
In baseball, tough pitchers know their strengths and each batter’s weaknesses. They work to their strengths and attack their opponents’ weaknesses relentlessly. If a tough pitcher doesn’t have his best stuff, he adapts to what is available to him in that outing. If he makes a mistake, he focuses on rebounding and not making the same error again.
Tough hitters have a similar knowledge of opponent and self. They have an approach depending on the game situation and how they expect the pitcher to attack them. They don’t give away pitches—they don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone, they foul off good pitcher’s pitches, and they punish a pitcher’s mistakes. For an image of what tough hitters look like, watch the best teams of the past few years in the playoffs. Look at the way Dodgers and Astros hitters grind out at-bats.
The 2023 White Sox, as a team, don’t do that. They’re not a tough team, but it has nothing to do with players not playing through pain or not trying to tear the cover off the ball on every pitch. Sox hitters swing at more pitches outside the strike zone than players on any other team and are second to last in pitches per plate appearance. They are twenty-third in baseball at scoring a runner from third base with less than two outs (a situation where the batter can ground out or fly out and still drive in a run). They are tied for twenty-second in extra base hits and are twenty-fourth in slugging percentage.
Especially on offense, the White Sox lack mental toughness, grit or whatever you want to call it. They chase pitches out of the strike zone, don’t foul off tough pitches, don’t take advantage of situational opportunities and don’t punish pitchers’ mistakes. Tough players and gritty teams, at least do a few of those things well. And this lack of mental toughness doesn’t have anything to do with how hard the Sox appear to be playing. Losing teams always look bad and often look lethargic. But a lack of grit or mental toughness in baseball really shows up when you see how players approach each pitch.
Where Do They Go from Here?
There’s a lot wrong with the 2023 White Sox. If players aren’t working hard, if they’re not trying to win on a nightly basis, if they’re not held accountable for their mistakes (especially their mental mistakes), that needs to change. But what also needs to change is the way Sox players, especially the hitters, approach at-bats. Mental toughness in baseball is a skill that can be developed. But it doesn’t help to label players as smooth, naturally gifted, fluid, heavy or maxed out in terms of talent or physical ability. Instead, coaches, scouts and executives need to assess players’ strengths and weaknesses independent of any preconceptions and figure out how to help each player lean on their strengths and improve their weaknesses—physical, mental or otherwise.