The White Sox' 2012 season has to be considered a surprise. Comebacks by Dunn and Rios (from the dead), a big season by Konerko and Pierzynski and the emergence of Viciendo have been big factors as has the pitching of Peavy and Sale. But perhaps the biggest surprise has been from the guy setting the table at the top of the lineup, Alejandro De Aza. If you are anything like this writer, the first response to hearing De Aza's name is, "Who the heck is this guy?" Who indeed.
De Aza is currently tied for seventh in the league in runs scored. He is among the leaders in hits. And he is a rare breed of guys from the Dominican Republic who has some patience at the plate. He played in the minor leagues for nine seasons. Nine! In that time, he averaged .289 for a batting average and .365 for an on-base percentage. He was picked off the waiver wire by the White Sox from the Marlins in 2009. That was after the Marlins picked him in the Rule 5 draft way back in 2004. He was signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent eleven years ago (!). He's never been on anyone's top prospect list. And yet here he is leading off for the White Sox, playing a fine center field and is a major reason for the team's success.
During De Aza's travels, he has managed to play parts of five seasons. His total plate appearances add up to about a full season's worth. His major league batting average over that time is .292 and his on-base percentage is .350. That's not bad. The White Sox called him up at the end of July last season and he played regularly until the end of the season. He did beautifully with a .329 average and a .400 on-base percentage. And he even slugged .520 in his 54 games. So perhaps what he is doing this season is not a fluke.
This season, in 62 games, he is batting .307 with a .382 on-base percentage and is still slugging .426, which is not bad for a lead off guy. He has maintained his average and on-base skills over 116 games now and there is a good chance that this is who this guy really is. What else can we see?
As mentioned before, players from the Dominican Republic are not known for their patience. But De Aza swings at only 24 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That is excellent and when he does swing, he does not miss very often with a swinging strike rate of only 7.6 percent. He has always hit more ground balls than fly balls and that is to be expected for a guy who is supposed to get on base. But this year, his line drive rate is pretty amazing. His 30.4 percent line drive rate is second only to Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman in the majors.
The line drives lead to a high BABIP of .370. Can that line drive rate be maintained over the course of a season. That is doubtful. So perhaps a regression to the .280 range is likely for the season. But even so, his walk rate and his patience should keep his on-base percentage up there for the season and that has become a rare commodity for lead off batters these days. The average lead off batter in the majors now has an on-base percentage of .323. That's pretty pathetic since getting on base is the goal of having a guy lead off.
And De Aza is not punchless. He has added four homers, eleven doubles and three triples to his totals, identical with what he did in his short time last season. So those do not seem fluky at all. What De Aza seems to be is a solid on-base guy who plays good center field and is an excellent base runner. This guy is a pretty darn good player. Too bad it took eleven years for him to get the chance to show it.