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Anthony Castrovince

In tuning out distractions, Rios has thrived

White Sox outfielder showing no signs of slowing from comeback 2012 campaign

In tuning out distractions, Rios has thrived play video for In tuning out distractions, Rios has thrived

Alex Rios is an avid reader, but he doesn't read the sports pages. He's an avid follower of Formula 1 racing, but he doesn't consider himself a sports fan. In a game that feasts on failure and invites constant critique, Rios' ability to punch out then tune out is something all baseball players would love to possess.

"This is a game based on opinions," he said. "If you are immune to those things, you make it so much easier to go out and play without any distractions or stuff like that. I really believe that it helps a lot."

It's too bad, though, that Rios isn't paying attention to what's being written and said about him these days, because it's all pretty positive.

Remember when the baseball populace was generally bewildered by the White Sox willingness to take on the nearly $70 million remaining on Rios' Blue Jays contract in a waiver claim in August 2009? And remember when then-manager Ozzie Guillen was constantly peppered with questions about why Rios was still in the starting lineup during Rios' lowly '11 season?

These are storylines lost to the winds of change, because, by every statistical measure that matters, Rios has been one of the most productive outfielders in baseball since the beginning of the 2012 season.

In that timeframe, there are just four American League outfielders with a higher OPS than Rios' .864 mark -- Mike Trout (.946), Josh Hamilton (.938), Josh Willingham (.908) and Jose Bautista (.878). Adam Jones and Hamilton are only AL outfielders to log more extra-base hits (80 and 77, respectively) than Rios (76) in that span, and only Trout (.321), Torii Hunter (.320) and Austin Jackson (.309) have hit for a higher average than Rios' .307 mark. And across the Majors, Ryan Braun is the only player at any position to join Rios in logging at least 25 homers, 35 doubles and 25 stolen bases since the start of '12.

It's too soon to say for certain if Rios' career-best '12 season -- a season in which he hit .304 with a .334 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage and was an AL Comeback Player of the Year Award candidate -- is repeatable.

But the early returns in 2013 -- a .362 average, .412 OBP, .681 SLG, four homers, three doubles and eight RBIs in 12 games -- are positive.

"I feel like I made adjustments last year that helped me through the season," Rios said. "It seems I've carried them over into this season, and they're working fine. I'm pretty pleased and right where I want to be."

The White Sox are not where they want to be after dropping five of six thus far on their first road trip. As with the 32-year-old Rios, there are questions about this Sox club's ability to repeat the surprising successes of 2012, when they won 85 games and challenged the vaunted Tigers for the AL Central crown.

Those questions arise not just because of the way the White Sox skidded in September last year but because their winter activity -- i.e., adding Jeff Keppinger to the infield -- was rather lackluster when compared to their division peers in Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland. People wonder if Jake Peavy, who was brilliant against the Indians on Sunday, can stay healthy and whether Chris Sale, who was battered on Saturday, will have any lingering ill effects from his big innings jump. The questions and concerns all have a degree of validity to them, no doubt.

But the biggest question of all might be whether a Sox lineup that ranked fourth in the league in runs scored last season can repeat the feat. It's a question the White Sox, as a unit, have not done well to answer, to date. Among AL teams, only the Rays (3.0) have scored fewer runs per game than the White Sox (3.5) in the early going.

So the Sox, clearly, need more than just a hot Rios to get the bats where they want to be. But a productive Rios is a positive starting point, because, despite all that angst he caused earlier in his Chicago tenure, he's become a major part of their middle of the order.

"I think coming into last year, you felt like he was a three-hole hitter, but last year he ended up hitting fifth," manager Robin Ventura said. "This year, he's hitting third. But it doesn't matter where he hits, he just goes out and plays. I said last year he was probably our best overall everyday player. He does the most things in a game that can help you win a game."

Perhaps Rios' 2012 season shouldn't have been quite as surprising as it was. A closer look at the numbers reveals that his 2011 struggles were mostly attributable to a disastrous dip in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) -- a stat somewhat tied into the otherwise immeasurable impact of good or bad luck. While Rios' line-drive rate was steady and his ground-ball rate decreased from 2010, his BABIP dropped from .306 in '10 to .237 in '11. When the BABIP rose to .323 last year -- much more in line with Rios' career norm and the league average -- his production rose accordingly.

Unsurprisingly for a guy who doesn't read the sports pages, let alone the advanced metrics, Rios neither knew nor cared about this.

"Stats and stuff like that, I don't pay any attention to," he said. "It's not something that keeps me up at night. I just believe that if you have a good approach, you don't focus on results."

The results have been much more positive for Rios since the beginning of 2012, and that might have something to do with his shift from center field to right (where he already has a Major League-leading four outfield assists this season). More likely, it has to do with him simplifying his stance and playing with increasing confidence.

"For some reason, you never hear a lot about Paul [Konerko] or Alex," teammate Adam Dunn said. "But Alex is one of the most exciting players to watch in the game. He has speed, power. He's kind of the rare five-tool guy."

High praise. Not that Rios is listening.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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