If Maikel Cleto is not the White Sox bullpen in a nutshell, he certainly was temporarily inhabited with its spirit Wednesday night. Possessed with nutty velocity and a slider that can look Sergio Santos-inspired, he has all the raw materials to be an effective high-leverage reliever.
Only he's not. Other teams have noticed this prior, and the White Sox tutelage machine has yet to make the league look foolish. In the meantime, Cleto is flinging his heart out at the plate and no one is biting. None of his unhittable stuff is actually getting anyone to swing-and-miss.
Part of that could just be that none of these pitches are very close to the plate. As many have noted, the White Sox walked 15 batters Wednesday night. The bullpen has walked a horrendous 38 batters in 48 innings, and 16.7% (one in every six) of the batters they have faced. It's more than they have struck out, and that's alarming, but that's also because they can't strike anyone out.
Control problems have ruined many careers and are not to be trifled with, but it's much easier to imagine that shaking out a bit after a rough couple of weeks than see a new ability to miss bats, where currently there is none.
Strikeouts per inning, strikeout percentage, the rate at which the White Sox bullpen gets opposing hitters to chase out of the strike zone, the White Sox bullpen is absolutely the worst in baseball in all of these measures through a scant 15 games. The swinging strike--good lord, the swinging strike rate--is at a soft-tosser 6.6%. Mark Buehrle had a swinging strike rate of 6.9% last year. Swinging strikes is NOT how Mark Buehrle makes his money.
Again, it's been barely two weeks. Only Daniel Webb has faced as many as 40 batters this season. Everyone least favorite person in the world, Scott Downs, has only faced 15 hitters, and Ronald Belisario is only the most extreme example of a crew that missed a ton of Spring Training time collectively.
But this could be the fallout from a policy that I spent the Spring training abiding. The Sox were thrifty all winter acquiring non-flashy bullpen arms who were likely to be more valuable to the Sox than others due to their ability to get groundballs. Everyone values and spends for high-strikeout power arms--as do the Sox--but because of U.S. Cellular Field, guys with mediocre strikeout numbers who can keep the ball out of the air can be more valuable to them than their price on the open market.
The flipside of this approach--as we've seen--is if everyone has a mild period or decline in their already modest ability to throw it by people, and the one legitimate, strikeout-per-inning flamethrower--Nate Jones--goes on the shelf. Now, they have a pack of guys who might put together decent peripherals when it's all said and done, but aren't much use when there are runners on and the game situation cannot afford a run. The White Sox offense has given the bullpen a longer leash than they deserve so far, and they have still made a mess of it.
There's time for some recovery, and it's likely, but the early extreme returns raise questions of whether the Sox went too hard in their thrift store shopping spree. That it's become necessary to try out Frank Francisco is a decent sign.