The Bullpen Is Bad, But Help Is On The Way

Prepare yourselves for my controversial, hard-hitting analysis: The White Sox bullpen is bad and ineffective. Obviously, the past offseason they dealt heavily from this area of the roster, sending Addison Reed and Hector Santiago out to the West Coast for badly needed help in the form of position players. One of them has worked out beautifully — Adam Eaton has played good center field, provided another left-handed bat, and was getting on base at a .371 clip heading into Friday night. Matt Davidson is struggling to stay above the Mendoza line in AAA. So it goes...

Some things just haven't gone as planned for the pitching staff in general. Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino were supposed to be 40% of the rotation and we all know how that worked out. That in turn forced guys like Andre Rienzo and Scott Carroll — guys who could probably survive or excel in a long relief role under the right circumstances — into extended duty, which at times has exposed their weaknesses. In fact, Rienzo has been so bad that he was sent back to Charlotte having given up 9 earned runs in the process of recording his last 7 outs.

It's pretty hard to complain about Carroll. At the end of the day, he came into the year as about 9th or 10th on the depth chart for the starting rotation, and he has managed three official Quality Starts. And like I said, it's easier to see him as a major leaguer in the bullpen. So far in 19.2IP when he has come in out of the bullpen, he boasts a 1.83 ERA. A small sample, but as an org soldier stepping in, there's value there.

If he hadn't been forced to throw those 72 innings as a starter, Carroll's year might have been the story of a lifer in the minors figuring it out and becoming a solid bullpen option — certainly one who can step in and save the rest of the staff when a starter just doesn't have it. In the long-term, 2014 is a step forward for Carroll, but for the purposes of this story, it is an example of guys who have been asked to perform beyond their capabilities due to the exigencies of the situation.

Part of this is also because Nate Jones has been out for the whole year, and Matt Lindstrom has been out for most of it. Subtract a plus reliever and an average one from many bullpens around the majors and you have a problem on your hands. Do it to Detroit and they may have to send their starters out there for 140+ pitches a game.

To go along with Carroll, after a fashion, here are the Bullpen Success Stories:

Jake Petricka walks way too many hitters. Other than that, there isn't much to complain about. His mid-90s fastball has a ton of life on it, and between 2013 and 2014 he has pitched ~80 innings in the majors while posting a ground ball percentage of 63.8%. Among qualified leaders, he is 5thin GB% by relievers this year, and for reference, the best GB% among starters is 61.9%. Understandably, Petricka has been very stingy on home runs, given this profile.

Zach Putnam is my Irrational Favorite of the year, as he was a scrap heap pickup who just throws his mid-80s splitter over and over until hitters ground out. He's throwing it 58% of the time in 2014, and so far he induces grounders 58.9% of the time the ball is put in play. Given that he is really a groundball pitcher, his 2.13 K/BB ratio is pretty encouraging. Even if he is just a one-trick pony, he's good enough to be in a good major league bullpen.

This brings is to the Bullpen Needs Improvement But You Deserve More Time Guy:

Javy Guerra was once the closer for the Dodgers ahead of Kenley "Cover Your Kids' Eyes When Their Favorite Player Tries To Hit Against Him" Jansen. He's getting older at 28, but he is averaging 93.8 on his fastball and can touch 96. His ERA is okay and his K/BB is tolerable, but somehow in a very small sample this year he has had a severe reverse platoon split, with Righties OPSing .890 against him while LHB only have OPSed .609. A glance at his heat map indicates that he just tries to pound the outer half of the plate against righties - and so far it has yielded two opposite field dingers from RHB in limited duty — whereas he changes his location a lot against lefties. No idea if there's anything meaningful there, but as the season moves on, it may be something to watch.

Guerra has the excuse that he is coming back from injury, and he's someone that should be pushed out of the bullpen by someone better supplanting him rather than saying, "Oh jeeze this guy needs to go." Although he probably leaves a disproportionately bad taste in the mouths of White Sox fans — his OPS-allowed in high leverage situations is 1.057, as opposed to mid-to-low .600s in medium and low leverage situations. Timing is everything.

And then On To The Disaster...

Ronald Belisario shares some of Guerra's profile — throws hard, not too old, scrap heap from the Dodgers. After pitching well enough to briefly seize the closer role he has been an absolute gas can, with an ERA of 6.23 on the season. 

Meanwhile, Daniel Webb has eaten up innings, but he doesn't miss as many bats as you'd like him to. A 7.5 K/9 may look acceptable, but he's only striking out 19.1% of the batters he faces — he just faces a lot more, boosting that denominator, because he walks 14.2% of the batters he faces.

Maikel Cleto and Eric Surkamp have been atrocious to the point where I don't need to describe it. But if you're in a fantasy league where minor league K/9 is a stat, these guys are must-drafts.

The net result is that White Sox relievers have the 3rd worst ERA in the majors. That's behind the Astros and the Rockies. Woof. They also committed hard to sinker ballers, which hurts the following stat, but get this: The White Sox bullpen has the worst K/BB% in the majors by a LOT. The White Sox are at 6.6%. The 29th place Rockies are at 9.9% and the #1 Yankees are almost tripling them up at 17.6%. 


But as I said - help is on the way!

It just may not be ready until September or later. Chris Beck has made his way to AAA. I am really conflicted on him, because he was a 2nd round pick who had been a 1st-round projection before injuring his arm in college. His past two outings in AAA have been pretty strong, but for the bulk of his minor league career he just hasn't struck anybody out. At all. It's like Kevin Correia but in AA. 

Carlos Rodon is missing a ton of bats in High-A but he has still allowed more walks than you would like to see. I could see this going either way for 2014 - because by all accounts his slider could get major leaguers out now. It's just a question of whether he can throw his other pitches well enough, locate well enough, and what's best for his development. With Eric Surkamp the only lefty in the bullpen it's not like there are a lot of obstacles for him, though.

Matt Lindstrom is also working his way back from the DL in Charlotte. He's been a bit shaky, but given that it was an ankle injury I wouldn't be surprised if he had a hard time keeping himself in game shape while out. I never thought I would miss his tepid competence this much, but here we are.

Chris Bassitt is also working his way back from injury at AA, and although the ERA is prettier than it should be, given his age and the strides he made last year, I would not be surprised if he earned a September call-up as a reliever and stayed up from there.

One conclusion to draw is this: The White Sox did not plan on competing in 2014. There was an outside shot they would, and they would have been fine with it, but they weren't depending on it. Spending real resources on a bullpen isn't even like putting icing on a birthday cake - it's like putting candles on it. You need it to complete the full effect, but it's the last thing you worry about. It's a luxury. The White Sox spent from their bullpen to help meet a much more important organizational need, and potentially solved two intransigent long-term problems. It looks like they solved at least one. 

The other thing we have learned is that, yeah, this year's bullpen is terrible - but at the same time, for almost no investment, they added guys like Zach Putnam and to a lesser extent Scott Carroll and Javy Guerra, who can capably fill out the back of the bullpen for next year. Another offseason flipping through the junkyard, maybe getting Nate Jones back in the second half, and another wave of potential prospects - not to mention the very real possibility that Daniel Webb improves significantly - and the bullpen could be good enough to support a contending roster next year. There's also the cascade effect of if the White Sox add to the starting rotation, Scott Carroll can slot back into the bullpen. This is a fixable problem. 

And this is a very convoluted way of saying that I am optimistic for 2015.