Looking at the White Sox as assembled on Opening Day, their hopes seemed to ride on the relative reliability of the pitching staff. If nothing else, it certainly had more sure bets than the other half of the roster.
Yet here they are, sitting in first place as they start the second half today, and it's the lineup that is making Robin Ventura's life easier. The rotation and bullpen have required far more attention and patchwork, with three important White Sox pitchers -- John Danks, Philip Humber and Jesse Crain -- spending an inordinate amount of time on the disabled list by Herm Schneider's standards.
Humber, recovering from a right elbow flexor strain, looks like he'll be back with the Sox during the next full turn through the rotation. He threw six strong innings with Birmingham on Thursday, allowing a run on two hits in the first inning before retiring the last 16 he faced. Humber told Mark Gonzales he felt fine, and he'll be rejoining the Sox in Kansas City.
It's less clear with the other two. Don Cooper, talking to The Mully and Hanley Show on 670 The Score, said he hopes to get Crain back "within a short period of time." While not exactly precise, it's far more encouraging than the forecast Cooper gave for Danks:
"John is not feeling so hot, his shoulder is not feeling so good, we’ve made minimal progress with it and from my standpoint — and I don’t mean this fully, I love John — he’s not on my radar right now," Cooper said on the show. "I mean, we’ve got 12 other guys that force your attention and until John gets close and until John gets going, he’s kind of out of my mind and I don’t mean that in a bad way."
Losing two-fifths of the rotation and the primary right-handed setup man usually would foreshadow a terrible turn. Instead the White Sox snapped out of a humdrum June to win 11 of their last 15. And they accomplished this while rookies comprised two-thirds of the 12-man pitching staff.
What's remarkable about the seven-rookie undertaking (and it was eight before the break) is that the Sox had enough arms who would have deserved a look even if they weren't buying in bulk. A theme had emerged in our write-ups of the recent promotions -- all of them had managed to slash their historically high walk rates. Moreover, as a group, the Knights went from walking the most batters in the International League in 2011, to the fourth-fewest in 2012.
The best example of this phenomenon is Leyson Septimo, whom the Sox claimed off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks in June of 2011. Across three levels and three seasons in the Diamondbacks system, Septimo averaged eight walks over nine innings, prompting Larry to dub him a "public safety risk." With the White Sox, however, he experienced immediate and steady improvement.
- 2011 (AA-Mobile): 7.6 BB/9
- 2011 (Birmingham): 5.5 BB/9
- 2012 (Charlotte): 4.7 BB/9
And that last number actually understates his improvement this season, as eight of Septimo's last 10 appearances with the Knights were walkless.
"The light just turned on for the kid," said Nick Capra, White Sox director of player development. "He started to command the strike zone, throwing all these pitches for strikes."
Septimo preceded Brian Omogrosso, who preceded Deunte Heath, as longtime toilers who suddenly figured out to improve their command, and received a promotion to the big leagues as a reward. While the light may have turned on for them simultaneously, they came from different places.
Omogrosso, a sixth-round draft pick back in 2006, lost just about all of 2009 and 2010 due to a shoulder injury. Buddy Bell, White Sox vice president of player development, said Omogrosso benefited immensely from just having one full, healthy season.
"This year, it relieved him a little bit," Bell said. "He had confidence he could get through a season and bear down on his mechanics, more than he could in the past."
Unlike Septimo, whom Bell said has a simple delivery, Omogrosso uses a high leg kick, which can pose its own problems.
"Sometimes what makes them bad makes them good," Bell said. "In Omo's case, he still uses the leg kick at times. He's trying to find that happy medium."
"All pitching coaches don't like the swing -- when they have the high leg kick, they're swingers. That causes some command issues ... [but] we don't do anything to take away from their stuff. As soon as we see something that takes away from their stuff, we go the other way."
Heath, who is back in Charlotte due to Humber's impending return, battled his own ... unique ... set of circumstances. Besides the arrest that led to his release in Atlanta, he bounced between starting and relieving, which made him difficult to assess. And on top of that, Bell said he came into spring training with some bad delivery habits he may have picked up in winter ball, as he struggled with diminished his velocity and break on his slider. With help from Charlotte pitching coach Richard Dotson and the decision to cement him in a relief role, Heath was able to put his game together.
There are some commonalities in all these sudden improvements, many stemming from the chain of command. Bell, Capra and Minor League Field Coordinator Kirk Champion all praised the efforts of Dotson, as well as pitching coordinator Curt Hasler.
"'Dot' stays on top of these guys at the Triple-A level, and Hasler is as sound a delivery guy as there is," Champion said. "Giving them the information, and having those guys understand what's going on and taking it into a game. They work on the side, and they're able to carry it into the game and get that consistency."
The improved communication extends to Chicago, where the environment has been accommodating to inexperience. The White Sox began the season with three rookies in the bullpen (Addison Reed, Nate Jones and Hector Santiago), which made the addition of each new face less jarring for the clubhouse.Jose Quintana's unexpected success is a credit to all relative unknowns.
And apparently, it helps that the mostly new coaching staff has been able to meet rookies halfway, with a manager who is more involved with the players coming up.
"With Kenny [Williams] and Rick [Hahn] and Robin working hand-in-hand on the moves they're going to make, I think it's a whole different atmosphere in the clubhouse this year," Capra said.
"[Ventura] doesn't have a whole lot of highs and lows. I think that kinda helps players sometimes. They know what to expect from him, and what he expects when they play. And from the way it looks and the way it sounds, it's a heckuva turnaround from what it's been in past years."
Of course, a rookie-heavy pitching staff lends itself to incredibly uneven results, and we have seen the full spectrum of outcomes. At one end, Quintana baffles American League hitters and Reed owns the closer role. Then you have Jones, who bounces back from rocky outings well enough to hold his ground in middle relief. Dylan Axelrod helped the Sox win a couple of games with decent starts, and he also did the opposite. Santiago's season has been a slide down the depth chart interrupted by the occasional success.
The newest additions have yet to find their footing, and they may not get the chance. With Crain set to return at some point and the trade deadline approaching, Septimo and Omogrosso could be back in Charlotte by virtue of the numbers game alone.
Nobody would root against it. Even Bell said that having to rely on so many rookies -- especially ones who have only begun to throw strikes -- is not a good plan.
Yet it's a testament to the new-found stability of the Sox that an influx of unproven talent hasn't upset the course of the season. From here, the hope is that this winging migration from Charlotte (and Birmingham) to Chicago lays the groundwork toward a credible pipeline for a much-maligned system, even if only on the pitching side. The Sox have finally increased their investments in amateur and international talent, so if the development staff can habitually make strides with less-heralded talent, imagine what it might be able to do with higher ceilings.