With all the talk about Pierzynski signing with Texas, the need for a left-handed bat, and the improvement of the rest of the division relative to the stagnant White Sox, very little attention has been paid to another important area in need of improvement. That area is the bullpen. This may come as a surprise to many as it was widely believed that the White Sox bullpen was one of the strengths of the team. The bullpen was in fact pretty good in April (13th in baseball based on FIP), then the worst in baseball in May, then decent in June and July (15th and 18th respectively), ending the year at the bottom of the league in August (26th) and September (23rd). This really does not sound like the performance of a good bullpen let alone an elite one. Let’s look in more detail at the overall performance of the 2012 bullpen and see if we can point out some weaknesses.
First, let’s look at the Fangraphs’s leaderboards page and sort all the bullpens in baseball for 2012 by SIERA. SIERA is an ERA estimator that excels in predicting future pitching performance and true talent level. Unlike some other ERA estimators, SIERA takes into account the ability that some pitchers have to consistently affect the outcomes of balls in play and decreasing the influence of luck, when compared to FIP or xFIP, in overall pitching performance. This statistic also takes into account park factors and offensive environment. When ranked by SIERA, the White Sox bullpen is tied for 23rd worst with the Colorado Rockies (yes… the 64-98 Rockies). The White Sox also rank very low when looking at some other widely used statistics such as FIP where they rank 28th (ahead of only the Blue Jays and Cubs). They were 21st in K/BB, 16th in plain old ERA, and 29th in HR/9.
The top three bullpens from last season when ranked by SIERA belonged to, in order of best to worst, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cincinnati Reds. It’s not really a surprise that these three teams would be ranked so highly given some of the names in their bullpens including Fernando Rodney, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman to name only a few. Each of these bullpens excels in minimizing the number of home runs allowed, striking out a lot of batters and inducing ground balls/weak contact. It stands with logic that these would be some of the most important categories that an elite bullpen would excel at. Because relievers often enter a game when there are runners already on base, each of the skills above is necessary to prevent them from scoring late in the game. So how do the White Sox relievers fair in each of these areas?
I hate to break it to you but the White Sox bullpen did not perform well in any of these categories in comparison with the rest of baseball. Let’s start with one of the most noticeable issues from last year. That would be their homer-prone nature. In 2012 the bullpen allowed more home runs per nine innings (1.10) than every other team in baseball except for the Blue Jays, who would likely have been significantly better had their pitching staff not been decimated by injuries. I am sure I don’t have to jog your memory long to remind you of some of the epic bullpen meltdowns that came as a result of long blasts out of the sardine can confines at U.S. Cellular Field.
There was the game against the Cubs on June 18th (remember they hit five homers), which is kind of unfair since four of those homers were allowed by our old friend (enemy?) Zach Stewart (the other was off of Nate Jones). We had the game against Baltimore on April 16th when Humber, Ohman, and Thornton combined for seven innings of one-run ball (yes, Humber and Ohman were both involved) only to have Crain give up a solo shot, Santiago allow two, and Stewart one more for good measure. I am still trying to decide if the Cubs game on June 18th or the game against the Rays on September 29th was gloomier for White Sox fans. On the one hand, the Cubs hit five homes runs against the White Sox during the Crosstown Cup in U.S. Cellular Field but the Rays essentially put the last nail in the coffin that was the 2012 season with a four-homer game in which 60% of the White Sox relievers to pitch gave up a home run. I think you get the point. Home runs given up by relievers can be very costly because there generally are not a lot of outs remaining in the game with which to make up the deficit.
Some of the home run issues should hopefully be diminished due to improvement by the younger members of the staff such as Hector Santiago (1.59 HR/9) and Brian Omogrosso (1.29 HR/9), if he makes the team. A number of the other culprits, such as fan-favorites Zach Stewart (2.22 HR/9), Philip Humber (2.57 HR/9), and Will Ohman (2.03 HR/9) will no longer pose a problem in this regard as they will no longer be with the team due to being cut, traded, or both.
Losing a game that is within reach when the starter exits is a tough pill to swallow especially when all the damage is done on one swing. Further to this point, having a bullpen that allows home runs at the second highest rate in the league is simply unacceptable for any contender. One of the most obvious ways to decrease the damage done by home runs is to decrease that number of plate appearances that result in contact. To do this you need to be able to strike batters out. Last season the White Sox bullpen ranked 22nd in strike outs per nine innings at 8.06. The bullpens of the Rockies, Indians, and Marlins all sat around this level as well (that is clearly not a compliment). On an individual level we had two relievers who had a K/9 greater than 10. However, Donnie Veal (13.15 K/9) and Jesse Crain (11.25 K/9) combined for a total of only 13% of all innings pitched by the bullpen. Strike outs are very important for both our bullpen and starting rotation as U.S. Cellular Field is notorious for being a very hitter-friendly ball park. This is confirmed by its 2012 ESPN park factors (2nd in runs only behind Coors Field, 4th in HRs, 5th in hits, and 7th in doubles).
Another way to limit the number of hits allowed is to decrease the amount of hard contact that each batter makes. This usually is achieved by increasing the rate at which ground balls are the result of each at bat, which will simultaneously decrease the line drive and fly ball rates, both of which lead to more hits and home runs. Another advantage to the ground ball as it pertains to relief pitching is the valuable double play. The double play is very important in relief work given that there are usually runners on base. The White Sox ranked 26th in ground ball rate in 2012. They only trailed the Cubs, Athletics, Phillies, and Tigers (this may have been for the best given their atrocious infield defense) as the worst in this category. Of all the White Sox relievers that pitched at least 10 innings in 2012, of which there were 13, only three had at least 50% of their at bats against result in a ground ball. Two of them spent the majority of the 2012 with another team, the Charlotte Knights in the case of Dylan Axelrod and the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates for Zach Stewart. The other pitcher is Matt Thornton whose ground ball rate was higher than every other reliever on the team at 54.3% but ranks 48th out of all relievers in baseball who have pitched at least 10 innings. Donnie Veal, Hector Santiago, Jesse Crain, and Addison Reed all had a ground ball rate of less than 40%, which would qualify them all to be in the top 50 most fly ball prone relievers in baseball. This just isn’t an effective game plan in a ball park the size of my fingernail.
So what can we do to solve some of these issues and improve the bullpen as a whole? It doesn’t really make sense to me to make a trade for a reliever given that they can generally be found cheaply even on the free agent market. There are some interesting names (as interesting as they can be for a potential medium-leverage middle reliever) currently available on the free agent market. Guys like Scott Atchison, Matt Lindstrom, and Jamey Wright could make sense for the White Sox. Each pitcher is right handed, which would fill the void left by the departure of Brett Myers. They all have a career GB% of over 50% and each of them has been decent or better over the last few years. A couple of low risk options would be Brian Wilson or Peter Moylan. Both pitchers have serious questions regarding health as Brian Wilson is coming off of Tommy John surgery and Peter Moylan has only pitched in 42 combined in the minors and majors over the last two years. However, before their recent injuries issues both had a track record of success at the major league level.
However, instead of potentially overpaying for a scrap heap reliever, the White Sox could bring in a minor leaguer to fill the roll. Brian Omogrosso spent time some time with the big league club last year and wasn’t bad. He does have problems with walks and is not really a ground ball pitcher but has good stuff and he already has a taste of the big leagues. Andre Rienzo is another name that has been floated in regards to a possible 2013 roster spot. Rienzo was suspended for 50 games this season for testing positive on a test for performance-enhancing drugs. He has since pitched in the Arizona Fall League to make up some of those lost innings. His high powered fastball could help make a case for him come Spring Training.
The last White Sox minor leaguer that could be an intriguing option is Nestor Molina. Since coming over to the White Sox in the Sergio Santos trade, Nestor Molina has struggled as a starter. Many writers already believe the Molina’s future is in the bullpen. With his sinker heavy approach, he could fill the ground ball specialist void that currently exists in the White Sox bullpen. This option is only relevant if you believe that Molina does not have a future as a starter. Given the higher value of starters and Molina’s young age it still may make sense to see if he can turn a corner. However, his path to the bullpen may begin sooner than later if some progress is not made this season.
Wow… 1900 words about the fourth man in the bullpen. I think it’s time to cut this one off.