The biggest problem with the White Sox bullpen is that injuries removed their most qualified high-leverage candidates, nobody has stepped up to fill the void, and the results repeatedly bear that out.
The second biggest problem with the White Sox bullpen is that they've been so frustrating for so long that the biggest problem is now boring, and so witnesses have to find new ways to express discontent.
Jake Petricka faltered in the eighth and Javy Guerra botched the ninth on Wednesday night. It's not just that they failed to hold a four-run lead over a four-out stretch -- they didn't even get the game to extra innings. That's pretty awful pitching, but that's not particularly novel this season.
So, the attention turned to Robin Ventura's role in the mess. After all, he pulled Chris Sale after 108 pitchers with two outs in the eighth, with just a runner on third. Surely he could've faced Dustin Pedroia for a few more pitches -- it wasn't a critical situation, and given how well he had been pitching, he could've retired Pedroia in five or six pitches and close out his eight scoreless innings with a respectable pitch count of 114 or so.
At least that's how it unfurled on Twitter. While calling for the manager's head is nothing new in any medium, but it wasn't just the Chris Rongey callers this time. For instance:
Not the best week for Robin Ventura. Pays for pulling Sale after 107 pitches in 5-4 loss; lost in extras Saturday after pulling Abreu for PR— David Haugh (@DavidHaugh) July 10, 2014
It was odd to see Ventura -- not Petricka and Guerra -- being the point man for culpability. That wasn't my initial reaction, and Ventura's explanation put me further in his corner. Combining the reports from the Tribune and MLB.com gamers.
Sale recorded two outs and was at 107 pitches when White Sox manager Robin Ventura pulled him in favor of Petricka. Sale said he felt strong and was disappointed to be taken out, but Ventura said he was taking into consideration Petricka's string of 11 scoreless innings.
"That was the spot at that point for (Sale)," Ventura said. "He had been pitching hard. He was maxing out. He wasn't necessarily locating as well, and those other guys had been doing their job lately."
He started getting up there in pitches the fourth time through. You've seen this before," said Ventura of Sale. "We had Jake who has been great with righties and the way he's been pitching lately. You get him in there and you figure you are going to have a chance to get out of it. We just couldn't hold it."
Yes, we have -- so often that we wondered if Ventura was seeing the same thing we were. It's nice to know he has, and the way Wednesday's game blew up in his face makes it easier to empathize with him for previous judgments. We've seen what happens when he lets starters face hitters a fourth time. We've seen what happens when Ventura entrusts a game to the bullpen. I'll choose that one that has Sale's best interests in mind every time.
As long as we're being consistent, Ventura should also be praised for not letting Sale talk him into staying in the game, and also for not naming a closer when he doesn't have one. He gave the hot hand a shot by saving Ronald Belisario for the ninth, but when regression kicked in, Belisario went from being a relatively appreciated middle reliever to Public Enemy No. 1. He's pitched well over three extended July appearances, but he hasn't won back any hearts.
When the same situation arose with Petricka, Ventura didn't give into the same temptation. Petricka saved two games after Belisario exited, including a perfect two-inning save during his previous appearance on Sunday. The hot streak had Doug Padilla putting Petricka atop his Stock Watch:
Jake Petricka, relief pitcher: The right-hander has made eight consecutive scoreless appearances spanning 11 innings. The most impressive of the bunch was Sunday when he recorded a six-out save against the Seattle Mariners. Manager Robin Ventura won't commit to naming Petricka the exclusive closer just yet, but expect him to be on the mound the next time a save situation arises.
But there's one big reason to avoid giving Petricka any kind of rank: He doesn't hit his spots very often. He throws 98 with movement, so he can get away with misses more than most, but the lack of command and a track record makes it hard to believe that he can continue outperforming his peripherals to the extent that he has. If regression is inevitable, Ventura is doing Petricka a favor, because regression in the closer role is framed as a character flaw.
Now, the blame gets shifted. When that kind of statistical correction occurs -- and when there isn't a paint-by-numbers bullpen or pitch-count situation that eliminates second-guessing -- Ventura is left holding the bag.
It's strange to start putting Ventura on trial for the bullpen now, because everybody knows the relief corps is awful to the point of overstating it.
Over at The Catbird Seat, James tried reimagining the White Sox with the league's best bullpen and discovered ... that they'd be in the same situation as the Royals if they were lucky.
He followed that up with a couple tweets in the aftermath of Wednesday's loss.
You run the numbers that tell you Sox starting pitching is below-average and their offense is average at best— James Fegan (@JRFegan) July 10, 2014
But then the bullpen loses a Chris Sale start and you learn they'd be contenders if they could get saves— James Fegan (@JRFegan) July 10, 2014
There's no doubt that blown leads are a more agonizing way to lose than trailing all the way, because you can actually imagine and account for phantom victories more conveniently.
@tgspecial @MattSpiegel670 They're 44-49, would be in serious contention for a WC sot with a better pen.— Mauricio Rubio Jr. (@MRubio52) July 10, 2014
If only White Sox had a bullpen. Whole vibe on South Side would have been so differenf.— Ed Sherman (@Sherman_Report) July 10, 2014
Yeah, it's easy to bemoan the fate of the White Sox when it seems like they're just one piece away. But a bullpen isn't singular when it comes to constructing a team -- it accounts for 25 percent of the roster. Improving a bullpen requires turning four or five underwater roster spots into assets, which isn't easy for any team to accomplish during a season. And it's a lot harder for a rebuilding team to pull that off, because rebuilding teams are defined by an overall shortage of talent, and the Sox' bullpen talent got a lot shorter when Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones were removed from the equation.
If there's any silver lining to this, you could say the White Sox are making people forget that this is the first year of a reconstruction. Juxtapose the overarching sentiments from last season to this one, and it looks rather irrational:
- July 2013: BLOW IT UP! ALL OF IT!
- July 2014: IF ONLY THIS TEAM WERE COMPLETE!
Sometimes teams can skip the .500ish year(s) and catapult in contention, but the White Sox don't have it in them, and weren't expected to. So this remains an evaluation season, which means that many jobs have to be done by players who have yet to prove they can do them. Some may never have what it takes, but right now, that's all Ventura has his disposal.