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2017 White Sox pitching leaders in historical context

It takes a special season for Derek Holland to stand out with his numbers

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at the White Sox’ 2017 hitting leaders, a lot of people were taken aback by Todd Frazier leading the team in walks despite playing for the Yankees the last two-plus months. A .330 batting average by Avisail Garcia gave the White Sox a respectable OBP leader, though, and Jose Abreu’s excellent year gave the Sox sturdy counting and rate numbers elsewhere.

The pitching side of the equation? That’s where fans felt the rebuild. Trades extracted the White Sox’ two most reliable starters and four best relievers, meaning the team’s leaderboard is full of surprises ranging from “How did he lead the team?” to “Wait, how did he lead the team?”

The reaction is warranted, because in a handful of cases, these performances were the worst to ever be the best, highest or lowest in White Sox history.

  • Wins: 7, Derek Holland and Miguel Gonzalez
  • Fewest since: Ever

Part of it is a product of the era, with fewer decisions for starters and the reduced significance of pitcher wins, but it’s still notable trivia if nothing else. The most comparable season was 1948, when Bill Wight and Joe Haynes led the White Sox with nine wins apiece. As you might expect, that team went 51-101, good for the second-worst team in White Sox history.

Stumbling onto the 1948 White Sox page answered another question I had -- what’s the lowest win total for a pitcher with a winning record? David Robertson led the team with a 4-2 record in that regard, but that’s nothing compared to 1948, when none of those 16 Sox pitchers could even get to .500.

  • Innings: 135, Holland
  • Fewest since: Ever.

I thought one of the strike-shortened seasons might have counted, but nope. In 1981, Britt Burns (156 23) and Richard Dotson (141) both have Holland beat, even though they only made 23 and 24 starts apiece.

Among full seasons, the only one vaguely comparable is 2001, when Mark Buehrle was the only one to clear Holland’s total. The difference is Buehrle threw the first of 14 consecutive 200-inning seasons.

  • ERA: 4.31, Gonzalez
  • Highest since: 1998 (5.06, Mike Sirotka)

No White Sox pitcher qualified for the ERA title in 2017, so I had to expand the search to White Sox pitchers who threw at least 120 innings. That led me to the 1998 White Sox, who finished with the worst ERA in the American League at 5.22. Every single pitcher who made a start for the 1998 White Sox had a worse ERA than Gonzalez’s 4.31. Jim Abbott made the best run at it, with a 4.55 ERA over five starts.

  • Starts: 26, Holland
  • Fewest since: 1955

I’m not counting the labor wars of 1981 and 1994, because the Sox had multiple pitchers on the doorstep of Holland’s line despite 40+ missing games. So you have to go back even further to find a White Sox pitching staff that topped out at 26 starts among its starters, and to my surprise, it was for a club that won 91 games. Starters were leveraged a bit differently in the 1950s, though, though. Billy Pierce and Virgil Trucks led the team with 26 starts, but they and the other regular starters (Dick Donovan, Jack Harshman) also made a handful of appearances in relief to cross the 30-game mark. Only Mike Pelfrey can make that claim among the 2017 starters (34 games, 21 starts).

  • Strikeouts: 109, Jose Quintana
  • Fewest since: 1949 (95, Billy Pierce)

You have to go back to 1949 to find the last time a White Sox starter failed to strike out at least 110 batters in a season. That was Pierce’s rookie season. He never struck out fewer than 113 in any of his subsequent full seasons as a starter, and he still holds the franchise strikeout record with 1,796.

  • Games: 57, Chris Beck
  • Fewest since: 1986 (54, Gene Nelson)

The late 1980s is when the modern bullpen began to take shape, so this seems about right. Beck’s lead was only made possible by the wave of trades, though. Jennings was on pace for 79 games, with Anthony Swarzak and Tommy Kahnle in the other medal positions.

What makes Beck’s season more remarkable is that he posted a 6.40 ERA over those 57 games, which is the highest ERA for any White Sox reliever who pitched that often (breaking Matt Albers’ 6.31 ERA over 58 appearances the year before). However, if you lower the bar to 54 appearances, Mike MacDougal has him beat by plenty (6.80 in 2007).

  • Saves: 13, David Robertson
  • Fewest since: 2003 (12, Tom Gordon)

2003 was the second of two seasons without a full-time closer. The first was when Jerry Manuel pulled Keith Foulke from the closer role and didn’t return him to the ninth inning until the very end of a very strong second half. The second was when Manuel’s mishandling of Foulke prompted Kenny Williams to trade him for Billy Koch. Koch only saved 11 games for the Sox in 2003, marking the start of his overall breakdown, while Foulke resumed his career as an ace reliever. At least Neal Cotts came up big in 2005.