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The Next Step: White Sox relievers

It’s one of the deepest groups of young talent in the system, and several prospects have made it to the big show already

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
Young vet: Among bullpen stalwarts, only Nate Jones and Juan Minaya have pitched more games for the White Sox than Jace Fry.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Chicago White Sox outfield prospects, led by Eloy Jimenez get all the headlines — and deservedly so. However, the young relievers in the organization are just as good — maybe even better. We have seen many of them arrive on the South Side already, possessing great potential.

To whittle this to less than 2,500 words, the cutoff for reliever profiles was 10 appearances in 2018. (Sorry Carson Fulmer, Ryan Burr, and Jose Ruiz!)

Jace Fry: Consolidate pitching arsenal

Jace Fry has a chance to be the best reliever not just on the White Sox, but in all of baseball. In 2018, Fry had the 27th-best fWAR among relievers (minimum 50 innings), thanks to what would have been the 19th-best FIP (since Fry opened a game, FanGraphs does not count that inning in their reliever leaderboard stats ... without the opener, Fry had the 10th-best FIP). However, Fry had a 4.38 ERA, which is not a good mark for a high-end reliever.

What was the problem? It seems like Fry’s issue on the ERA front stems from his starting pitcher-like pitching arsenal.

According to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, Fry uses five pitches consistently (FanGraphs categorizes Fry’s cutter as a slider, but it is a cutter, sorry FanGraphs). He has three fastballs, a cutter, sinker, and four-seam to go along with a curve and changeup. That is a lot of pitches, even for a starter.

Depending on if a batter is left- or right-handed, Fry takes a different approach. Overall in 2018, 57% of Fry’s batters faced were righties. He had a 3.86 FIP, with a 3.00 K/BB rate against, and all four of homers allowed, against right-handed hitters. Fry predominantly used his four-seam fastball and changeup against righties, but his sinker, cutter and curve were mixed in as well. Against left-handed hitters, Fry used his cutter and curve, again with the sinker mixed in, and occasionally a four-seam fastball. He rarely used his changeup (depending on the website, he used it one or two times). Fry was much better against lefties, with a 1.35 FIP, 4.25 K/BB rate and no homers allowed.

Fry should either take his four-seam fastball and sinker out of his arsenal, or use his cutter more often, especially against right-handed hitters. In using Pitch Info’s pitch value/100, Fry had the 12th-best cutter, 19th-best changeup, 27th-best curve, 87th-best sinker, and 124th-best 4-seam fastball among 147 relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, so his best pitches are pretty clear. Fry actually takes a fastball and changeup approach against righties, with his sinker close behind in usage. That means he is using two bad pitches against most hitters, and his heat maps could not be more clear.

Fry’s ISO/p against right-handed hitters: on the left is ISO/p with the cutter, change, and curve; on the right is ISO/p with the four-seam and sinker.

Fry’s cutter, change, and curve (on the left) are clearly the more efficient pitches to use against righties. Now, if Fry was a starter, he would need to work in his fastball and sinker (on the right) more often. However, for a reliever who has three good-to-great pitches, Fry should use them more often, especially against righties. In 2019, early-season usage data on Fry’s pitching arsenal should be telling.

Aaron Bummer: Sinker location

Aaron Bummer is much like Fry, in that their first stints in MLB were all-around terrible, and then much better in 2018 — especially in terms of FIP. Last season, Bummer had the 13th-best FIP among MLB relievers (minimum 30 innings pitched). However, the difference with Bummer is that he still pitched half of his season’s innings in AAA.

Now, the great thing about Bummer’s half-seasons in AAA and MLB is that they clearly illustrate the effect of BABIP on an ERA. Bummer’s 2018 MLB FIP was 2.40 and xFIP 2.83, but his ERA was at 4.26. In AAA, Bummer’s FIP was at 2.45, xFIP 2.90, and his ERA reflected those numbers, at 2.64. The difference was an inflated .402 BABIP in MLB, and a near-average .310 BABIP in AAA.

Since Bummer is a ground ball pitcher with a 61.2 GB%, 11th-best among all relievers (minimum 30 innings), BABIP matters a lot. Here is a spray chart of Bummer’s batted balls (heavy on grounders) next to Vidal Nuno of the Tampa Bay Rays (with a 51.6% fly ball rate):

Bummer’s batted-ball spray chart on the left, Nuno’s on the right.

You would think Bummer had the better ERA just based on this spray chart, especially with the difference in home runs allowed. However, Nuno had a 1.64 ERA but a worse FIP at 4.46.

Now look, Bummer predominantly uses his sinker (with a slider and four-seamer mixed in) so he will, or at least should, induce a lot of ground balls. But during the 2018 MLB season he allowed 33 singles and just seven extra-base hits. The easiest way for Bummer to improve is just by the law of averages, but of course, there are things he needs to fix, as well. It starts with the sinker.

Something happened from 2017 to 2018 with that sinker, where hitters went from batting .094 against the pitch in 2017 to hitting .330 in 2018.

This astronomical rise happened even though the ground ball rate on Bummer’s sinker only fell 1%, the launch angle stayed at -3, and hitters were having more trouble reading the pitch in 2018 compared to 2017. Overall, the sinker was probably a better pitch, but it was clobbered when contact was made. In 2017, Bummer’s sinker induced an average exit velocity at 84.6 mph. However, there was a significant rise in 2018, to 92.5 mph per Baseball Savant. The 92.5 mph exit velo on Bummer’s sinker was the highest of all sinkers in baseball with a minimum of 50 sinkers hit. The histogram below is all of Bummer’s pitches and their induced exit velocity, but the rise is stark and it hinges on the sinker.

Bummer’s exit velo in 2017 on the left, 2018 exit velo on the right. Blue bars are categorized as soft contact, red means it was a hard-hit ball.
Baseball Savant

How does Bummer fix this? A return to his 2017 approach with the sinker should be a great help.

Bummer’s sinker heat map in 2017 is on the left, 2018 on the right.

There is a stark difference in location for Bummer’s sinker in 2018. It got more of the plate, particularly in the middle of the zone. If your eyes do not believe you, then maybe stats will: Bummer’s sinker was in the zone about 8% more often in 2018 than 2017. If Bummer works more outside the zone with his sinker, the massive number of singles should sink (pun intended), thus helping lower his BABIP and ERA.

Ian Hamilton: Command early in the count

The next few relievers, including Hamilton, had their first stints in MLB in 2018. So it will be difficult to avoid the cliches involving more experience, or becoming a “pitcher” not a “thrower.” But I will do my darndest to avoid the simple tropes, even with the limited MLB sample size we have on first-year pitchers.

For Ian Hamilton and his eight innings pitched, allowing two home runs is not good. His ERA was a fine 4.50, but the FIP was a bad 6.29, and that is because of the small sample size. He did not strike anybody out, and of course the two homers allowed.

Now, in that limited time, Hamilton’s fastball and slider did stand out; both were very much positive pitches using Pitch Info’s pitch/100 metric. However, Hamilton’s changeup, the pitch that he did not really develop very well in the minors either, was a clear liability. MLB Pipeline graded Hamilton’s changeup as a 45, which is not very good, and that mediocrity continued into the majors. Depending on the website, Hamilton only threw his change a handful of times (FanGraphs has its usage at 6%), and it got rocked. One of the two home runs Hamilton allowed was off a change, and it went very far, with a 104.2 mph exit velocity.

The change is important to develop, but Hamilton did not show terribly great command with any of his pitches. His BB/9 and BB% were not high, but his pitches inside the zone was at 47%, which is below the MLB average. However, Hamilton did have a bit of a walking problem early last season while he was in Birmingham.

But more importantly, Hamilton’s lack of command was stark when it came to the first pitch, as Hamilton only threw a first-pitch strike 48.5% of the time, fourth-worst among Sox pitchers, and barely ahead of Matt Davidson. It should not surprise anybody that a pitcher is better on 0-1 compared to 1-0, and it indeed was pretty bad for Hamilton. He had a 11.34 FIP on 1-0 counts, which was the majority of the time, and then -.27 FIP on counts that started 0-1.

A lot of young relievers need to work on a changeup, but Hamilton truly does need it to become a serviceable pitch. Command early in the count does fit a cliche, but again, it should help Hamilton if he can improve his first-pitch strike rate.

Thyago Vieira: Learn to pitch, not throw

That clip was fun to relive, even more fun to see when Thyago Vieira notched his first career save. Unfortunately, that was one of the few good moments in last year in the majors for Vieira. Unlike others relievers profiled so far, Vieira’s fix is easy to see, but not necessarily easy to fix. Also, it is a little cliche.

Since becoming a reliever in a 2014 in A-ball with the Seattle Mariners, Vieira has never had a K/9 lower than 3.57, or anything lower than a 9.5% K-rate. That is not good at all, especially for a fireballer who is not necessarily a strikeout pitcher. The strange aspect of Vieira last season, though, was that his first-pitch strike rate was at 62.4%. However, his overall pitches inside the zone (according to Baseball Savant) was 52.5%. So after his first pitch, odds are Vieira was playing catch-up. That is not good for a young reliever, especially one who expects to throw past bats, which definitely did not happen.

Vieira’s heat map of fastballs in 2018: On the left is the fastball’s pitch%, on the right is contact% on the fastball.

In 2018, Vieira was mostly a one-pitch pitcher, with his fastball usage at 80%, occasionally sprinkling in a slider (16.3%). With the above heat maps, you can see that most of Vieira’s fastballs were very hittable and that batters actually did hit them, frequently. With the fastball last season, Vieira allowed all four of his homers, leading to a .271 ISO and .305 batting average. Just a reminder: Vieira threw his fastball 80% of the time.

But in general, Vieira was just hit hard. His average exit velocity given up was 90.4 mph with a 16.3 degrees launch angle, both of which are very home run-like averages. On top of that, Vieira’s expected wOBA on contact was .443, much higher than the MLB average of .363. Just to put this in perspective, among qualified hitters, only two batters had a higher wOBA than that: Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. That is not very good, and it is keyed by Vieira’s inexperience.

The heat map alone on his fastball makes it clear Vieira was trying to throw past hitters like he could in the minors, and he received a rude awakening. Vieira’s average fastball was 96.6 mph, which is not really that fast anymore — especially for a reliever. He did touch 100 mph multiple times, but the majority of Vieira’s fastballs ranged from 96-97 mph (as you can see below), which will not overwhelm these days, especially when thrown 80% of the time.

Histogram of Vieira’s fastball pitch velocity in 2018.
Baseball Savant

So, long story short on Vieira here, and with some cliche: He needs to learn how to pitch, not throw, because maybe his fastball is not the 80-grade scouts thought. That means Vieira can’t use his fastball 80% of the time, and he needs to work in his slider and change more often. That also means not leaving his fastball in hittable zones as often as he did in 2018, because it will get clobbered. Vieira is still young, at 25, so he does have some time to figure it out.

Caleb Frare: Fastball command

Frare was one of the many left-handed pitchers the White Sox acquired last season, and was able to make 11 appearances for the club late in the season. In the 25 year-old’s small sample in MLB, he showed that he was the strikeout pitcher he was in the minors — but also a pitcher that walked quite a few batters. That fact did not help his 5.14 ERA, but did help him look good, with a 2.73 FIP.

Throughout Frare’s time in AA and AAA there was no noticeable split in success against left- or right-handed hitters. In a small sample size in MLB, there was a stark difference. Though Frare was not used like a LOOGY (in fact facing more righties than lefties), but the splits might indicate that is needed in the future. Against left-handed hitters, Frare’s K/BB% was 33.3%, but that fell to 5.3% against righthanders. Frare’s FIP against lefties was of course better at .83, but against righties it was 4.16.

The good thing for Frare was that when his pitches were hit, they were not hit hard. All six MLB hits he allowed were singles, and the average exit velocity given up on contact with his fastball was a tick below 80 mph, which is good. In total, according to Baseball Savant, only 17.6% of contact made against Frare was hard, and they give him an xWOBACON of .301. That is right around Yolmer Sanchez’s wOBA in 2018, so that is very good.

The major problem with Frare is his command, especially with the fastball. Baseball Savant gives Frare’s total pitches in the zone at a rate of 43.4%, considerably under the MLB average of 48.6%. Here is his total pitches heat map:

Frare’s pitch % per zone in 2018.
Baseball Savant

and here is his fastball heat map:

Frare’s fastball % per zone in 2018.

The command is not there, even with his fastball, which missed up quite a few times. That led to a lot of walks and a criminally low LOB% (63.6). Because Frare showed he was a two-pitch pitcher last year, he will need better command of the fastball in order for his slider to continue to be successful. If not, batters will just lay off more than they are already, because more often than not Frare will miss the zone. Even if Frare does not make the club out of spring training, his walks will be something to keep an eye on.