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What to do about the starters?

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After a series in Baltimore that headlined Bañuelos, Nova and Santana, White Sox fans wonder how we got here

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles
Shields II: Santana has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball this season.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Once Rick Hahn and company started to trade away their top talent, one of the keys to the rebuild seemed to be starting pitchers. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease, were acquired via trade to join Carlos Rodon, Spencer Adams, and Jordan Stephens in a young, deep, and talented group of starting pitchers. But as the White Sox stand now, Carlos Rodon seems to be the only sure thing in the rotation, as all others have shown huge question marks. Because there were so many questions, the White Sox went out and traded for Ivan Nova and signed Ervin Santana, and to date both moves have been abject failures.

So, how did we get here?

The young core

Rodon has shown that he can be a top of the rotation guy, but neither of the other two young guns have.

Lucas Giolito, who is currently on the IL, had an abysmal 2018 marred by lack of velocity in the beginning of the year and the total disappearance of his once-heralded curveball. The 2019 season looked like it was getting better — the velo was there, the command was iffy but his stuff looked better — until he got hurt. Again, Sox fans will need to wait to see how Giolito responds to time off, especially considering he has trouble repeating his mechanics. As you can see below, he has been better in terms of expected statistics so far.

Lucas Giolito’s 2019 Baseball Savant ranks.
Baseball Savant

Reynaldo Lopez had good results last season, but as South Side Sox has chronicled many times, his success was a bit of a mirage. He had a miserable first three games, with an average game score (FanGraphs version) of 19, his low mark was a game score of two. López has been much better as of his last two starts, but really only one of them was an improvement. Out of Lopez’s five starts this season, four of them have featured average exit velocities of more than 90 mph, for a not so good looking heat map below:

López’s average exit velocity per zone in 2019.
Baseball Savant

Those of your White Sox core starting pitchers this season, with only Rodón meeting expectations so far.

So what about the other guys, the pitchers that could replace a Nova or a Santana? Well, the results are not much better.

The top prospects

The top-three guys in a rich field of pitchers are Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning.

Well, Kopech had Tommy John surgery and Ervin Santana took his spot. For Dunning, well, he was hurt last summer, didn’t really heal over the offseason, reaggravated his injury in spring training and also had TJS — another no-go for 2019.

In Cease’s case, the White Sox are not bringing him up any time soon. Rick Hahn has said that Cease will be on a similar path as Michael Kopech in 2018, and Kopech made his first start last season in late August. On top of that, the Super-2 deadline is in July. So don’t look for Cease on the South Side soon.

Well, what about the holdovers Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams — they have to be better than Nova and Santana, right? In short, no. Let’s start with the big league guys first.

The terrible two big leaguers

Nova has had three truly terrible starts, and two very good starts. In sum, that places Nova with the third-best FIP and xFIP on the starting staff, and by a lot (only Rodon and Giolito are better). In fact, Nova’s FIP and xFIP so far in 2019 are not that much different than his 2017-18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

What is hurting Nova is a .389 BABIP, about a 100-point jump from 2018. There is also not a huge difference in strikeout and walk numbers, as his K-rate is only down 0.4% and BB-rate is down 0.1%. Even Nova’s soft-contact rate is up from last season.

All of this does indicate bad luck for Nova, but that is not the whole story.

All of Nova’s pitches are way down in velocity, and in particular, his fastball. That dip in velo has led to an astronomical rise in average exit velocity against the pitch, as you can see in the graphs below.

Nova’s average pitch velocity against his fastball on the left, the average exit velocity on the right.
Baseball Savant

That lack of pitching velocity and increase in exit velocity for his opposing hitters has led to a 442 wRC+ for batters against the four-seam fastball, and has accounted for two of the four home runs he has allowed. Though Nova’s fastball cannot be this bad forever and it seems like Nova is getting unlucky, his downswing to retirement seems to be coming faster than expected.

Not as fast as Ervin Santana’s however.

Santana, in short, has been very bad. He is in the 1st percentile in the following statistics: K%, xwOBA, and xSLG. He is in the ninth percentile in xBA, and has among the worst-looking fastballs in the game. As you can see below on the left graph, there has been a steep decline in Santan’s velocity compared to his velocity before the 2018 season. The fastball velocity has ticked up in 2019, even more so in his latest game (as you can see on the right graph), but it’s still not where it needs to be.

Santana’s velocity on all pitches per season on the left, and velocity on all pitches per game in 2019 on the right.
Baseball Savant

That has led to Santana having a 9.56 FIP, second-lowest among starting pitchers in MLB, and a bottom-15 ground ball rate, that is about 9% lower than his 2017 rate. And that, simply put, has led to a lot of very frustrated Sox fans. The rise in Santana’s fastball velo in his latest outing is a good sign — but finally healthy, on five days rest, and Santana’s velocity is still down 2 mph from when he was good.

So, Santana and Nova are definitely over the hill in their careers, but even young guys like Stephens and Adams seem to be as well. Let’s see what their deal is.

The terrible two minor leaguers

First off, it is instructive to note that Triple-A is using the MLB ball for the first time this season — and Stephens and Adams are struggling with it.

Stephens, who is still starting in Triple-A, has seen a more than 5% drop in strikeouts from his time in Triple-A last season to 2019. Though Stephens is allowing fewer fly balls than 2018, since Triple-A is using the MLB ball, more of those fly balls are leaving the park. Stephens’ HR/FB rate has increased about 7%, to a new career high of 15.8%. Though there are more ground balls, Stephens’ pull rate does indicate he is giving up good contact as well. His pull rate is at 47.3%, which is higher than his ground ball rate and pulled balls, and pulled balls are the ones hit the hardest and fly the farthest. All of that has led to a career-worst FIP and xFIP so far for Stephens. He did have a good outing his last start, and does seem to be better than Santana currently, but not by much.

In Adams’ case, he has fallen off a cliff. First, he has lost his starting position to Dylan Covey (who the White Sox seem to bet stretching out to get ready to start in MLB). Second, it is clear why he is not on Chicago’s 40-man roster or why nobody selected him in the Rule 5 draft: Adams has struck out the same amount of batters he has walked, and has a HR/9 at 2.7, which is just beyond bad and explains why he is no longer a starter. Adams has seen a 6% increase in fly balls, which is why the increase in home runs is so stark. Currently, Adams has a FIP of 8.28 — in Triple-A. In no way, does that sort of FIP warrant time in MLB, and Adams’ spray chart confirms this.

Spencer Adams’ 2019 spray chart.
Baseball Savant

In sum, Stephens could be an improvement, if promoted to the big leagues, but he does not seem markedly better than Nova right now. Meanwhile, Adams might need to be sent down to Double-A at this rate.

The wild cards

So, who else is there? Well, when Giolito comes back, Manny Bañuelos could stay in the rotation in place of Santana. Bañuelos was good in his first start, with four shutout innings, but will need to slowly ramp up his innings so he can stretch longer than four.

A second option is Dylan Covey, who as mentioned before is now a starter in Triple-A. Covey has looked good in Charlotte so far, even with a lackluster start his last time out. Like Bañuelos, Covey also needs to be stretched out to go full starter innings. However, the jury is still out on Covey’s effectiveness in MLB.

So really, the Sox are most definitely stuck with Nova for this season. And though Santana has been just about the worst pitcher in baseball in 2019, there are not options in Charlotte readily available to take his spot. Stephens still needs to prove himself in Triple-A along with Covey. Adams might never start again, and Bañuelos has only one four-inning start, and that came against the Baltimore Orioles.

Fans will clamor for Dallas Keuchel, but let’s be honest, the White Sox are not going to sign him. So, it seems that they are stuck with Nova and Santana for the time being — until somebody else can step up, or when it’s finally time for Dylan Cease’s promotion.