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Reasons for Optimism: April arms spring forward

After a heroic early 2021, somehow the White Sox pitching staff again is stepping into a leading role during the team’s hot start.

Seattle Mariners v Chicago White Sox
The early contender for this year’s A Random Dude, Bennett Sousa.
Ron Vesely/Getty Images

When Garrett Crochet went down with a torn UCL in spring training, the already-thin stable of left-handed options in the bullpen was dealt a critical blow. Crochet was a prime candidate for the ’21 Michael Kopech stretch assignments, and thus expected to cover a larger than average share of high-leverage outs for a pen arm.

It was a Friday afternoon when the news broke, and our skipper invited everybody onto mic for a podcast session, including myself. Expecting a light convo, I accepted the invitation because I was in a talkative mood as a result of some high-grade sativa. Turns out Brett moves those conversations along pretty steadily, and insight is more the theme than say, giggles and snacks.

Insight like this, from Tommy Barbee:

Cut to Saturday’s obligatory bullpen roulette given the tight restrictions on Kopech’s workload as he transitions back into the rotation. Aaron Bummer threw 25 pitches in Friday’s win, but he’d be the only arm unavailable, presumably.

Kopech more than did his part with one of his strongest major league starts to date, but the nine outs thereafter went like this:

Reynaldo López’s success and failure was dictated by fractions of inches at the bottom of the zone, but ultimately he didn’t get the job done. Credit for eliciting one of the funnier ejections you’ll see with a backwards K, though:

José Ruiz and Bennett Sousa, on the other hand, blitzed Tampa’s No. 7 - 3 hitters, with the final three from Sousa especially eye-opening, as he stifled one of the elite top-of-the-lineup trios in the league. It appears we might have identified the random dude Tommy promised.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago White Sox Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the probable starters vs. the Tampa Bay Rays were announced, we knew it would serve as the first true litmus test in ’22 for Dylan Cease. Cease had overwhelmed the Tigers a week before, but the Rays lineup is a different beast. Dylan responded by twirling an absolute gem, allowing only two hard-hit balls over 21 batters, and showing a willingness to snap off his elite breaking pitches in any count.

At this stage in his career, every Kopech start could be described as a litmus test. Prior to his solid four-inning start in the Detroit series, Kopech hadn’t pitched into the fifth inning as a starter since April ’21 against Texas — a five-inning, 10-strikeout gem that may still be his best major league outing to this day.

Between then and now, Kopech had thrown more than 50 pitches in an outing just three times.

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Kopech responded to the challenge by taking a giant step forward following his successful outing in Detroit, allowing just three hard-hit balls over five strong innings on Saturday. He threw 75 pitches — the second-most for an outing in his career, and most since the Texas start nearly a year ago to the day. After walking two of his first five hitters and resembling the version of a younger Kopech privy to strike zone tailspins, he retired 13 of the next 14, living in the zone with all offerings, erring only with a second inning HBP on a back-foot slider.

Michael Kopech’s 75 pitches; Catcher view. Red pitches are fastball, blue are breaking pitches.
Baseball Savant

Last year, spitfire first halves from Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodón buoyed an injury-riddled roster that went long periods without nearly every offensive standout not named Abreu or Moncada. This year, the injuries are spread more even positionally, but are no less impactful.

Thus far, the group that has stepped forward to pick up the slack has again been the arms. The cast is different, and in ’22 it features an established starter moving toward elite, a bullpen dynamo transitioning to workhorse, and, as Tommy Barbee would say, A Random Dude.