Third time’s the charm?
The White Sox are sending Dylan Cease to the bump this evening in their quest for a — gasp — third consecutive win, one that would also give them their first series win of the year a day after winning consecutively for the first time all year. The Twins counter with second-year righthander Louie Varland, who struck out eight over six quality innings in his first start of the year after opening 2023 with an absurd 25:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 Triple-A innings.
Varland, 25, was drafted in the 15th round of the 2019 draft out of Division II Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, also Varland’s hometown. Entering this season, he was ranked as the organization’s fourth-best prospect by FanGraphs, sixth-best according to Baseball Prospectus, and 10th-best per MLB Pipeline. He made his last two starts of 2022 against the White Sox, combining to allow just two runs across 10 total innings between the two.
Cease will hope to channel some of the rare good energy flowing through the franchise with today’s announcement that Liam Hendriks is set to report to affiliated ball for a rehab assignment, with the possibility that he’ll be prepared to pitch in the big leagues after several outings. Without him, the Sox bullpen has been one of the worst in the game, ranking 29th out of 30 in ERA, WAR, and Win Probability Added, in each case only barely better than a team (the Oakland Athletics) that has been transparently trying to lose as many games as possible.
Hendriks spoke to the press today about his recovery plan and health since his cancer diagnosis earlier this year:
Liam Hendriks talking through the treatment process for Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma pic.twitter.com/h1atCIPLYP— James Fegan (@JRFegan) May 3, 2023
Last year’s Cy Young runner-up has been effective this year, but in a manner that more resembles his inefficient, often-frustrating 2021 performance than last year’s masterclass. Cease has failed to get past the fourth inning in either of his last two starts, culminating in an ugly seven-run outing (six earned) at home against the Rays last Thursday.
The culprit seems to be his slider, which was perhaps the single most effective pitch in baseball last season. So far in 2023, it has been merely average. Though its movement traits are virtually unchanged, Cease’s command of it has been lackluster. It’s landing in what Statcast calls the “heart” of the plate 25% of the time, up from 21% last season, but more notably, nearly 20% are winding up in the “waste” zone — a non-competitive pitch, essentially — up from 12% last year. As a result, its whiff rate has dropped by nearly 10%, and its wOBA and expected wOBA have ballooned by more than 100 points each.
My attitude towards the White Sox lineup announcement in recent weeks has been to follow my mom’s advice of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unfortunately, I’m contractually obligated to say something here, so let’s give it a shot. It’s the same lineup as yesterday, and they won yesterday. Maybe there’s a correlation? From a pure talent standpoint, it might actually be the best lineup they’ve put out in several weeks, even if Pedro Grifol’s insistence on keeping the only hitter (Jake Burger) who’s shown himself capable of hitting the ball hard and in the air at the same time in the bottom-third of the order is perplexing at best. Admittedly, all other things aside, including the lack of talent on the roster itself, it’s at least nice to see the manager actually put his best players on the field behind his ace, where Tony La Russa frequently treated starts from Cease (and, in 2021, Carlos Rodón and Lance Lynn) as opportunities to give his best hitters a breather.
Tonight's #WhiteSox starters vs. Minnesota: pic.twitter.com/V2FVuTMJ6C— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) May 3, 2023
Minnesota counters with the following, also similar enough to last night’s group:
Louie, Louie returns to the big-league mound.#MNTwins pic.twitter.com/CaEB0LGpU3— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) May 3, 2023
First pitch will be at 6:10 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcasted on NBC Sports Chicago (TV) and WMVP AM 100 (Radio).