Baseball

We’re rounding out the White Sox 2020 previews with the bullpen…in the middle of a global pandemic!

The Sox pen was a middle of the league unit in 2019, with some very solid returns on a few previously relative unknowns (Aaron Bummer(at least to the national stage), Evan Marshall), a stinker from at least one big signing (Kelvin Herrera) and a tale of two halves from the incumbent closer Alex Colome. Along the way we also got acclimated with storylines about Jimmy Cordero‘s guns and the Ballads of Carson Fulmer and Jace Fry.

So what should/could be expected from a 2020 bullpen that saw very little turnover, a single addition in Steve Cishek, new paper for few of the higher leverage fellas…and a potential 80 game season/29 or 30 man roster? TO THE MOUNTAIN TOP!

2019 Stats

536 appearances over 574 innings

24-21 W-L 33/49 Save/Opp 73 Holds

4.33 ERA  4.69 FIP

8.48 K/9   4.25 BB/9  1.40 WHIP

48.1% GB-rate  73.0 LOB%  15.3% HR/FB

96 ERA-  2.7 WAR

Last Week on Nitro: Bummer rode his nasty sinker to a very respectable 1.7 WAR, on par with the top RP in the league. If he had a K/9 over 11 instead of under 8 he’d probably have added another .5-1 WAR and been discussed as an elite RP, easily usurping Colome on his way to a nice raise and term. He settled for simply obtaining a new 5-year, $16M extension and I have to believe he’s fine with it. Marshall wasn’t quite as electric or outstanding on the eye test, but he was used in bigger and bigger spots as the season wore on and earned his spot in the 2020 discussion. Colome was a force in the first half saving 20 games before the ASB, albeit with some alarming underlying stats that would catch up to him for a much more average 10 save second half.

2019 was not all sunshine and rainbows for the relief corps on the South Side. Fry had a great SO rate of over 11/9IP, but couldn’t keep the ball in the yard enough (22% HR/FB). Herrera and Fulmer were flat out bad, with the former posting a 1.40 HR/9 rate and the latter just atrocious in every facet…yet again. Juan Minaya was fine? Jose Ruiz was solid? Really everyone needs to thank Bummer for buoying the RPs GB rate as no one else broke 60% (Bummer was nearly 73%).

TOO SWEET (WHOOP! WHOOP!): Things are different now than they were a month ago. This post would have hit in late March, and the best case scenario would have involved a four-headed monster closing out White Sox wins with Colome/Bummer/Herrera/Cishek operating as the go to bridge/closer committee and Marshall coming in to keep the other fresh. Fulmer/Cordero/Fry…and Minaya or Ruiz or Ian Hamilton or any number of solid minor league arms would have made up the remaining four spots, in what would be seen as how many contending, successful teams run a bullpen:an innings eater or two and then best arm up with a short leash for awfulness. But what does this look like in our new world post-virus…

The same four make up the go-to options for Rick Renteria to close out games, but the roster behind them is one with a lot more strength. All of the sudden he’s going to have Carlos Rodon and Gio Gonzalez as options, and likely an 11th RP option in the event that rosters expand to near 3o for a shortened season, and especially if we see 7 inning double headers as part of this season. Bummer/Colome are a nasty tandem depending on how the handedness of batters shake out in the 8th/9th, and Cishek, Herrera and Co. build the bridge without issue on most days. Rodon and Gonzalez become serious game changers for the shortened outings/double headers and the White Sox pen is as formidable as any in the AL despite the lack of a true strikeout RP.

YOU FUCKED UP! YOU FUCKED UP!: The shortened season could work against the bullpen just as easily, seeing a plethora of options for Ricky to go to but none with enough trust or ability to translate leads into wins. Bummer sees a slight regression, but so does Colome. Herrera does not bounce back in year two, Fulmer/Fry/Ruiz/Cordero stall in place and Gio and Rodon translate terribly to shorter outings. An arm or two from the minors show out, maybe 1-2 of Zack Burdi, Tyler Johnson, Matt Foster or Codi Heuer to be precise, but that’s the silver lining in a frustrating, disjointed campaign out of mostly underperforming pen.

Colome hits FA on a sour note, Bummer makes people (stupidly) question his extension and the 2020 offseason becomes a quest to fix the relief problem. The biggest talking point out of the pen remains Jimmy Cordero’s arms vs. his jersey sleeves.

BAH GAWD, THAT’S (THE BULLPEN)’S MUSIC: The 2020 season will be a success if it’s simply played at this point, IMHO. The White Sox 2020 bullpen will be a success if the BIG FOUR can be passable to above average on a nightly basis, Rodon comes back firing in small sample sizes and at least one of the bottom four/minor league four turn in a 0.1 WAR or above season.

IF we have baseball in 2020, pitching is going to be paramount to success. There will be a ton of variables and I think many can agree that pitching is going to be harder to re-ramp up and succeed at than hitting. A solid Sox pen could be the real difference to a positive springboard off a short season into the 2021 and beyond contention era.

Baseball

I have been beating the “Cishek Is Overused” Drum for over a year now. In fact, I’ve moved on from that, to now proclaiming that his ERA, which had been under 3.00 most of the season until last night, was actually a massive conspiracy the Cubs were foisting upon us to protect Joe Maddon or something. And everyone just went along with it. It seemed like every time Cishek came into a game, projectiles were hurling into the bleachers. And yet that ERA….it remained low. It wasn’t always others’ runs scoring either. Conspiracy, I tell you.

Just like last season, there is a huge fear that Maddon has used (and warmed-up) Cishek too much, and he’s gagging toward the finish line. But now thanks to the injuries to Strop, Kimbrel, possibly Kintzler now, and the horrid signing of Brandon Morrow, along with the implosion of Carl Edwards and the failure to develop anyone other than maybe Rowan Wick, Maddon has no choice really but to keep using Cishek. And even an IL stint later in the season, if even possible, doesn’t feel like it would be enough.

Last year, the numbers didn’t turn bad until September, when Cishek ran an ERA of 4.15 and watched his walks balloon to over six per nine innings. Based on last night’s turkey shoot, the collapse might be coming sooner this time around. And hey, Cishek is 33 and has piled up 133 appearances the past two seasons. This was after making only 49 appearances in 2017, so nearly doubling that to 80 last year was…well, it was a choice.

The thing with Cishek is the stuff and numbers don’t really suggest he’s flagging. His sinker/fastball has actually gained velocity every month. Same with his slider. He’s actually giving up less hard contact by five percentage points this year than last, and getting more soft contact by the same margin. IF you want to StatCast it, his average exit velocity is down from last year.

The problem, Captain Obvious, is that he’s giving up too many homers. But the contact numbers on his fly balls are exactly the same as they’ve been, if not better. He’s just watching twice as many homers leave the park on his fly balls than he did last year. Which can at least be partially attributed to the golf balls pitchers are being asked to throw this season.

Cishek’s strikeouts are down, which means more balls in play, which means just more fly balls in general even if it’s the same percentage of contact, which means more chances for them to just float out of the park.

The only change you can see as far as stuff this year is his slider doesn’t have as much sweep as it did. It’s the red line on top here:

Still, hitters are hitting that slider for only a .211 average this year, though that’s some 30 points better than they’ve managed over Cishek’s career. It’s the sinker that hitters are mullering more often, but again, that hasn’t really lost any juice as far as velocity or movement. Maybe location is the problem? The added miles on the odometer have left him unable to pinpoint it as well? Not really:

And as you would probably figure out, Cishek is only getting hurt when that sinker leaks over the middle of the plate, which it isn’t doing at any higher rate than it used to.

Still, I can throw all the numbers I want at you, and charts (oh how I love my charts), but we both watch the games and we see that almost every outing for Cishek has been a goat hump. He’s given up runs in three of his last five outings. And it’s not a question of rest in between, because he’s had rough outings with three or more days off in between and clean outings on back-to-back days. But at the end of the day, he’s only had two “clean” outings (no hits, no walks) in two of his last 11 appearances. And that slider is losing snap.

But given the situation, what choice is there?

 

Baseball

Put a couple beers in a Cubs fan right now, never that hard of a task, and I bet a good portion of them would tell you there’s a level of schadenfreude with the team right now. After they spent the offseason crying poor, the front office pointing fingers every outward but certainly not inward, and everything else, the Cubs are being undone by what they ignored and arrogantly thought would fix itself, the bullpen. And it being this early in the season, and only four games, it hasn’t come anywhere close to derailing the season. You can just see how it might.

At the top, and as I’ve repeated all offseason, you can remake a bullpen on the fly. The Nationals did it just two years ago (with Brandon Kintzler as part of that). The Red Sox simply ignored their bullpen in the postseason last year. There will be a bevy of guys on teams out of it who for no reason whatsoever are throwing 97 with a slider from nowhere that you can have for B-level and C-level prospects. This is probably what the Cubs will do, and most likely they’ll be fine. It just didn’t have to be like this.

I had wondered if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer knew about the budget Tom Ricketts was going to hand them at the outset of the offseason. But as was pointed out to me on Twitter, the fact that they sent Drew Smyly away to extend Cole Hamels probably indicates that they did. So one has to ask if that really was the right move. Because if the thinking was that the pen as currently constructed was going to just right itself, it makes you think that pitching isn’t just a spotty mark on the record of this regime, but a clear blindspot. Remember, we’re still waiting for the first pitcher Theo has drafted to actually come up for air and do something here. Hendricks and Edwards Jr. are trades, and we’ll get to the latter soon.

Because what did the Cubs have coming out of last year? Pedro Strop, who is wonderful and insane and I love him but also has missed big chunks of time with injury two of the past three years and turns 34 this season. It seems to me that the Cubs want to treat their signing of Brandon Morrow as something other than bad, but it very well may be. Morrow only has one full season of being a dominant reliever and a whole lot of injury problems. He’s far from a sure thing, and yet the Cubs are happy to tell you his absence is the main problem in order to do themselves credit, as well as blaming Joe Maddon for having the temerity to pitch him three days in a row at the end of May. The end of May is when a pitcher should be in peak health. If he can’t do it then, he can’t do it, and hence is not a plus piece to have around.

Carl Edwards Jr. is a basketcase and has never proven to be anything else. Brandon Kintzler has one good season, and his ground-ball rate, his main weapon, has been dropping for three straight years. Randy Rosario doesn’t strike anyone out and was bad last year and can only claim to throw with his left hand. They couldn’t honestly sell Tyler Chatwood as anything other than a lottery ticket bought while drunk and using consecutive numbers.

Perhaps they thought they could count on Steve Cishek. Here’s the problem: the history of relievers who crack 80 appearances over the age of 30 is not really encouraging.

Zach Duke did it three years ago at 33, and the next season saw his K/9 rate drop in half and his FIP double. In 2017  Bryan Shaw reached 79 appearances at 29. The next year his walk-rate doubled. Only Joel Peralta survived that threshold in 2013 at that age and came back fine the next year. Or at least his peripherals did, but his ERA was still over 4.00.

The Cubs front office has been acting like the smartest guys in the room for so long now that perhaps they’ve failed to realize they’re getting passed.

Now you can also throw this at the Ricketts, who even if they took the “Look what you’ve done with our money already” tact can’t then tell the front office to go stuff it with such a clear weakness. But is that $13M net-spend on Hamels worth more than two relievers right now? If the multi-year commitment to Andrew Miller made them nervous because he’s already in decline in skill and physically, that’s cool. Don’t want to blow it all on Zach Britton? Fair, or at least understandable. I wasn’t married to Jesse Chavez. He’s a guy.

But maybe Joakim Soria? Only $7.5M per. Seems a better bet than Brad Brach.

It’s important to reserve judgement until we see what the Cubs do over the next few months. Maybe they hated the reliever market in the winter altogether and didn’t want to force it. Fine. But when they say they have the deepest crop of pitchers waiting in Iowa they’ve ever had, why should anyone take that at face value? Again, this isn’t a front office that’s produced a quality reliever or starter yet (Hector Rondon was their Rule 5 pick, but that just means he didn’t come through the system). The Cubs couldn’t wait to tell every beat writer about their technology and gizmos to measure their pitching in the system. But at this point, Cubs fans are more than excused for not wanting the labor pains, just the baby.

Actually, sounds a little like the Hawks and their blue line, doesn’t it?