Where the magic happens: Our newest writer will be covering March 2’s White Sox action from this vantage point, so if you’re at Camelback, say hi! (Chicago White Sox)
I just had wrist surgery and am typing with one hand, so I don’t really feel like writing out a long intro, but the title is pretty self-explanatory. Here are four things I will be watching during Spring Training and the early months of the season.
Reynaldo López’s offseason adjustments
This is the least “under-the-radar” storyline of the four, but that is because it’s also probably the most important to the White Sox’s success.
López has been a very polarizing player for the White Sox. In 2018 he showed a lot of promise, finishing with a 3.91 ERA in his first full season in the bigs. However, his advanced stats showed that these results may have been smoke and mirrors.
Reynaldo has always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher. In 2018, López benefited from the ninth lowest rate of home runs to fly balls of all qualified starters, a number that tends to regress to the mean over time. His xFIP (expected ERA assuming average outcomes on balls in play and an average HR/Fly Ball ratio) was 5.22 in comparison to his previously-mentioned 3.91 ERA, the largest gap in baseball. Additionally, the spin rates on both his fastball and breaking pitches were near the bottom of the league. Sure enough, all of this caught up to López in 2019. Despite some encouraging outings, the season as a whole was a major step back, as he had one of the worst ERAs in baseball.
In 2019, López was trying to work his breaking pitches off of a high fastball, the “hot new trend” in the juiced-ball 2019 season. For guys like Lucas Giolito, who have a fastball with above average carry and a high-spin breaking ball, this philosophy is great. However, López has a low-spin fastball with a great deal of horizontal movement.
To become a solid major league pitcher, significant changes will be needed to either López’s mechanics or pitching approach. López and Don Cooper have talked about getting less rotational and more linear in order to drive the ball to the plate, generating carry rather than horizontal run. If López was able to accomplish this in the offseason, he may be able to survive as a high-fastball guy. If not, however, he may need to embrace the low-spin fastball rather than fighting it, and work on sinking and cutting the ball.
Ultimately, López may end up as an impact bullpen arm, where his stuff will play up and he will likely be able to work in the 98-100 mph range rather than the 95-98 range. However, he will be given every chance to prove that he belongs in the rotation. One thing that will be helpful for a fly ball pitcher like Lopez is the rumors of a more “normal” baseball for 2020. I have no doubt that López, an outstanding competitor, went back to the drawing board this offseason. I am interested to see his outings this spring to get a look at what that offseason work entailed.
Right field: Nomar Mazara, or platoon?
Rick Hahn and Ricky Renteria have already said they see Nomar Mazara as more than a platoon player and plan to use him as the everyday right fielder. A breakout definitely could be on the horizon, as a change of scenery could be exactly what the 24-year-old former top prospect needs to unlock his massive potential. However, over the course of his career, Mazara’s numbers against left-handed pitching have been subpar. Barring a breakout, the better option may be to keep Mazara as the strong half of a platoon, sitting him vs LHP in favor of Adam Engel or Leury García (likely pushing Luis Robert over to right field). Based off of 2019 statistics, both Engel and García had much more success versus LHP than RHP. As Mazara is still so young, the potential for a breakout is definitely there. I am as hopeful as anyone, but at worst, this route would set everyone up for success.
Not only would Engel be a huge upgrade to our outfield defense on days he plays, but based on 2019 numbers, this platoon would generate a .820 OPS overall (Mazara .821 vs. RH starters, Engel .819 [109 ABs] vs LH starters). Keep in mind, these splits are for the entire game when the starter was right or left-handed, so they don’t take into account opportunities to pinch-hit based on reliever match-ups. The .820 OPS estimate for the platoon would have ranked in the top 30 among all MLB outfielders, ahead of many of the offseason possibilities White Sox fans were mad about missing out on (Marcel Ozuna, Yasiel Puig, Andrew Benintendi). When the Mazara/Steele Walker trade happened, the majority of the reaction was negative. However, in 2019 Mazara had a .786 OPS at age 24 in his fourth MLB season, whereas Steele Walker had a .771 OPS at age 23 in Single-A. The trade was a low-risk, high-reward move. If this platoon is the worst case scenario, I will take it every time.
James McCann Framing Improvements
James Fegan came out with a great article a few weeks ago on the offseason work that James McCann has done with highly-regarded catching coach Jerry Narron to improve his framing skills. While White Sox pitchers have lauded McCann for his ability to handle a staff, scout opposing hitters, and control the game behind the plate, they are also losing quite a few strikes per game because of his terrible pitch framing numbers, specifically side-to-side and low in the zone. Now, the White Sox have Yasmani Grandal, who graded out third of 64 qualified catchers in Statcast’s catcher framing metric in 2019 (this same metric ranked McCann dead last).
We should be able to gauge relatively quickly if McCann’s offseason work has paid off. Spring training will give us a glimpse, and we should have enough data to see where his metrics are after a few months of the regular season. This could be the difference between being a backup catcher who only generates a spot start here or there vs. being the weaker half of dynamic catching duo. I, for one, don’t think Giolito needs McCann as his “personal catcher,” but it would definitely be easier to work a defensively improved McCann in for Giolito’s starts. An improvement would also allow Renteria a much greater deal of lineup flexibility to keep veterans fresh for the entire season. For example, he could give José Abreu, Edwin Encarnación, and Grandal a day off every 10 games or so, leaving McCann to catch roughly two or three of every 10. When EE sits, Grandal (or McCann) could DH, and when Abreu sits, EE could play first and Grandal would slide to DH.
Can Kelvin Herrera Rebound?
I know what most of you are probably thinking: Kelvin Herrera is WASHED UP. I was as frustrated as anyone that our proven, lockdown free agent bullpen signing was unusable in close games for the majority of the season. Herrera posted the third-worst ERA (6.14) of all MLB bullpen pitchers with more than 50 IP.
Doesn’t sound like the stat line of a guy you want to be counting on in 2020, right?
Not so fast. There is still reason for optimism.
Herrera’s massive struggles in 2019 can really be attributed to two issues.
The first was injury, as Renteria and Cooper were quick to blame foot and back injuries for a portion of Herrera’s 2019 struggles. Because Herrera never spent an extended period of time on the IL and consistently made appearances throughout the season, it was tough to buy that from the outside looking in. However, both the stats and the data seem to bear out the fact that Herrera may have actually been significantly affected by the Lisfranc and back injury for the majority of the season.
Here are Herrera’s numbers prior to May 5, when the back injury occurred: 16 games, 16 ⅓ IP, 2.76 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 16 K
Here are his numbers after August 22: 15 games, 15 ⅓ IP, 1.76 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 19 K
These numbers seem to support the theory that Herrera may have dealt with lingering injuries for the majority of the season and finally started to get healthy late. When I looked at Statcast data to see if anything supported this, one thing jumped off the page at me.
So, the No. 2 with Herrera was release point inconsistency. Baseball Savant has a really cool visual that outlines the various release points for all pitches thrown. The smaller the spread of release points, the more similar all pitches look when coming out of the pitcher’s hand. This makes it easier for the pitcher to create a “tunneling” effect with the pitch and keep the hitter from identifying what’s coming and squaring it up.
Looking at the best pitchers in the game, such as Gerrit Cole or Kirby Yates, their release point chart is a tight circle. In 2019, Herrera’s was ALL over the place. Baseball Savant even noted it was “very erratic,” a characteristic I didn’t see noted for any other pitcher. Here are the visuals for Herrera and Yates for comparison:
If a pitcher is favoring certain parts of his body or trying to compensate for injury, his mechanics will undoubtedly be affected. There is no way that a healthy pitcher’s release points would be this erratic. A healthy Herrera in 2020 should be able to tighten this up.
Herrera also started to use a Don Cooper special, the cutter, a lot more effectively towards the end of the season. He gained three inches of movement on his cutter in September compared to the rest of the season. If that continues, it could be an effective way to combat his slight velocity decrease. Herrera’s average exit velocity against was actually in the 93rd percentile in all of baseball in 2019, which is shocking considering his results.
Bold prediction for the 2020 White Sox season: Herrera will post an ERA of less than 3.00 and be a useful piece in the late innings.
I’d love to hear your opinions on these four storylines, and any more that you will be following.
I’ll be attending the Sox/Padres game in Glendale on March 2. The header photo for this article was taken from my seat for the game. If you are down there and see a 24-year-old kid with a black cast on his arm, say hi.
Lastly, here is the link to a 2020 White Sox hype video I made a few weeks ago, in case you weren’t excited enough about the season. Thanks for reading, and go Sox!
This article was originally a Fanpost on South Side Sox.