Kopech throws 100, but Sox offense lags behind

Good news first: Michael Kopech dropped some jaws with a high-octane first inning; it was downhill from there for the White Sox. (@CST_soxvan)

Michael Kopech got on the mound and quickly showed that he is back. Not just, “Hey, it’s my first game of competitive ball since 2018!” No. Kopech is BACK back, and tweets are a little better at describing the the pure joy of having the righthander back.

That … was … ELECTRIC! Kopech only went one inning, which is a good approach as he is coming off of Tommy John surgery. Odds are he will be in Chicago after the first month of the season, and maybe that estimate even pushes back until June. Whatever the case is, hitting 100 mph multiple times is the best news the Sox have had this spring training.

However, that was just the top of the first inning, so there was a lot more game to go. Let’s put it this way: The excitement went away pretty quickly.

Maybe Drew Anderson was busy fawning over Kopech like everyone else, but he came into the game and did not do well out of the gate. Drew was all over the place, allowed three hits and walked two in his first inning on the bump, although Tim Anderson did not help any, with his third error of the spring. Drew’s second inning was much better, but he was finally lifted for Carson Fulmer in the fourth after allowing his fourth run. Really the only positive during Anderson’s outing was that Yasmani Grandal added another spring hit to his tally.

Quite frankly, depending on injuries and how well Andrew Vaughn continues to do when the games matter in the minors, today’s lineup looked like an August or September down-the-stretch lineup (maybe sans Adam Engel, but he was hitting ninth so it still fits).

But, more excitingly, back to Kopech.

Back to Yasmani Grandal:

Man, Grandal can do anything — what a fantastic signing. There are no holes in his game.

Now, back to Fulmer:

This game did not have a lot of positives, but Fulmer was one. Almost his entire spring has been great, and even that breaking ball on the Grandal caught-stealing had pretty good late movement. Even though Fulmer was pretty bad last season, he showed clear signs of improvement on just about everything. Obviously, it is very early to say the former first round pick is finally looking like it, but Fulmer has been very impressive. He now has a 1.86 ERA so far this spring.

Other than Kopech and Fulmer, no other pitcher really did well today. Codi Heuer finally looked like a minor leaguer, and Kodi Medeiros allowed the ninth and final run to the Rangers.

As for the offense, it finally added some runs — once the bench guys came in. There were not fireworks with these runs, they were not because of big hits, but runs are runs. Gavin Sheets finally broke the Sox out of the goose egg with a sac fly in the eighth inning. Zack Collins added the second and final run for the Sox with a single. With that, Collins is now hitting .333 and has an OPS of 1.261. So, while Yermín Mercedes is getting headlines (including from myself), Collins is still doing well enough to hold him off for the Opening Day roster at this point.

Sure, the Sox lost, but the best news of the day was that Kopech stole the show.

If you want some back-field work, James Fegan has you covered with some young guys.


Yermín Mercedes, on the road to the Majors

Happy to be here: But determined to mash. (Sean Williams/South Side Hit Pen)

Yermín Mercedes is having the time of his life right now. He is currently slashing .350/.381/.850 with a three homers, including that mammoth grand slam above and a two-run shot that capped scoring at San Diego on Sunday. Nobody seems to be having more fun than him, and because of his bat and personality some Sox fans are clamoring for him to break camp with the White Sox.

But is that a smart decision, or even realistic? First off, let’s start with how far along Mercedes has come in a short amount of time.

The White Sox selected him in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2017 from the Baltimore Orioles. His first contract was with the Washington Nationals, but they released him in 2014. That season, Mercedes spent time playing in two different independent leagues and earned his way back to affiliate ball with the Orioles. In total, from 2011-17, he only played 12 games in the high minors (Double-A, the highest level he reached).

Now, it wasn’t because of his bat that Mercedes was slowly moving up the minors — in terms of wRC+, he has had at minimum, an above-average season at each level, every single year; It was because of his defensive abilities.

From 2011-17, in affiliated ball, Mercedes was a catcher the majority of the time, when he was actually on the field— he would spend some time at first base and even got cups of coffee at both corner outfield spots, but if not catching, he was mostly a DH, which is probably why the Orioles did not protect him in the Rule 5 draft. In Mercedes’ final season with Baltimore, he only caught about 37% of games he played in, which was lower than his 2016 rate. That did change with the White Sox, though.

Maybe it was because the Sox did not really have fantastic catchers in their system (especially defensive catchers), but Mercedes’ time behind the plate ramped up. In 2018 with the Winston-Salem Dash, Mercedes played 77% of his games behind the plate, but again got some time out at first base. Last season, between Birmingham and Charlotte, the number fell to about 61%. That rate is still better than what he was getting with Baltimore and the Nationals, but it still did fall — and in Charlotte, Mercedes even added a couple games at third base.

Advanced numbers in the minors are not easy to find, and advanced catching statistics are even harder. Baseball Prospectus, which does keep track of advanced catching stats in the minors, actually liked Mercedes in 2018 and 2019. But coming off a season with only 61% of games played at catcher still is concerning as to how the club actually views him defensively. Mercedes caught in five of his first eight games this spring, but it is clear that the reason he’s on the 40-man roster and the cusp on the majors is because of the bat.

Yeah, the video is from 2017 but who cares, Mercedes has been able to hit at every level. But 2019 and so far into 2020 have been special.

Mercedes started out 2019 in Double-A with Birmingham, and was probably there too long. He slashed .327/.389/.497 for a 157 wRC+. Just so you all know, that wRC+ was actually slightly better than Luis Robert’s wRC+ (155) in Birmingham and rated 11th overall in the Southern League (min. 150 plate appearances). Mercedes crushed the ball in Birmingham. The power was there with .170 ISO, but remember, Double-A does not use the MLB ball, so Mercedes was not able to fully realize his power potential till Triple-A — and boy did it skyrocket.

Even with the MLB ball, Charlotte is a power-friendly park, but with it, it’s downright unfair for pitchers. As you saw in the video above, all Mercedes has to do is flick his wrists on pitches low and below the zone to clear the fence. His ISO with Charlotte in 2019 was a whopping .337, with 17 homers in just 53 games. Again, that .337 was not his batting average — it was his ISO, .337! In the International League, that number was tied at the top with a couple of notable power names, Aristides Aquino of the Reds, and Luis Robert (min. 200 plate appearances).

Obviously Mercedes’ success with the bat has continued this offseason. It did not stop with 12 games in the Dominican Winter League, and has continued in spring training. The only thing stopping Mercedes’ march to the majors right now is his lack of defensive ability. He is, for all intents and purposes, a 27-year-old designated hitter prospect on a team that already has Edwin Encarnación and José Abreu as defensive liabilities. On top of that, it seems like the former first round pick, Zack Collins, will get every opportunity to show he belongs, even if he also has concerns defensively.

Mercedes’ path to the majors has always been a hard one, but at least it is not improbable anymore. According to J.J. Cooper from Baseball America, it was just up to luck he was even able to stay in professional baseball after being released by the Nationals. In a story from November 2019, Cooper writes, “if [Mercedes] wasn’t a catcher, that likely would have been the end of the story. But because he was a catcher, he’d been brought over to the States for spring training before he was released. (Teams always need large numbers of catchers to catch bullpens at camp). Because he was in the States and had a visa, he was able to latch on to play in the independent Pecos League.”

Mercedes’ story is a wonderful one, and he will be on the South Side at some point this season. It may not be on Opening Day, but the inevitable injury will come and he should be one of the first up, especially if that injury is to Encarnación. It is possible Collins finally wears out his stay and Mercedes can come in and save the team with his bat, but the White Sox do love to give their top prospects and draft picks every chance they can. It is very possible the last two spots for this team go to Collins and Carson Fulmer, both guys who are at low points in terms of prospect luster.

Mercedes’ path is still an uphill climb to the majors, but nobody can say any longer that he doesn’t deserve it.

Sox fall to A’s, 6-5 but Delmonico stays hot

Busy day: López found himself pitching through traffic, but all in all a nice debut. (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)

Mr. Captain, Tim Anderson, had a little fun going into the game this afternoon just to remind everyone that the White Sox are playing a game in Iowa later this season.

All that farming earned Anderson a day off today, and among regulars, he wasn’t alone. The starting lineup was a mesh of everything. Reynaldo López was on the bump to start, with Luis Robert and Edwin Encarnación as the only other everyday starters in the lineup. Danny Mendick, Zack Collins, and Adam Engel all appear to be bench bats, though any could be pushed back to Charlotte. Nick Madrigal could push Mendick back to Charlotte, but odds are he won’t due to service time. Gavin Sheets, Nicky Delmonico, and Cheslor Cuthbert rounded out the depth, as well as the lineup.

However, maybe Delmonico heard us just call him depth, and that pushed him to continue his spring hot streak.

Delmonico hit his first homer of his spring, a couple batters after Luis Robert singled up the middle on the first pitch of the game. Robert would also steal second a couple of pitches later.

On the pitching side was López, a guy who needs to show improvement very quickly this season. It seems like today was a “work on the breaking ball and hope it goes well” type of day. It seemed like the curve was López’s breaking pitch of choice, but honestly without the straight-on camera for webcasts, it could have just been a loopier slider. Whatever the case, López’s results were no different from any other year. His breaking pitch was in the dirt a lot of the time, but it also got some outs and bad contact, including a decent number of grounders, which López needs. His control just was not there, and who can blame a guy for not having command of breaking balls in his first spring training start.

López finished his day with a lot of threes: three innings, Ks and hits, and one run.

Delmonico singled n his second at-bat to push his spring batting average past .400. Maybe the Sox didn’t need to trade for Nomar Mazara after all? Encarnación, Sheets, and Mendick all failed to reach base. Encarnación actually has not collected a hit yet in any of the fake games. Collins continues to get walks and in this game actually had a single — but he still has more walks (six) than hits (two).

Madrigal and Engel were the ones having the most fun after the first inning, at least from a batter’s perspective. Engel went 2-for-2 and scored a run off of a bloop Madrigal single. Madrigal still hasn’t showed anything besides the uncanny ability to hit singles, which is the biggest knock against him.

Meanwhile, the relievers did not provide any relief. Adalberto Mejía, who was doing fine so far this spring, hit a wall. He was only able to get one out and left the game with the bases loaded. Carson Fulmer was on the mound when two earned runs were charged to Mejia off of a jam to center. Fulmer did not have his best stuff today overall in his 1 ⅔ innings. Evan Marshall, on the other hand, did look good. He breezed by an inning of work and left the game for potential future closer Tyler Johnson.

Unfortunately for Johnson, White Sox legend Ryan Goins had his number. With a couple runners on base, Goins grabbed a couple of RBIs with a single to right field; Johnson was lifted shortly after. So, overall, the pitching was not great today. But it’s March 3, and everybody is working on particular things.

Among the replacement hitters, a few guys were ready to take over; in particular, Andrew Vaughn.

It was not a great route by the right fielder, but Vaughn is hitting .417 now after the double to the opposite field. Even if his spring is a huge success, the odds of Vaughn breaking with the team are zero, but maybe a strong spring leads to a start in Birmingham and a path to MLB by season’s end — or at least a 2019 Robert-like advancement schedule. Whatever happens, Vaughn can hit. Although he made the game interesting, the White Sox could not finish a spring comeback, as the A’s shut the door in the ninth.

The White Sox visit the Brewers tomorrow at 2:05 CT. Joltin’ Joe Resis has your SSHP coverage.


Dallas Keuchel, and the elephant in the room


Dallas Keuchel was the first of the 2017 Houston Astros to speak after baseball issued its report on the illegal sign-stealing operation. Going first, especially in apologies, does wonders for reputation, but in this case, going first just meant Keuchel did not have to go through the firestorm his former teammates created for themselves at the start of spring training.

Keuchel’s apology was clearly not as bad as fake good guy/player Alex Bregman’s and definitely better than the fake MVP José Altuve, but Keuchel will forever be a part of that team and their fake World Series rings. Thus, Keuchel still was rationalizing his success. And though it was not widely covered — probably because he was at Soxfest — Keuchel still had atrocious and unprofessional answers, which continued to get worse.

Let’s start with Mike Fiers, because apparently being a whistleblower or somebody who takes a risk to expose details on certain injustices is a bad thing now. If anybody is more mad at Fiers than other Astros players (like David Ortiz, for example), there is something wrong with you.

Was Fiers involved in the cheating? Yes.
Did he benefit from the cheating when he was there? Yes.
Did he and the Oakland A’s try to tell MLB about it in 2018? Yes.
Because MLB did nothing, did Fiers take a direct route to blow the whistle on the Astros and go to the press to force MLB to do something? Yes.

Without Mike Fiers, would any of this have come to light? Well, judging by the reaction of everybody involved in the cheating and the fact MLB did nothing when they were informed, no. Fiers did baseball and their fans a huge service after he was involved in a great disservice in 2017. As fans, he should be applauded, and none of those other Astros, including Keuchel, should be applauded for anything.

Keuchel is among the current and former Astros angry for getting caught cheating, and now their legacy and standing is broken.

This isn’t a new scenario. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa will forever be stained by steroid usage. Bonds and Clemens are still active on the Hall of Fame ballot, while McGwire and Sosa seemingly will fall short of induction. Steroids will forever be the first thing noted about any of those players in the history books, just as is the case for the Eight Men Out of 1919 Black Sox infamy.

Keuchel and the rest of those 2017 World Series winners, including major award winners like Altuve, know that they and their accomplishments are tainted forever. That is seemingly the true reason for their contempt for Fiers. Instead of being called a Cy Young winner, a World Series champion, a multi-time Gold Glover, and All-Star, Keuchel will be reduced to “cheater.” All of those other accolades will just be footnotes, and that’s the real reason why the Astros are hiding behind the old trope of “nobody brings locker room talk out of the locker room” to illustrate their disgust with Fiers. Just because Keuchel is not as tone deaf as say Carlos Correa (it is hard to be), does not mean he should get a pass in Chicago, even if he is now on the White Sox.

Now, some might say that because Keuchel is a pitcher he did not benefit from the cheating, and that the true cheaters are Bregman, Altuve and Correa because the sign-stealing and trash-banging helped them directly. That’s true to a degree, because if there were a cheating scale, those hitters would be at the top. But what about an indirect or passive advantage for Astros pitchers? The easy one is the simplest stat category: the win. If the hitters are doing better, they are scoring more runs, which helps starting pitchers get wins. However, in this era of advanced attention to metrics, the win does not really illustrate the true edge a pitcher might have.

Then, Jonathan Lucroy came illustrated everything he and his battery mates had to do every time they were in Houston.

From an ESPN story by Joon Lee, Lucroy says of the illegal sign-stealing, it “was a mental challenge to really overcome that. It’s easier said than done. But it’s a shame, and I’m glad it came out and it came to light.”

Lucroy went into more depth about how some pitchers could not handle the extra stress of being in Houston: “[Pitchers] don’t want to sit there and try to think about decoding your signs and thinking about your indicators and all the different things that you’re doing. They want to sit there and just worry about executing. Some guys can handle it and some guys can’t. It was very difficult to do. The guys were calling time and stepping out of the box as you take time to put your sign sequence down, and it was making games long and leaving guys out there. Their system, not only did it work with them having the signs and being able to see them, but it made our guys sit out there longer. You had to put down a more complex set of signs and everything. I’m glad it’s been taken care of. It was out of hand and it affected the games in a lot of different ways.”

In other words, yeah, pitchers on the Astros had an advantage at home because they did not have to deal with rampant, illegal, and amoral cheaters in the other dugout. (At least none that we know of yet.) Keuchel could go out there on the mound and, as Lucroy says, just execute. Meanwhile, to keep the A’s example going, Sean Manaea has to worry about new signs all the time while knowing there was a possibility his opponent could crack the code and pass information to batters via illegal means.

As Lucroy said, some pitchers could handle it and some could not, but what is true throughout is that Astros pitchers did not have the same mental stresses their opposition did. Imagine every time an Astros batter got a hit or clobbered a pitch for a homer, you had to go back to the mound wondering if they’d cracked your pitch code? How could that not be on your mind with every pitch and every failure, and how is that not an advantage for Astros pitchers who don’t have to deal with such stress?

A multitude of baseball teams probably cheated with sign-stealing in some way at the same time the Astros won the 2017 World Series. We know the Red Sox did in 2018 to some extent, though unlike the Astros, we do not know if they cheated in the playoffs because no report has come out yet. But even assuming that there are probably a bunch of teams who have cheated in some form or fashion doesn’t make what the Astros did OK.

Sure, 2005 happened, the Astros got swept even though every game was close … maybe the organization felt the need to get the extra edge. However the cheating plan was hatched, it doesn’t mean Houston deserves to recognized as 2017 World Series champions.

No, Dallas Keuchel, you and your teammates did not earn that World Series, you stole it, and MLB doesn’t even care enough to make you give it back.

But as always, Tim Anderson, the Captain, is right there if you need anything.

Spring training’s in full swing with split-squad games — and the White Sox split them

Predicting the future: The two games today seemed to be an indication of what the major league and Triple-A lineups could look like. (@WhiteSox)

Cleveland Indians 10, Charlotte White Sox 2

Luis Basabe: 1-for-3, 0 BB, 1 K
Danny Mendick: 1-for-3, 0 BB, 0 K
Zack Collins: 0-for-2, 1 BB, 0 K
Gavin Sheets: 1-for-2, 1 R, 1 BB, 0 K
Andrew Vaughn: 0-for-1, 0 BB, 0 K
Micker Adolfo: 0-for-1, 1 BB, 1 K
Yermín Mercedes: 0-for-1, 1 BB, 1 K
Luis González: 0-for-3 0 BB, 0 K
Bernardo Flores Jr.: 1 IP, 3 R, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 0 K

If you needed any more proof that this was the Triple-A team (well, besides the lineup), all you had to do was check in on the first inning. Cheslor Cuthbert, a utility infielder who may see some time in Chicago, committed two fielding errors at third base. Those led to three unearned runs for Bernardo Flores Jr., who was out of the game shortly after those two errors. At least the talent difference between Charlotte and White Sox players is growing at this point in the rebuild.

This game was only on radio so there is no video, so just play along in your head. Though the Triple-A team was on display for the White Sox, Cleveland had their star guys out there and seemed to almost have the everyday MLB lineup out there to start the game. On the pitching side, only the first two innings saw majors-level pitching, though, as Shane Bieber and Brad Hand are two of Cleveland’s best.

Unsurprisingly, they recorded outs on six of the seven batters they faced. On the plus side, it was Gavin Sheets who was able to force a walk from Hand; Sheets is a lefty, so a walk off of Hand is pretty impressive. It would not get much better for the Sox, though some fun names did appear, so let’s focus on that because nobody could actually see the game.

From the starting lineup, AAAA players shined: Danny Mendick, Zack Collins, Luis Basabe, Micker Adolfo, and Yermín Mercedes, all of whom are on the 40-man roster, started today. So, this is the lineup of players that need to do the best this spring to make the team. Mendick and Collins are probably the closest to the majors, but it might be significant that Madrigal was back at Camelback Ranch in the other game featuring more of the eventual 26-man roster. Each of those five  players reached base at least once over the course of the game.

The next step below are upper-minor league mainstays. Sheets and Luis González should be in Charlotte to start the year. After the walk, Sheets singled, then scored later on in the game, while González went 0-for-3. Three other guys appeared in the game, though they did not get an at-bat: Andrew Vaughn, Blake Rutherford, and Laz Rivera.

To round out some names for the prospect buffs, Lency Delgado and Lenyn Sosa, both just 20 years old, also appeared at Goodyear Ballpark, though they too did not bat.

The pitching, well, was not pretty overall, but also had a big variety of MiLB levels on display. Flores Jr., Caleb Frare, and Kodi Mederios seem destined for Charlotte, which will give the Knights a pretty good lefty trio. Flores Jr. and Frare did not do well, at all, as both saw three runs cross the plate.

Again, for the prospect buffs, Vince Arobio (who had a breakout season from the bullpen in 2019) and Kade McClure made appearances. Arobio did allow a run, and McClure came in for two batters. It was their first appearances in a competitive (I guess it’s relative) game this spring. It’s early, guys, but at least the White Sox picked the right game to put on TV.

Chicago White Sox 4, San Francisco Giants 3

Tim Anderson: 1-for-3, 0 BB, 0 K
Yoán Moncada: 0-for-2, 1 BB, 0 K
José Abreu: 1-for-3, 1 R, 0 BB, 0 K
Edwin Encarnación: 0-for-3, 0 BB, 1 K
Eloy Jiménez: 1-for-2, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 0 K
Nomar Mazara: 0 -for-3, 0 BB, 0 K
Luis Robert: 1-for-3, 1 R, 0 BB, 1 K
James McCann: 0-for-2, 1 RBI, 0 BB, 0 K
Leury García: 0-for-2, 0 BB, 1 K
Nick Madrigal: 0-for-1, 0 BB, 0 K
Kelvin Herrera: 1 IP, 3 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 1 K
Steve Cishek: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Aaron Bummer: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
Jimmy Cordero: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Zack Burdi: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K

Before we get started on this game, look who made it on the field… for the other team.

While one Gold Glover is gone from the team, will there be a new one from the outfield?

Yeah, that is Eloy Jiménez doing things in the outfield, and guess what, he didn’t hurt himself! All around, that was a pretty good play, but then again he set a low bar in the outfield last year. Jiménez also worked the opposing pitcher to a full count and walked. In his next at-bat, he took advantage of a Giants error and drove in a run with a single roped up the middle. All in all, a nice February appearance from Eloy, but we can’t draw any conclusions … yet.

On the other end of the spectrum, Luis Robert showed his youth and inexperience early. He struggled with some little things, but what else is spring training for than to be extremely critical about little things? In the bottom of the second, Robert rolled over on a pitch away instead of trying to go the other way with it or just laying off. In the next inning, as Kelvin Herrera had a hard go of things (three runs allowed), Robert took a bad route to a ball in the gap and seemingly allowed an extra man to score. Robert also ended his day with a bad at-bat with a swinging strike on a breaking ball low and away. These are just little things, but they will mean more if they continue into the summer, when the impatient fans might start criticizing over Robert in his rookie season.

On the other hand, if Robert just does this all the time it won’t matter.

(do not slide head first in February, please!)

or this:

The winners of the day for the White Sox came from the bullpen, though the team win would come later. First and foremost, Zack Burdi pitched and looked like a typical pitcher coming back for the first time. He got hit hard, battled back from a 3-0 count, and it all ended with for a 1-2-3 inning. Now, say what you will about the reliability of velocity from spring training, but that velocity looks fine. It is February, so hopefully that fastball gets up into the upper 90s regularly.

Meanwhile, Aaron Bummer (and his new money) and Jimmy Cordero looked like they were ready for the regular season. They combined for five strikeouts in two perfect innings, and both look like mainstays in the bullpen for 2020. In fact, Bummer could see himself become the closer if Alex Colomé falters this year. Both Bummer and Cordero kept the Giants lead at one run while the Sox tried to avoid the loss or a second straight tie.

In the ninth inning, two players trying to make the team delivered in the clutch. First, Adam Engel doubled to right field to tie the game. Though it would have been fun to tie, again, Seby Zavala put that story to an end. He shot one back up the middle to center field and Engel sprinted and dove home, in February … to win this critical preseason game. Did somebody else dump Gatorade on themselves?

South Side Hit Pen Top Prospect 61: Vince Arobio

Prime mover: No White Sox farmhand jumped more levels in 2019 than Arobio. (Phrake Photography/South Side Hit Pen)

Vince Arobio
Right-Handed Relief Pitcher
185 pounds
Age: 25
SSHP rank among all right-handed relief pitchers in the system: 9

Vince Arobio pretty much came out of nowhere last year — he wasn’t ranked among our Top 100 Prospects — and had an exciting run for most of the season. The righty started in Winston-Salem (2.68 ERA and 0.805 WHIP in 13 games) and was untouchable at Winston-Salem (no runs, four hits in six games, with 4.33 K/BB). Birmingham, his last stop on the season, slowed him down a bit (5.40 ERA). But he had a composite 3.80 ERA among the three levels, which was enough to earn him a shot at some of the better hitting prospects in Arizona, where he finished his season in the AFL.

Because of his Birmingham hiccup, expect Arobio to return to the Barons and have a shot at Charlotte Knights time by the end of the season.


Tim Anderson’s BABIP breakout wasn’t all luck, so hop off your high horse and jump on the TA train

Regress this, buddy: Analysts anticipating a fall from grace from Anderson may be waiting a long time. (@TimAnderson7)

For a reigning MLB and American League batting champ, Tim Anderson has had too much slander slung his way.

All offseason, people have derided Anderson’s breakout year, considering it as more of a footnote because of what are still some obvious flaws in his game, and also because of BABIP. He even took exception with his MLB Top 100 player rankings which had him at 95 (yes, the batting champ at 95 makes total sense, MLB).

Now, the BABIP aspect aiding Anderson’s success is real. A .399 BABIP, second only to Yoán Moncada last season, certainly gave a boost to Anderson’s batting average. However, why do some fans assume Moncada made more actual improvements, even though he had a higher BABIP than Anderson? No idea, but the franchise shortstop did not run into a batting title by accident — not by a long shot.

To start, let’s knock out the elephant in the room when it comes to Anderson at the plate, he has never and probably will never walk at a frequency fans are comfortable with. His highest walk rate came in 2018, and that was only at 5%, while two of his MLB seasons saw walk rates in the bottom 1% of the league. At this point, with 7,678 pitches seen in 521 MLB games, it is time to come to the realization that walking is just not a part of Anderson’s game.

Now, what has improved with TA’s approach at the plate is the strikeouts: For three straight seasons, Anderson’s K-rate has fallen, reaching a career low of 21% last season. That’s actually a little bit better than the average MLB player.

Anderson’s whiff rate was down a little more than 3% from his 2018 season, primarily because of his success against the fastball and breaking pitches, though his whiff rate on off-speed pitches also fell. Like his overall K-rate, Anderson’s whiffs against the fastball and breaking balls have fallen for three years straight, but the big boost came in 2019 with the fastball. His whiff rate fell about 5% just against fastballs, which he saw 55.7% of the time last season — so that 5% drop is a significant number. The majority of that decrease in swing and misses for fastballs was actually outside the zone, as that decreased 11%. For the breaking ball, Anderson improved his swing and misses by a little more than 3%. The majority of those swing and misses came from inside the zone (11% drop), but the outside the zone whiff rate fell as well. All in all, it was a year of career bests for Anderson’s bat-to-ball skills … but this is also where things start to get a little murky.

Anderson’s overall contact rate rose to a career high 77% per FanGraphs; that is good for 77th out of 135 qualified batters. So, TA was not making an abnormal amount of contact compared to the league, but it was far and away a career high. Most, if not all fans, know that Anderson was late bloomer to baseball, so it makes perfect sense that it would take him longer to adapt to MLB pitching. It also makes sense that when everything came together for a former first round selection and Top 50 prospect, that player would be on top and doing this, a lot:

But again, contact isn’t everything. Some people just look at BABIP and stop, but if you do a bit more digging you’ll see that Anderson didn’t make more contact and strike out less because he was patient, but because he was reaching outside the zone and putting it in play more than ever. Anderson’s chase rate has always been more than average, but in 2019 it was an absurd number: 45.2% per FanGraphs, which was fifth-most among qualified batters. Anderson swung a lot out of the zone, but unlike previous seasons his contact rate on those pitches was not severely underwater. His outside-the-zone contact rate was at a personal high of 61.5%, but this is nowhere near an abnormal amount of contact compared to the rest of MLB. In fact, his rate was 91st out of 135 hitters, still less than average.

Where it gets murky is the way fans want to read that. One way to look at it is to say, wow, after starting to play baseball late into high school, Anderson the former first round pick is now able to track pitches better and make contact even when outside the zone, and he still has room to grow. The other, more dour way to view this is to concentrate on the increased chase rate and chase contact rate as a bad habit for a professional hitter — that 2019 was an aberration because the jump was high. The frustrating part about those conflicting views is that they are both right.

But Anderson still improved mightily in other areas.

Though his BABIP was high, Anderson still had very good expected stats. His expected batting average was in the top 8% of the league and expected slugging was well better than average. Anderson made more good contact than ever before, and the power coming off that contact was at a personal high. His ISO was at a career-high .173 and if he had played a full season’s worth of games, he would have reached a career-best in homers. Anderson’s hard-hit rate reached a new career high and his xWOBA on contact was well better than average. So while a .335 batting average was probably an outperformance of the underlying stats, overall Anderson was hitting the ball more often, harder, and better than ever before. He showed real improvement, and where the major improvement came in terms of contact is even more inspiring.

Anderson, for his first three seasons, was awful against breaking pitches. He just couldn’t hit them and when he made contact, they were outs way too often. When going up against off-speed offerings, Anderson had a .308 average going into the 2019 season, but he couldn’t put any power into those pitches, with just one home run hit off that pitch group. Meanwhile, Anderson was doing very well against the fastball, even compared to league average, but his success at the plate hinged too much on that group of pitches. Most of his ISO came from fastballs leading up to 2019, but the batting average did dip during 2018 against fastballs. All of these slights improved at the same time for Anderson in 2019, as they did for Moncada.



chart (18)

Anderson hit .350, a career high, and slugged .514 against fastballs in 2019; he hit .310 and slugged .449 against breaking pitches, both career highs; and he hit .352 and slugged .685 against off-speed pitches, again, both career highs. Though Anderson’s expected stats are worse (though not as much disparity as I guessed, especially on the fastball), all three pitch groups amounted to career highs in xWOBA, as you can see in the graph above.

Maybe people find it harder to accept Anderson’s success compared to Moncada’s because TA is a White Sox draft selection and those players rarely do well. Maybe his many errors overshadow how good a hitter he was. Maybe how fantastic Avisaíl García was in his fourth season with the White Sox in 2017 is a coincidence that is freaking fans out.

But all of this is true about Tim Anderson:

  • Anderson did not start playing high school baseball until his Junior season. His “only offer” to play baseball was to East Central Community College.
  • He worked himself, in just two full seasons of high school baseball and two years at junior college, into the 17th selection in the 2013 draft.
  • During his time in the minors, from the months after he was drafted in 2013 to before was promoted to the Chicago in 2016, Anderson excelled at every level. By the time he was called up, Anderson was a Top 50 prospect and was even rated 19th by Baseball Prospectus.
  • After three seasons in the majors, two of which were not good by any stretch, something clicked. While swinging more often than ever before, Anderson made more contact. While his swings outside the zone hit a new personal high, his chase miss rate hit a new low. While his walks were almost cut in half, his strikeout rate fell below an average hitter’s rate for the first time. While his fly ball rate went up and ground ball rate went down, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates both hit career highs in 2019.
  • Meanwhile, Anderson was also spraying the ball all over the diamond. He went with pitches where they were thrown, pulled when he needed to and went away when it was called for, and if he could, he went right back up the middle (41.4% of the time, a true sign of a good hitter). All of this shows a hitter who has a much better eye than he did just four years ago, even if the walks are not there.

A .399 BABIP is hard to repeat and Anderson most likely won’t, and he also most likely will not win another batting title. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t show real, legit improvement in 2019.

Then again, nobody thought Anderson would win a batting title in the first place. But what fans can agree on is that Tim Anderson is making baseball better.

Reynaldo López: now or never

Should he stay or should he go? Without solid secondaries, López won’t just fall out of the rotation — he could drop off of the major league roster entirely. (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)

Reynaldo López got off to a rocky start during the 2018 season, but his numbers down the stretch were why people expected big things from him in 2019.

In 33 September innings in ’18, he had a 1.09 ERA that was validated by a much better walk and strikeout numbers as well as a 2.74 FIP. Now, there was still cause for concern if you looked at expected stats, but López still seemed to be moving in the right direction; some even thought he was the better option compared to Lucas Giolito. López’s off-speed pitch was working and a much better slider was getting whiffs.

Then 2019 happened.

As Giolito had a breakout, All-Star season, López faltered, only periodically showing his great potential. His fastball was still fast, but his second and third pitches lost their luster and were inconsistent at best. Among the 104 starters with at least 120 innings pitched, López had the 14th-worst FIP and fifth-worst xFIP — just about as bad as Giolito was in 2018.

López does not have that one elite pitch, but he does have that fastball that’s in the 83rd percentile in velocity. He used to have a curveball, but seems to have lost that pitch to history. In terms of a new breaking pitch, it’s down to the slider, and López will work in an at-best below-average change from time to time.

Now, for some good news: Because López uses so few pitches, and the fact that they are inconsistent, he is a prime candidate for a “Giolito breakout.”

Let’s use something simple: López’s performance in wins and losses. In 25 starts, the White Sox won 10 times and lost 15. Obviously, a pitcher will have better stats when he wins a game, but for López, those stats show just how good and how bad he was.

In wins, Lopez had a 1.36 ERA, a WHIP well short of 1.000, and only allowed four homers in 66 ⅓ innings. He looked like this during his wins:

Meanwhile in losses, López’s ERA was 9.58, he allowed an OPS over 1.000, and surrendered 23 homers in just 72 ⅓ innings.

This discrepancy is why fans are so torn over López: Some think he is a future stalwart in a rotation, while others think he should move to the bullpen. When López is good, boy is he good — and when he is bad, he is one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball.

There is a wide spectrum when it comes to López, but funnily enough, he does not do much better against winning teams than losing ones. So his fantastic performances of 2019 do not necessarily only come against bad opponents. In fact, his best start per FanGraphs game score (96) was against Cleveland.

When on the bump against winning team last season, he had a 5.96 ERA, and then a 4.78 ERA against losing teams. That is more than a one-run difference, and López did have a much better strikeout rate against losing teams, as one should expect. But that doesn’t tell the full story.

López’s OPS against winning teams (.828) and losing teams (.838) was basically the same. That was because López allowed more homers against bad teams than he did with good teams. The most likely reason why the runs allowed were more than one fewer is because bad teams are, well, bad: They do not get on base, so a big hit does not cause as much damage.

That is why when you look at López’s advanced splits, the tOPS+ (OPS for split relative to player’s Total OPS per B-Ref), is exactly even (100) … or evenly bad might be the better way of articulating it. Then, when you look at those splits compared to the entire league, López looks very bad. Against winning teams, López was 11% worse than average; against losing teams, he was 29% worse than average in using sOPS+ (OPS for split relative to League’s split OPS). Unfortunately, a lot of that bad pitching against losing teams came from AL Central.

Overall, against the division opponents the White Sox saw and will see more than any other, López combined for a 5.04 ERA. Compared with the entire league, he was also only better than league average against one AL Central opponent, Cleveland.  For the rest of the division, López was not just kind of bad, he was atrocious compared to the league. In terms of sOPS+, he was 76% worse than league average against the 59-103 Royals, 50% worse against the Twins, and 35% worse against the 47-114 Tigers.

Now, maybe one could say that division opponents should know opposing pitchers the best, but a pitcher also needs to have success in the division to be considered a success. There is a troubling notion, though, that carries over to other stats: Batters who see López the most do much better compared to other pitchers.

It is even true when you look at it in a game-by-game basis. Now again, the third time through the order is supposed to be when pitchers start to falter. By then, batters have seen everything an opposing starter has to offer and are more or less ready for what the pitcher will throw. So of course, when batters hit against López the third time through the order, they are his worst numbers. That is not news. What is news, and what should worry fans, was that he was 29% worse than the average pitcher going through a lineup for the third time in a start. 

In 212 such plate appearances in 2019, batters slashed .298/.373/.548 for a .921 OPS. For comparison’s sake, in 2019, Yoán Moncada had a .915 OPS and Sox fans wore more than overjoyed with how great an offensive season he had. So that’s not good for López.

These stats show that when batters see López a lot, whether in a single game or over a season, they punish him. And that points to the fact that maybe being a starter is not what López is cut out to be. In fact, much of the reason López had a better 2018 compared to 2019 was his weird success going through the order the third time. In ’18, his best splits were against batter the third time through the order, as it was 48% better than league average. However, when that sregressed to the mean in 2019, López had an awful season. Not coincidentally, 2018 was a year where López’s change and slider were actually working well; that was not duplicated in 2019, thus his troubles the third time through the order.

López does not have a real breaking pitch, nor does he have a consistent off-speed offering. So it makes sense that López relies on the fastball about 60% of the time … but a starter can’t do that. A starter cannot just throw past batters all day long and hope 27 outs come, or all year long and hope for All-Star appearances, without a reliable second pitch and at least an average third.

So, fans say, let’s move López to the bullpen; his fastball should play well there and his inconsistencies with other pitches won’t be a glaring problem:

Well, be careful what you wish for. In three of López’s four seasons in the majors, he has has been worse than average compared to the league against hitters the first time through the order. Last season, he was 30% worse than average and allowed nine first-inning home runs, so maybe just throwing López in the bullpen won’t be as successful as some think. Which is also why answers like these are confusing:

Yeah, more spin on his fastball is great, especially because, according to Baseball Savant, López’s fastball spin rate was in the 22nd percentile. So increasing his fastball spin rate will lead to more strikeouts. But López needs to find another pitch, preferably two, that can at least be above-average to help him get through six innings. Maybe he should have Giolito show him some changeup grips and Syndergaard can give López his slider back. If López can’t develop his secondary pitches, then that increased spin rate on his fastball will mean more if he’s in the bullpen.

To López’s credit, at least he realizes his spot in the rotation is not guaranteed:

and he has a lot of pitchers, young pitchers, hungry and ready to take that spot.

It’s now or never, Reynaldo.

Jace Fry, bullpen man of mystery

Jace Fry caption: 

Jace Fry has a high ceiling, but he hasn’t met those expectations yet.

Fry is supposed to be a candidate for high-leverage outs in important games, and his 2018 season showed he could fill that role. The ERA was not necessarily fantastic at 4.38, but Fry’s peripherals pulled the ERA up: He had a K-rate (32.7%) in the top 6% of baseball, to go along with a 2.67 FIP. Fry’s walks were not a concern, but a 9.3% BB rate was a flag for the future. No matter, a .194 batting average against helped mitigate most potential rallies. Like most left-handed pitchers, Fry was much better against lefty bats: In 2018, he had a phenomenal .408 OPS against lefties and a worse (but not awful) OPS against righties at .690. He could get both sides of the plate out and made people look silly.

Then came 2019, and though Fry’s ERA was not far off from his 2018 mark, everything else got worse. His FIP skyrocketed up to 4.90 and his strikeouts were more pedestrian (though not a bad number) — but what really bit him were walks. In just one season, Fry’s BB rate rose about 8%, to 17.1%. That walk rate was the third-worst among relievers with 30 innings pitched (out of 249 pitchers). In plain words, Fry should have been sent down to Charlotte to fix control woes.

For Fry, though his strikeout numbers did fall, an 11.13 K/9 is still very good, and he was still fantastic against lefties. He had a .193 batting average against lefties to go along with a 3.34 FIP, and none of the seven home runs he allowed came from that side of the plate. He also still had that one elite pitch, his cutter/hard slider (whatever you want to call it, even websites disagree) and that’s almost all you really need to be a good reliever. Fry’s cutter in 2019 had a .176 batting average against, 16th-best in baseball for a cutter (minimum 25 batters faced). With a minimum of 100 batters faced, Fry’s cutter showed the 15th-most average RPMs; though that is not indicative of success (Carson Fulmer was 13th), some household names with great cutters are at the top of the list, including Yu Darvish, Adam Ottavino, and Walker Buehler.

And as you can see below, Fry’s cutter is just nasty.

First let’s look macro, and then go down the ladder.

Jace Fry had a large increase in walks. His walk rate rose almost 8% in a single season, and that is really bad. Four of the five pitches Fry uses were called balls more often in 2019 than 2018. The cutter’s ball rate went up 12.8%, the curve increased by 16.7%, the four-seamer’s ball rate elevated by 4.3%, and the change was called a ball 10.9% more often than in 2018. Of those four pitches, three of them were thrown outside of the zone in 2019 more than the previous season, the cutter (4.6%), curveball (8.8%), and four-seamer (6.3%). One reason there were more balls called was because opposing hitters just stopped swinging as much outside the zone. The total chase rate against Fry fell about 6% from 2018.

However, oddly enough, of the five pitches Fry uses, only two of them saw a decrease in chase miss rate, the cutter and change, arguably his two most effective pitches. Now, the fewer swings and misses from the cutter outside the zone is big for the walk rate because 61.1% of the cutters he threw were outside of the zone. The curve, sinker, and four-seamer all had their chase miss rate increase — and sometimes it was a huge increase — so batters were not necessarily swinging less because Fry’s pitches were worse or less deceiving. In fact, overall, Fry had more swing-and-misses outside the zone in 2019 than in 2018, but his walks still increased an almost unbelievable amount. So Fry’s problem wasn’t necessarily how good his stuff was. It was his command.

Baseball Savant, attack zones 1-39.

For the following stats, refer to the heat map outline above for a better picture of Fry’s pitch placement. From 2018 to 2019, Fry had an increase in pitches that are categorized as solely waste pitches, as well as chase and waste pitches. He had a .6% increase in waste pitches and an increase of 3.4% in chase and waste pitches; so Fry was just missing his sweet zone for strikes more often in 2019. While there was an increase in pitches further away from the strike zone, there were also fewer strikes. On waste pitches, Fry’s strike rate fell about 1%. On waste and chase pitches, that strike rate fell about 3%, so he was throwing more pitches that looked like ball and getting fewer strikes on them.

So it was a command problem, although, Fry’s curve and sinker also did not help much when contact was made.

Overall, batters hit .529 against Fry’s curve and .367 against his sinker. The problem with relievers though, is that even entire season’s worth of data is a small sample. Batters had a .313 BABIP against Fry’s curve in 2018, which skyrocketed up to .583 in 2019. That sounds a little lucky, until you look at the batted-ball data. Per FanGraphs, batters had a 42.9% line drive rate against the curve, a 30% increase from 2018, and just a 35.7% ground ball rate, a 30% decrease. So sure, the BABIP was high, but the quality of contact against Fry was very good.

For the sinker, it is even more befuddling. The BABIP against Fry’s sinker increased from .217 in 2018 to .393 in 2019; at first glance it looks like Fry just got very unlucky, and this time, the batted-ball data seems to reveal the same thing. The ground ball rate increased 39.6% in 2019 to a whopping 71.4%, so the sinker was doing its job in getting ground balls. They just did not turn into outs at the same rate as Fry’s 2018 sinker, even though a far higher percentage were in the air.

What this basically comes down to for Fry is that he has a career 4.94 ERA and has shown great potential. His cutter is elite, and he has good enough secondary pitches to get batters out on both sides of the plate. This was all a roundabout way of saying, yeah, Fry seems like he should be a really good reliever. He has the ability to use five pitches and has that one pitch great relievers always seem to have — but he hasn’t put it together. In 2019, Fry’s curve and sinker went wrong, and his command faltered. Maybe he should continue to utilize less of his curve and sinker, but 2019 could have been a statistical anomaly as well with opposing hitter success against those two pitches because when those pitches are on, they’re on.

Thus, Jace Fry is still a man of mystery.

But while all that’s well and good, 2018 was pretty tight and 2019 war rough, it’s now or never for Fry because with the White Sox are turning the page toward contention without Fry actually producing a truly sound season (just a peripherally good one). Will Fry take the next step or build the consistency it seemed he was on track for after 2018, or was 2019 Fry the real one, the one that threw more pitches way outside the zone and was almost a detriment to the club when he faced right-handed hitters?

We are going to find out quickly, because a team in contention cannot deploy an unsteady pitcher in critical situations.

White Sox All-Decade Team: Outfield and DH

Eaton good: He may have been a star on the South Side, but this crash test dummy of a ballplayer just had a helluva World Series for Washington. (@si_mlb)

If you thought there were old familiar names in the infield, just wait for the outfield. The top three players in SSHP’s vote were Adam Eaton, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin. You all guessed the first two correctly, but the third will be a surprise. Without further ado, here are the best outfielders for the White Sox in the 2010s.

Outfielder No. 1 — Adam Eaton

Eaton was the obvious choice. He was with the White Sox for three years and he played extremely well. His play was apparently good enough to net a huge prospect haul from the Nationals: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, and Dane Dunning. However, Eaton was an integral piece to winning the 2019 World Series, so the Nationals are in no way miffed they parted ways with those three pitchers. Eaton was a White Sox from 2014-16 in what was probably one of the more toxic clubhouses in baseball — Ozzie Guillén, of all people, has said nobody liked Eaton. Of course, the most memorable Eaton moment was when he called Drake LaRoche a leader — yep, a pre-teen, a leader — in an MLB clubhouse. So, something is clearly wrong between the ears, but his play for the White Sox was great. He had 13.5 fWAR in three seasons with the Sox, including a 5.9 fWAR year in 2016, his last. He finished in 19th place in MVP voting that year, largely because his defense improved significantly with a move to right field. Each of his three seasons were in the top five for single-season fWAR among Sox outfielders over the decade, including the very best in fWAR season (2016). Unfortunately for Eaton, his success on the field will not be the first recollection of his time in Chicago.

Outfielder No. 2 — Alex Rios

Yes, you read that right, Alex Rios and all his inconsistencies placed second on the list of best White Sox outfielders of the decade. Over his 3 1/2 years this decade with the Sox, he collected 8.1 fWAR. He started out the decade with a much-improved 3.3 fWAR mark compared to his half-season in 2009. However, Rios gonna Rios, and he flopped in 2011 —with a minimum of 300 plate appearances, Rios’ 2011 fWAR of -1.4 was the worst of any White Sox outfielder this decade. However, Rios still somehow climbed back up to second among all South Side outfielders in the 2010s, and I am not sure if that says more about Rios or the other outfielders the Sox had the past 10 years. The next season was much better, though, for Rios and the White Sox; in 2012, his fWAR (4.0) was the third-best in a single season among all White Sox OFs in the 2010s. The following year, the Sox shipped Rios off to Texas for Leury García, who has not come anywhere close to Rios’ fWAR value since joining the White Sox. Like Eaton, Rios would also go on to win a World Series (with the Kansas City Royals) but unlike Eaton, his value dropped precipitously.

Outfielder No. 3 — Alejandro De Aza

A lot of old and fun names will appear in this series, and Alejandro De Aza probably takes the cake. The best years of his late-blooming career were with the White Sox from 2011-13. He was neither an offensive or defensive juggernaut, but he was just average enough at both to be about a two-win player per fWAR during his prime. De Aza had some speed, a little pop, and good enough bat-to-ball skills to be an everyday starter for about three seasons. During his prime years, he slashed .278/.343/.764, which is not too shabby. He actually had more power than I remembered, even having a 17-homer season in 2013 (maybe that year is just forgettable for some reason). The Sox got all they could out of him during those three years and shipped him off to Baltimore during the 2014 season, where he went on a 20-game tear. Unfortunately for De Aza, that was his curtain call, and he became more or less a replacement-level player after that.

Designated Hitter — Paul Konerko

Did I add the DH spot to shoehorn in a White Sox all-time great? In short, duh, who wouldn’t? Paulie ended his career with the White Sox in a not-so-great fashion, at least in terms of his play. In his last two seasons, Konerko collected -2.5 worth of fWAR, so he should be closer to 30 overall for his career. However, from 2010-12 he was still pretty good. Konerko placed fifth in MVP voting in 2010 and then 13th in 2011 (boy, would Phil Rogers be mad about that now). He also went to the All-Star game in each of those seasons, thanks to a slash line of .304/.384/.530 for a 144 OPS+. That three-year stretch was his late-career resurgence, but Paulie fell hard after that. He is now up for the Hall of Fame for the first time. He will not get in, and may not survive longer than one year, but it would be nice to see him stay on the ballot so he and Mark Buehrle can share space in voting for the 2021 class.

Next up: Pitching!