Wheels down, it’s time to show (R)yu the money

Back to the drawing board: The White Sox should shift their focus towards signing Hyun-Jin Ryu. (@Dodgers)

On Wednesday afternoon, the White Sox learned that they lost the bidding war for their primary pitching target, Zack Wheeler. The Philadelphia Phillies made a late push and eventually inked the righthander to a five-year, $118 million contract that will keep him in the NL East. It hurts when you come up empty on someone who was your priority, although it’s worth noting that the White Sox did offer Wheeler the most money, but it was his fiancee’s preference of being closer to home that ultimately led to signing with the Phillies.

Go figure. The one time the White Sox don’t make any moves to acquire family or friends of a free agent and they go the route of offering the most money yet they still come up empty. Wheeler would have been a great addition to a young pitching staff and would’ve had the opportunity to solidify himself near the top of the rotation for many years down the road, but it’s not the end of the world. There are still plenty of good free agent starters that the White Sox can shift their focus towards.

One starter the White Sox should make a run at is Hyun-Jin Ryu from the Los Angeles Dodgers. If Ryu was in any other free agent class, he would be more popular among teams looking for pitching, but he gets a little lost alongside Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, and Stephen Strasburg. Ryu is a bit of a unique situation, given the fact that he will be 33 at the start of next season, but has only had four full seasons where he’s made 20 or more starts.

Staying healthy has been a struggle for Ryu, especially in the early portion of his career. After debuting in 2013, he landed on the 60-day injured list four times with various shoulder, elbow, and groin injuries. Even with all of the injury history, he has still managed to put together a very successful career: Through 125 starts in six seasons, Ryu has a 2.98 career ERA with 665 strikeouts and 164 walks in 740 ⅓ innings. Those numbers have given him a 8.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, and a 1.16 WHIP, which is very respectable for a starting pitcher.

The Dodgers have been careful with Ryu returning from injury, making sure they didn’t stretch him out too long and trying to limit the stress he puts on his body. In 2019, Ryu had a much healthier season, and the results were incredible. He made 29 starts while posting a 2.32 ERA with 163 strikeouts and just 24 walks through 182 ⅔ innings. That earned Ryu his first All-Star appearance, and he ended the season second in Cy Young voting. Given his history, this might not have seemed like a possibility, but Ryu showed just how great he can be when he’s feeling like his normal self.

His success as a pitcher is due in large part to the fact that Ryu generates a lot of weak contact and ground balls. His career average exit velocity is 85.9, placing him below the league average of 87.5. In 2019, his average exit velocity was 85.3, which was good enough to place him in the top 4% in all of baseball. In 2019, Ryu generated a ground ball on 50.4% of batted balls, giving him a slightly better percentage than the 48.4% total for his career.

Ryu has a wide arsenal that consists of a four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, changeup, curveball, and slider. His fastball isn’t overwhelming, registering in the low-to-mid 90s, and he pairs it with a changeup that sits in the mid-80s. However, Ryu’s ability to locate his pitches makes up for his below-average velocity and helps him generate the consistent weak contact and ground balls. He’s become a “master” of painting the edges of the strike zone, throwing 44.2% of his pitches throughout those areas and targeting places where batters struggle to barrel the ball.

All of the ballparks in the AL Central rank among the top 20 in baseball, with two in the top eight, for most average runs scored and average home runs per game. Bringing Ryu into the mix would be a welcoming change, as his pitching style would play well at those parks and he would be set up to have a successful run with the White Sox, assuming that he can continue to stay healthy. In addition, Ryu has always been a pitcher who doesn’t walk many batters. The most walks Ryu has allowed in a full season is 49 over 192 innings during his rookie year in 2013. The White Sox issued the sixth-most walks in baseball last season, and that has been a consistent trend over the last few years.

One factor that could help influence Ryu to sign with the White Sox is their recent addition in Yasmani Grandal. The two of them worked together during Grandal’s time in Los Angeles, and Grandal trails only A.J. Ellis as Ryu’s most frequent catcher. When working with Grandal for 28 games, Ryu has a 3.02 ERA with 45 walks and 139 strikeouts in 143 innings. That’s good for the second-best ERA among catchers who have worked with him for 20 or more games. The pair has had success being battery-mates, and a reunion on the South Side would be in both their best interests.

Ryu’s market seems less robust than the other pitchers at the moment, and while there hasn’t been any information linking the White Sox to the lefty, it would be wise for the team to get in contact with his agent. The only downside to this? Ryu’s agent is Scott Boras, and the White Sox haven’t had the best working relationship with him in the past. Knowing Boras and how he’s able to suck money out of teams better than anyone in the game, he might use Chicago’s recent failure with Wheeler as a way for them to pony up more money for Ryu. While there’s plenty of reasons as to why Ryu makes a lot of sense and why it would be worth it to sign him, spending a lot of money on him is a risk given his injury history.

As a Plan B after failing on Plan A, Ryu makes a lot of sense for the White Sox. He’s a ground ball pitcher who doesn’t allow much hard contact, and he’s lefthander who would bring balance to the rotation. In 2019 not only was Ryu healthy, he looked like a guy who can pitch at the top of a rotation. There is risk involved with this signing, but it’s a risk the White Sox should be willing to take.


Deep Dive: Lucas Giolito’s past, present and future with the White Sox

Ace, ascendant: Lucas Giolito was easily the best pitcher on the White Sox staff in 2019. Will he get help going forward? (@whitesox)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

This article delves into the career of Lucas Giolito through 2018, his 2019 season with the White Sox, and what his future looks like with the team.

How did he get here?

Giolito, a native of Santa Monica, had an outstanding senior year with Harvard-Westlake High School (Studio City, Calif.) when he posted a 9-1 record in 70 1/3 innings before being sidelined in March due to a sprained ligament in his right elbow. After several of the top doctors in the area gave his elbow’s health a thumbs-up, Giolito was selected by the Washington Nationals with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft.

The Nationals handled Giolito cautiously that year, as he only pitched two innings for their Gulf Coast squad. The following year, he combined for 11 games and 36 2/3 innings with the GCL and New York-Penn League affiliates. In those innings, Giolito posted a splendid 1.96 ERA and 1.15 WHIP by surrendering just 28 hits (.217 OBA) and 14 walks (9.5%) while striking out 39 (26.5%).

In 2014, Giolito’s stock really escalated. In 20 starts totaling 98 innings, he posted a sensational 10-2 record, 2.20 ERA and 1.00 WHIP for the Nationals “A” team in Hagerstown over 98 inning,s as he ceded 70 hits (.197 OBA) and 28 walks (7.3%) while fanning 110 (28.5%).

The next year saw him spend time with A+ Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, and his results were still quite good if not quite as terrific — quite understandable when considering he was pitching against hitters that were usually about three years older. In 2015, Giolito combined with those squads to post a 7-7 record, 3.15 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 117 innings as he surrendered 113 hits (.253 OBA) and 37 walks (7.5%) while striking out 131 (26.5%).

The 2016 season was quite full for Giolito, as he pitched for Hagerstown, Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. In 22 starts totaling 115 1/3 innings, he combined with those three teams to produce a 2.97 ERA and 1.28 WHIP by allowing 104 hits (.239 OBA), 44 walks (9.0%) and 116 strikeouts (23.8%). He then earned his first MLB promotion, but struggled for the Nationals in six appearances spanning 21 1/3 innings as he surrendered 26 hits (.295 OBA) and 12 walks (11.9%) while fanning just 11 (10.9%). With Giolito’s struggles for the playoff-bound Nationals, and the fact that their pitching staff was already loaded, he became expendable and was traded along with pitchers Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning for outfielder Adam Eaton after the season.

Giolito, who was considered an overall Top 20 prospect at the time of the trade, had an uneven season for the Charlotte Knights in 2017, as he struggled with both command and control. In 24 starts spanning 128 2/3 innings, Giolito posted a 4.48 ERA and 1.41 WHIP by relinquishing 122 hits (.253 OBA), 59 walks (10.7%) and 134 strikeouts (24.3%). However, he showed significant improvement (including a no-hitter against his former team, Syracuse) as the season progressed, which ultimately landed him a promotion to Chicago by late August. In seven starts for the White Sox totaling 45 1/3 innings, Giolito produced an outstanding 2.38 ERA and 0.95 WHIP by allowing just 31 hits (.190 OBA) and 12 walks (6.7%) while striking out 34 (19.0%).

Giolito suffered through easily his worst year as a professional last year with the White Sox, as he struggled immensely with both his command and control. In particular, he had difficulty avoiding the big inning. In 32 starts totaling 173 1/3 innings, he compiled an ugly 6.13 ERA and 1.48 WHIP by relinquishing 166 hits (.250 OBA) and 90 walks (11.6%) while fanning just 125 (16.1%). Giolito’s 90 walks and 118 earned runs were both league worsts. On the positive side, his FIP was only 5.56 so it appears that a little bad luck combined with his poor control contributed to his troubles.

With the White Sox in 2019

Despite exiting the 2019 season a couple weeks early due to a lat strain, Giolito not only enjoyed a terrific bounce-back, but was one of the best righthanders in the majors. In 29 starts totaling 176 2/3 innings, he posted a 14-9 record with a 3.41 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, as he surrendered just 131 hits (.205 OBA) and 57 walks (8.1%) compared to 229 strikeouts (32.5%). The biggest damage to his stat line was that he had a professional career-worst 36.0% ground ball rate, which largely led to his 24 homers allowed. That blemish aside, Giolito’s year was off-the-charts, and he was easily the league’s most improved pitcher.

What were the major factors for his improvement? Overhauled pitching mechanics, offseason work on the mental aspect of the game, a sinker that’s been mothballed in favor of more four-seamers, and increased use of his changeup, particularly against lefties — there is no shortage of factors that have contributed to Giolito’s turnaround. Giolito gets ahead of hitters far more often, gets them to chase outside the zone more often, and his strikeout rate practically doubled, from 16.1% to 32.1% while his walk rate fell from 11.6% to 8.3%. Despite Giolito’s fairly high homer total, he still managed to cut his homer rate from 1.4/9 innings to 1.08. Even while becoming a fly ball-oriented pitcher, he’s cut his homer rate from 1.4 per nine to 1.08. It all adds up to one of the most impressive turnarounds of any pitcher in recent memory.

As mentioned above, Giolito increased the usage of his four-seam fastball from 39% to 55% while he didn’t throw his sinker at all in 2019 (he threw it 20.5% of the time in 2018). Off his four-seamer, hitters slashed just .203/281/.364, which was a major improvement from the year before (.274/.412/.524). Losing his sinker was a great career move, as hitters slugged .445 against it last year. Giolito increased his changeup usage from 15.7% in 2018 to 26.2%, and hitters slashed just .190/.270/.360 against it this year. He used the slider 14.7% of the time this year, a nearly identical rate from last year; opponents slashed just .213/.251/.362 against it this year. Finally, which comes as a surprise to many since the pitch was graded 70 by MLB Pipeline when he was still a prospect, Giolito’s curveball usage fell from 10.1% to 4.1% and with good reason — hitters rocked that pitch this year to the tune of a .318/.426/.682 slash line. According to Baseball Savant, Giolito’s four-seamer averaged 94.2 mph, with obviously lower speeds on his slider (84.6), changeup (81.7) and curveball (79.4%).

Giolito posted a 5.1 fWAR for the year. Considering each fWAR is worth approximately $7.7 million free agent dollars per FanGraphs, when measured against his 2019 salary of $573,000, Giolito produced a whopping net value of nearly $38.7 million. Giolito won’t be eligible for arbitration until the end of the 2021 season.

What does the future have in store?

It’s hard to believe, but Giolito won’t even turn 26 until next July, and he won’t be eligible to become a free agent until the 2024 season. While there’s no rush to give Giolito an extension quite yet, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to consider if he repeats his performance next year. The lat strain, which caused a premature end to this season, would typically put someone on the shelf for just three or four weeks during the season, so Giolito’s injury shouldn’t have any effect on him next year.

As for 2020 and beyond, Giolito could be part of a young mix that includes some combination of López, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodón, Dunning and Jonathan Stiever just to name a few. Giolito is the only one with any viable track record of production, experience and durability — all the other aforementioned pitchers have either battled inexperience, inconsistency, or injuries.

Of course, Giolito only has one full season of success to date, but he’s easily the staff ace. Of course, this doesn’t even include the possibilities of adding a starter or two via free agency if the White Sox decide to finally open their pocketbooks for premier hurlers. Later Deep Dives will delve into right-handed and southpaw rotation options available in this year’s free agent class.

It’s time to Corde-roll the dice on Jimmy beyond this season

Sleeved, slick: Cordero has a power arm that is too good to let slip away. / @ChicagoSports

At 27 years old, it’s safe to say that Jimmy Cordero has been an MLB journeyman.

In 2012, Toronto signed him as an international free agent, and following his first stint with the Blue Jays, Cordero was sent to the Philadelphia Phillies in July 2015for outfielder Ben Revere.

That wouldn’t spell the end of trades that listed Cordero’s name. In 2016, he was traded once again, as he was sent to the Washington Nationals in exchange for another minor league pitcher. Finally, it seemed like he found a home for himself, as Cordero was able to settle in and make his way to the majors for his debut with Washington in 2018.

With the Nationals in 2018, Cordero appeared in 22 games, with a 5.68 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 12 walks in 19 innings. He was allowing nearly two batters to reach base each frame, giving himself a WHIP of 1.84. After Cordero earned the opportunity to show what he could do at the major league level, he failed to make the most of it.

This year, Cordero began his season with the Nationals, only to be designated for assignment and claimed by the Blue Jays in May. He made his Blue Jays debut in 2019, but was designated for assignment just eight days after he was claimed. His one appearance with the Blue Jays was a rough one, and the club must have felt like there wasn’t much Cordero could do for them.

Seattle claimed Cordero at the end of May, shortly after he was DFA’d by the Blue Jays, and he was assigned to Double-A. He appeared in just one game during his time with the Mariners, where he walked four batters in a scoreless two-thirds of an inning. His Mariners career wouldn’t last long, as the White Sox made a move to claim Cordero on June 7.

After being claimed by the White Sox, Cordero was assigned to the Charlotte Knights and seemed to be getting on the right track. In 13 games with the Knights, Cordero owned a 0.51 ERA with 14 strikeouts and just two walks in 17.2 IP. The White Sox obviously liked what they saw when they claimed him, feeling like he deserved another look at the major league level after seeing what he did in Triple-A.

And here we are now, with Cordero is seeing his first extended action at the major league level since the end of 2018. In 2019, Cordero currently has a 4.26 ERA with 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 25.1 IP. Since the last time he saw extended action, Cordero has seen his ERA drop 142 points, has doubled his strikeouts and walked fewer batters while already surpassing his IP total from 2018. His 1.11 WHIP is the lowest of his career, by a wide margin.

Cordero is a fastball-heavy reliever who can touch triple digits and make it look effortless. His fastball comes in at an average of 97.5 mph. He also has a changeup, as well as a slider and cutter that we don’t see as often as the other two pitches. Cordero’s changeup averages 88.5 mph, giving him almost a 10 mph dropoff from his heater.

While Cordero is bringing the heat every time he steps up on the mound and getting better at limiting his walks, he’s also not giving up a ton of hard contact — opposing hitters have an average exit velocity of just 85.1 mph. On top of that, of the 67 batted balls Cordero has allowed this season, only four were barrels.

For a guy who has struggled with control throughout his career, it seems like Cordero is starting to figure things out. A big reason for that might be that he feels comfortable in Chicago, where he has been able to get some consistent experience. As a result, Cordero currently has a 9.8 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 as a member of the White Sox organization.

It’s still to be determined if Cordero can keep up this improved play. However, his emergence this year has definitely been a bright spot for the big league club, and it would be wise to give him another shot next season. If Cordero wants to have a bullpen role down the line, he will obviously have to continue to earn it, but for now he deserves another opportunity with the White Sox.

Cordero is not a free agent until 2025, so keeping him around could give the White Sox a cheap bullpen arm with an ability to light up the radar gun. Throughout the farm system, there have been quite a few injuries to bullpen arms this year, and in years past. With such uncertainty, it wouldn’t hurt to give Cordero another chance, at the very least.

Whether that opportunity involves being a regular member of the pitching staff at the major league level, or even spending time with Charlotte’s staff as more prospects make their way to the majors, Cordero has the potential to be a valuable piece either way.

He’s had a tough and interesting journey to make it to this point. As he gets older and becomes more of a “veteran,” Cordero can share his wisdom and knowledge with the younger arms about what it takes to make it to the MLB, and help them out during the process.

Cost-friendly, flamethrowing bullpen arms are not always easy to find. Taking into account the improvements he’s made from 2018, Cordero should continue to have a role with the organization moving forward, a role he’s earned.

Not to mention, if there’s ever a point where a bench-clearing brawl is about to go down, Cordero is one player I would definitely want on my side.

Who is Reynaldo López?

It’s time: The young righthander has shown flashes of brilliance, but needs to tighten up his out pitches to anchor himself in the future White Sox rotation. (Clinton Cole/South Side Hit Pen)

The story of Reynaldo López’s 2019 season seems to be nearing a three-part act. This first half of the season, which totaled 98 innings, was beyond a disaster. Among qualified pitchers by the All-Star break (78 pitchers), López had the worst FIP in MLB at 5.79, the worst HR/9 given up, and a laughably low ground ball rate to go with it. In other words, he looked like a bust and there were a lot of these type of videos every outing:

Reynaldo López, not doing real well in the first half of the season.

After turning in his last start of the first half, López vowed to be better. Fans mostly scoffed because whenever he did show the potential we all know he has, López would revert back to the pitcher some started to think belonged in the bullpen. But then, López backed up that talk and he looked like an actual starting pitcher, like the guy who was good down the stretch in 2018, with a multitude of devastating strikeouts like this:

López was cruising through six starts of fantastic baseball. He wasn’t allowing home runs — just one in 38 innings — to go along with a 2.87 FIP. He had the fifth-best fWAR over that six-start span, with 1.3. Everything was working, and I mean everything.

The fastball gained a little over one mph in velocity, and López was much more crisp with his location. Though not perfect, it was much better than the first half of the season.

López’s fastball placement to righties: first half of the year on the left, from July 14-August 10 on the right.

The heat map above and below is a pretty good indicator of López’s success because he so heavily relies on the fastball. Over the year, he has used his four-seam 57.6% of the time per Baseball Savant. Against righties, as you can see above, López was leaving his fastball in probably the worst possible place — right in the middle of the zone — and that played a part in his dramatic increase in home runs allowed. During his stretch of great pitching, you can see that López’s fastball location against righties started to move inside and a little up. Now, there are still too many fastballs in the heart of the zone, and that location does not allow many ground balls, but the move inside clearly was working.

López’s fastball placement to lefties: first half of the year on the left, from July 14-August 10 on the right.

Against lefties, the fastball has been immensely more crisp as it falls in the top of the zone. Again, that’s not really good placement to induce ground balls, but it is a much harder to hit fastball than what López was throwing in the first half. Also, again, the placement is moving more up and in; not perfect, but the fastball was devastating over that six-game stretch with the new and better zone placement. Using Pitch Info, López accumulated a 4.5 value rating with his fastball, seventh-best in MLB over that stretch.

But it’s not really all about the fastball, even if Reylo seems to want it to be, all the time. In fact, in order for Reynaldo López to be successful he needs to execute and be confident in his change and slider.

Both pitches are important in different ways. López uses the slider predominantly against right-handed batters and the change (with a curve sprinkled in) against lefties. Unfortunately, the slider that López really developed and learned to handle last year was not being duplicated in the first half of 2019. The change, which was López’s worst-rated pitch coming up in the minors, also took a huge dive during the first half of the year. So in effect, Lopez did not have his “out” pitches against both sides of the plate for the first half, for the most part (yes, there was that one 14-strikeout game, where everything clicked).

Because López uses the slider mostly against right-handed batters, if it isn’t on, he will struggle mightily against them. The same thing happens with the change against lefties, and that failure of his out pitches has led to his inconsistent season. When a changeup or slider isn’t good that day, López’s fastball usage skyrockets, which means more well-hit baseballs and more runs allowed.

So far in the second half, López has been much better, but he is still showing that he is far away from being a top-of-the-rotation starter.

López’s first three games out of the break was the best stretch of pitching since last season. Why was it so good? Well, the fastball location we already discussed played a huge part, but the change and the slider also were fantastic. Using Pitch Info’s value statistic, López’s change and slider were positively rated in each game. That success with both pitches led to a 2.16 FIP and 3.06 xFIP over those 21 innings.

The next three starts, though still good and much better compared to López’s pre-July starts, were inconsistent because the off-speed and breaking pitches were not simultaneously good during the same start. One day, the change was great and López was confident in it, so he was much better against lefties that day — but the slider was bad or he was just not using it, so right-handed batters got to him, and vice-versa when the slider was good and the change was bad.

However, because at least one of his out pitches were good, López had good results. He had a 2.65 ERA from July 30 to August 10, but a peripheral stat “saw” a problem during that stretch, with a 6.19 xFIP.

That xFIP spelled doom, and over a two-start stretch from August 15-20, López reverted back to what he was in the first half of this season: bad. His FIP was 5.85, and he had an ERA at 6.35 (that should have been worse because of four unearned runs) over those two starts. The change was awful in the first start, and the slider did not have a positive impact. In the second start, López’s change was better, but the curveball (the other pitch López uses against lefties) was terrible and the slider was also bad. So for the second straight start, López got crushed because his out pitches were not working against their respective batters.

To his credit, in his last start, López did rebound nicely, sort of. He went five no-hit innings because his fastball and slider combination was working very well. However, his changeup was so bad he only used it at a 2.5% rate, so he was really only throwing a fastball against lefties. Thankfully, the four Texas Rangers left-handed batters couldn’t catch up to that fastball despite the team being able to get López into some pitch-count trouble.

What this boils down to is who is the real Reynaldo López? He has been extraordinarily inconsistent, so it is difficult to ascertain if López is making progress, or if he still is just a reliever playing starter. For the majority of this season, López has looked like a reliever, a guy who really only needs one or two pitches in any given at-bat. A starter needs at least three, and maybe even four, to be successful over six-plus innings, and Lopez hasn’t shown he has that ability besides that three-game stretch from July 14-24. Even in the three-game stretch, López still has not been able to rediscover his curve.

But there is a glimmer of hope, because of what we have seen from Lucas Giolito.

When Giolito started to look like a better pitcher last season, the velocity on all of his pitches was up. That has happened with López this season, with the additional spin rate increases over each month of the season so far. The fastball averaged 94 mph in April and has now climbed to 96.8 mph in August. The change has gone from 82.9 mph to 85.5 mph, while the slider has also increased 3.4 mph over the season. López’s changeup and slider are also moving differently in the second half, and they have been more steady as well.

Lopez’s changeup has a horizontal break that is not fluctuating as much, which gives the impression it has been more crisp and repeatable than before. That usually means López has more of a feel for it and better command.

Though not as extreme as the off-speed pitch, López’s slider also has not been fluctuating as much game-to-game in its vertical break lately. The break has also steadily gone up as well, from a -38-inch average in April to -34-inch average in August.

You can look at López in two ways after this. A positive spin is to say he is on an upswing, improving every month. The second, negative take is that it took López half a season to get where he needs to be, and he still has not reached his potential after 432 2/3 career innings.

At this point, López needs to continue this stretch of better baseball. He needs to show he can work consistently with his secondary pitches, like he has on occasion this season, and not just throw meatball fastballs like he did in the first half of 2019. He needs to better prepare himself in the offseason so it doesn’t take half the year to get good.

Thankfully, White Sox fans have already seen a worst-to-near-first turnaround in just one offseason from Giolito. Now it needs to happen with López, because the White Sox need to start winning games.

I’m sure López will be on the roster the next time the White Sox make the playoffs, but what remains to be seen is whether he is in the rotation or the bullpen.

The sky is still the limit for this fireballer, but time is starting to become an enemy instead of an ally.