The White Sox bullpen is ranked among the best in baseball, but it can be better says closer
HOUSTON – Such are the times the White Sox live in when first place and one of baseball’s best records are theirs. Per FanGraphs, the bullpen is ranked third in the major leagues and yet it’s not performing at the level that was expected.
The Sox starters, not the relievers, are the strength of the team.
“It’s hasn’t lived up to our own expectations,” closer Liam Hendriks said of the bullpen. “We put very high expectations on ourselves.”
The Sox have the best starting pitching, according to FanGraphs. The pen, based off numbers from previous years, Hendriks said, has some ground to make up.
But Hendriks, who signed a four-year, $54 million contract during the offseason and was the AL Relief Pitcher of the Month for May, takes solace knowing the pen has “underlying numbers that tell a whole different story than the ones the public sees,” citing its strikeout (10.77 per nine innings) and walk (3.15) rates which rank third and fifth, respectively, in the majors.
“But we’re still not performing to our standards,” Hendriks said. “We have to rein some things in and tighten some loose screws. We go through stretches where we do really well and then stretches where we’re struggling. We have a pen that hasn’t hit its form and yet we’ve been doing pretty well with it.”
Now comes a test. With 71 games played after the Sox met the Astros Saturday night, the 60-game mark of last season’s abbreviated schedule has long passed, so young pitchers such as Garrett Crochet, Codi Heuer, and Matt Foster are entering uncharted territory.
“A lot of these guys haven’t experienced a full 162-game season,” Hendriks said. “We’re at that point, and everyone starts to drag just a little bit, myself included. It’s an abnormal feeling from what we did last year. You get through those little dog days, you make sure the younger guys know this is what we’re going through and make sure if you need a day, you need a day. If we have enough guys that day take a day [off]. Because games right now don’t mean as much as October and that’s what we’re trying to get to. If you need a day here and there to be ready for October, let’s do it.”
Michael Kopech, the ultra arm who has made multi-innings relief appearances and made three spot starts, hasn’t pitched since May 26 because of a hamstring strain. Manager Tony La Russa likes to acknowledge “the baseball gods’ and perhaps it’s their way of doing the Sox a solid and shortening the 2021 workload on a pitcher going through his first full season in the majors after opting out of the 2020 season.
“We always said we have to deal with that and what his role will be going forward,” assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler said. “Now he’s not piling up those innings, so there might be a silver lining. The goal is have the bullpen clicking in August, September and October and that would be the way with Kopech, having him be ready for whatever role the organization needs him in then.”
By that time, a reinforcement or two will likely have been made in advance of the July 31 trade deadline as general manager Rick Hahn looks to improve a roster building toward the postseason.
The bullpen is always an area to deepen, even with an ERA of 3.62 ERA that seventh in the majors entering Saturday, and a third-ranked 3.15 fielding independent pitching mark which emphasizes events a pitcher has the most control over — strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.
The Sox need to get more consistent second half performances from right-handers Evan Marshall (5.19 ERA), Heuer (5.86) and Foster (6.41)
“Guys like Foster and Heuer. now they’re dealing with the second year, teams are making adjustments,” Hasler said. “The expectations were very high, and coming from a short season last year. But they’re working, and reaching those high expectations is achievable.”