The White Sox Rotation: Saleing Through Another Season*

There’s no sense beating around the bush here: the 2014 White Sox don’t look like they’ll be very good. In fact, they figure to be downright unwatchable most of the time. That is, except for roughly 30 games.

The ones Chris Sale starts, specifically.

Chicago finished last season with the second worst record in the American League, ahead of only the lowly Astros. The team’s record (63-99) was barely worse than its Pythagorean record (67-95). It has also recently concluded an offseason in which its big acquisitions were Jose Abreu (a slugging Cuban import who may or may not be awesome) and Adam Eaton (a solid outfield prospect who has played exactly 88 games in the major leagues, for which he has accrued exactly 0.2 wins above replacement).

So, yeah, Chris Sale. Let’s start with him as we consider expectations for the White Sox rotation in 2014.

*I swear this will be the only terrible Sale-related pun in this post. Honest.

Sale is about as good as human pitchers get these days. In his second full season as a starter, the lanky lefty was again among the AL’s very best in a plethora of categories. He was seventh among qualified starters in ERA, fifth in FIP, fourth in xFIP, and third in SIERA. His strikeout rate was fifth best, his walk rate was seventh best, his swinging strike rate was fourth best, and his groundball rate was tenth best.

He’s pretty good at baseball, basically.

The only thing tempering his value is the team he plays for. Among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season, Sale ranked 135 out of 145 in run support. (Teammate John Danks was second to last.) The White Sox were not very good at scoring runs, finishing dead last among American League teams, behind even the woebegone Astros. If I may present the play-by-play equivalent of what the 2013 White Sox offense was like:

The outlook is not much better for 2014, even with Abreu and Eaton in the mix. As dumb a stat as wins are, they matter in a fantasy context, and therefore knock Sale’s value from elite to just-barely-not-quite-elite-barely-sorta. If the lack of support can do that to an arm like his, it does not bode well for the rest of the Sox starters, but let’s give them a look anyway.

Jose Quintana’s rise has been remarkable for a player pulled out of the minor league scrap heap at 22. He doesn’t have Sale’s upside, but the fact that Quintana has settled in behind the lefty as the White Sox second best starter is a massive win for the White Sox scouting, development, and coaching departments. Last year Quintana upped his strikeout rate (from 14.3 percent to 19.7 percent) while also lowering his walk rate modestly (from 7.4 percent to 6.7 percent). He posted sub-4 numbers across the board for ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA.

His arsenal doesn’t feature a single elite pitch, which will limit his ultimate ceiling. His fastball was seventh among qualified players in pitch values last year, but it lacks premium velocity, and doesn’t have an exceptional amount of movement. Because of this, he’s unlikely to be more than a mid-rotation starter, but that’s a huge win for a player two teams gave up on before his 23rd birthday.

For a player in the bargain bin, he could provide strong value this spring. If he becomes a trendy sleeper pick, or owners are expecting more than last season, it will be wise to look elsewhere.

Fellow lefty John Danks returned from a 2012 shoulder surgery, and the results were about what you would expect from a player returning from such an injury, as he saw a dip in velocity and a drop in his strikeout rate. The team hopes he can regain some of that velocity, although he’s never been much of a fireballer. Either way, the most interesting nugget from that link isn’t about velocity, it’s this:

If Danks’ velocity creeps further back to normal this season, the hope is that he can combine what made him successful in the past with things he learned last year, such as the ability to change speeds and the art of hitting his spots.

He only made 22 starts, and he was returning from shoulder surgery, so caveats abound digging into his 2013 numbers, but he did throw more changeups and curveballs than ever before (26 and 10 percent, respectively). He also threw more of his changeups for strikes (31.21 percent prior to 2013 and 36.09 percent last year) and generated more whiffs on it (16.61 percent prior to 2013 and 19.22 percent last year). So, it’s possible there’s been a change in approach here, and it’s possible Danks throwing his best pitches more will lead to better results. It is equally possible, however, that these small sample differences are just noise, and that Danks’ days as a good starting pitcher are over at 29 years of age. (Yes, John Danks is only 29, which seems crazy, right?)

Newcomer Felipe Paulino will be in the mix as well. The former Royal missed all of 2013 after having Tommy John surgery, but Sox pitching coach Don Cooper labeled him as one of the team’s likely starters earlier this offseason. He’s never withstood a starter’s workload, but he did make 27 starts with sub-4 FIP, xFIP, and SIERAs for the Royals between 2011 and 2012, so there is hope. He works with a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider, so spring reports on his velocity and movement will be key in determining his value. It seems as if he’ll be given every possible chance to earn a spot in the rotation.

Another arm sure to get a look this spring is top prospect Erik Johnson (a personal favorite). Johnson made five starts late last season and generally acquitted himself well. He profiles as more of a mid-rotation workhorse than a top of the rotation star like Sale, but by accounts of prospectors smarter than I (our own Marc Hulet and Nathanial Stoltz among them) he’s close to reaching that ceiling. ZiPS and Steamer aren’t especially optimistic, so we may be a year early recommending him, but he has the talent and polish to made an immediate impact in deep fantasy leagues.

That leaves Andre Rienzo on the outside looking in to start the season. While he is bound to take the ball at least a few times this season, he’s going to have to improve his 1.36 K/BB ratio to be of much use to fantasy owners.

We hoped you liked reading The White Sox Rotation: Saleing Through Another Season* by Jack Weiland!

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Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.

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Jeremy Roell
Jeremy Roell

I think you made a mistake in your second paragraph about actual and Pythagorean record.