Representative of his performance this season as a whole, Sergio Santos came in the 9th inning on Friday night and burned the faces off of all three batters he faced. (Not literally)
Representative of his performance this season as a whole, Matt Thornton came in the 8th inning, struggled with his command, and looked suspiciously less capable of blowing hitters away with straight heaters than usual.
Sure as anything, Thornton's entry into games elicits anxiety, and Santos' entry into any game sends Sox fans combing their computer for the proper victory music to put on.
Both were very solid relievers last season, so their current reputation
seems mostly staked on this season's performance. For Sergio, this
means 18 IP, for Thornton 12.2. This isn't a whole lot. 2-3 starts,
maybe. And well below the 150 batters-faced cutoff when strikeout and groundball rates begin to stabilize.
At this stage with relievers, we're shuffling deck chairs, without any
firm knowledge of true quality of these deck chairs (stability,
durability, comfort), basing judgments primarily on shininess.
What's different from 2-3 starts though, is that these innings have
taken place over the course of a month and a half, over 14 appearances
(for each). It's not a matter of 'not having it one night', or even 'a
bad week', but performances spaced between periods of rest and recovery,
bullpen sessions, whatever magic stuff Don Cooper does.
For someone who has made the switch from hyper-dominant to a noticeably
nerve-wracking watch, we'd expect statistical measures (beyond, you
know, ERA, because we could effin figure that out for ourselves) to
verify Matt Thornton's struggles.
Yeah, it's there.
Thornton's swinging strike percentage is down to 10.8%, when it never
dipped below 13% during his three prime years, and batters are making
contact with Thornton offerings in the zone more (81.8%) when they never
got bat on ball more than 80% of the time when he gassing fools from
2008-10. As J.J. diagnosed over a month ago,
Matt's just not throwing the ball where he wants it to go anymore; he's
frequently out of the zone, and when he needs a strike, he can't keep
it out of hittable places. In this way, his struggles are real, not
However, these same statistics turn around and tell you that in the long
run this doesn't make any sense. Thornton's fastball is currently
rated as a below-average offering for the first time since he was with
the Mariners (back when him-for-Joe Borchard seemed like a good idea),
but hasn't lost any of its zip. His slider has been hilariously
ineffective, but I refuse to believe that someone who had the best year
of his career throwing a four-seamer 90% of the time has an ERA over 6
because his show-me pitch is getting hammered. The same goes for his
changeup that pitch type trackers disagree on because it lacks the
proper differentiation with his fastball to register correctly. If he's
throwing 96 in the right spot, neither of these pitches matter much.
If we're going to give any credence to what these smattering of
appearances tell us that's bad about Thornton, we have to accept what
it's also saying is good. His 9.95 strikeouts per 9 innings are down,
but clearly indicate that he's overpowering when he's in the vicinity.
Thornton is surely in a rut right now, and relievers get so few innings
over the course of the season that stretches like these need to be
managed around (and they are, thank God), but Thornton should be
rewarded for his three years of excellence--where he demonstrated fine
control--with a return to high leverage work once he begins to verify
the player the White Sox became familiar with for three seasons, just as
Sergio Santos is getting rewarded not for this season alone, but for verifying the promise he showed for all of 2010.
As Jeff Gray just proved, relievers get such short opportunities to
prove themselves. Even a good stretch of innings isn't always enough to
show to their teams that they can consistently rack up outs. For guys
like Thornton, and Santos going forward, tearing down the reputation
they've built should take at least as long as it took to get taken
seriously in the first place.