White Sox Season Preview - Starting Rotation

White Sox Season Preview - Starting Rotation
Prepare to excited for this guy, again // Christopher Hanewinckel

The break in position group previews was long enough to wait for the team Spring Training ERA to shed the moniker of "worst in baseball", and allow us all to have positive thoughts about them again.  That was the reason for the pause.  It wasn't apathy or anything like that.

Onward!

John Danks

Solidly above-average but not great, relatively durable; John Danks is the presumptive staff ace.  But that's not a bad thing.  The White Sox deal in ridiculous depth, not in Justin Verlanders, and when it comes to starters that strategy can't really be questioned.

Danks is having an awful Spring, but is coming off an actual season where had the best strikeout/walk ratio of his career.  A slightly above-average strikeout rate does just fine with a walk rate under 2.5 BB/9.

Danks has hilarious reverse-platoon splits, is a bit homer-prone, and needs to maintain his approach deeper into starts if he wants to rack up the big innings.  Other than that, he's everything you'd want from a pitcher due to stick around for the next five years.  He has no hints of chronic injury, is no threat to suffer from overexposure, and his cutter and change combination should give him ability to eviscerate right-handers for a while.  There are a lot of righties in baseball.

Last year's 4.33 ERA seems like the lowest a player of Danks' ability can sink, which is reasonable enough.

 

Gavin Floyd

As far as enigmas whose results don't match up to their talent or peripherals go, Floyd's a pretty darn good pitcher.  Roughly 190 innings worth of roughly average or better run prevention is a hell of a commodity.  Unfortunately when trying to compensate for the performance of the White Sox offense of the past three years, there's always a call for more to be done.

After posting a career-best 2.09 BB/9 last season, Floyd could be regarded as an extreme-control guy if that figure is sustainable.  The slow conversion of his slider into more of a cut-fastball  suggests there's been a conscious effort to make his secondary stuff more reliable.  For someone with a fastball that's ranked as below-average for most of his career, it's a logical move.  Floyd needs to leverage his four-seamer with something else he can pump into the strike zone at will.  If it can hold up, Floyd is pretty nasty for a 2 BB/9 guy.

There's a search for the secret flaw that's holding Floyd back from a season of ~3.50 ERA that his neutralized stats point toward, now that it's happened three years in a row.  It would seem logical that he would luck into an exceptional season at some point unless there was something real preventing him from such a feat.  My running theory is that his fastball is not up to the task of carrying him through periods where he loses feel for his breaking stuff, resulting in more trainwreck outings than usual.  The cutter would seem to be a reaction to such problems.

Like with Danks, the baseline for performance (190 IP, 4.00 ERA) is acceptable, but the more that he's capable of is needed for this squad.

 

Jake Peavy

Since Buehrle was allowed to walk, perhaps the organizing criteria for the White Sox rotation was that all members had to have large reserves of untapped potential.  Perhaps no one qualifies as much as Peavy, who won a Cy Young five years ago and could even argue to have deserved it!

It's hard to know what to make of Peavy's recent statistics, seeing as he was either in the process of shoulder disintegration (2010), or in the process of recovering unsuccessfully from shoulder disintegration.  His strikeout rate and velocity were down in 2011 (7.66 K/9, 90.7 mph), which is something you'd expect from someone with "wear and tear" in their shoulder, but his walk rate drifted down below 2.0 BB/9.  Becoming a control artist would be a great adjustment to diminished zip, but feels too good to trust just yet in light of his career numbers.

That unflattering 4.92 ERA can be expected to fall as the endurance issues that caused late-game fades subside a bit, but even if the White Sox are able to keep Peavy healthy and work 150+ innings, there figures to be some deterioration from that guy from San Diego who used to strike out a batter an inning.  There should be less velocity, and it should be harder for him to go deep into games while maintaining his stuff.

The safe thing when faced with a range between a 200 IP sub-3.00 ERA guy and the 100 IP, 4.60-plus ERA injury-addled hurler who's stalked the South Side the past two years is to throw a dart right at the middle, but it's all on the table.

 

Chris Sale

The new hope for surplus value, the top-shelf pitching prospect who fell to No. 13 in the draft.

The White Sox have already passed through one of their great challenges in nurturing Sale into premier starting pitcher.  They weathered the somewhat risky fast-track to the major league level--a promise they made in order to sign him--and now they just have to see whether Sale and his dreaded "bad arm action" and skinny frame can hold up through an entire season.

We don't know.  To say otherwise would be dishonest.  There haven't been any problems yet.

Sale has the stuff.  His fastball will sit in the low 90's as a starter with the ability to go over 95.  His slider was previously a question mark, and now good enough to not just make at-bats by lefties futile endeavors, but plays against opposite-handed hitters as well.  He brought back the change-up as a prominent weapon against righties as 2011 wore on, and it had a 21.4% whiff rate after June 1st.  He will record strikeouts.  Many of them.

He'll need to, as he doesn't have plus control (3.53 BB/9 for his career), and needs to work on getting his fastball in on righties and draw more weak contact.  There's an onus on Sale to be overpowering to outweigh the mistakes, at least while he's still in the process of refining his game.

It's wise not to expect too much from Sale too soon.  His ERA should surely creep up over 3.00, his innings will be closely monitored.  But pitchers don't always progress along the slow, gradual development path that hitters do.  Sometimes the great flashes come very early.

 

Philip Humber

And then of course, there's Philip Humber.  The college star who burnt out his arm and was reborn as the 5th starter all 5th starters should aspire to be; he mixes pitches and throws strikes.

Perhaps it's residual guilt from being negative on so many other White Sox players, but I'm bullish on Humber.  Due to his BABIP-fueled monster first-half where he nearly snared an All-Star bid, Humber is often identified as having a lucky 2o11, or at least one due for regression.  The much-maligned 2nd half--where Humber posted an ERA of 5.10--was seen as Phil receiving his just dessert.

In actuality, Humber's strikeout rate spiked to 8.2 K/9 after the All-Star break, while his great control was maintained.  The batted ball luck he experienced in the first half obviously reversed itself severely, but instead of righting the perception of Humber to where it should be, it covered up an interesting transition in his work.  Not enough is made of the fact that Humber's FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and advanced metrics are all squarely in the neighborhood of his end of season 3.75 ERA.

Most projection systems anticipate Humber regressing to the numbers of his journeyman roots, but that fails to factor in the changes in his approach (namely, adding a slider) that took place in 2011 under Don Cooper's tutelage.  Of course Humber's not the ace he masqueraded as for three months, but he was a good, worthy pitcher in his first real major league opportunity, and it wasn't smoke and mirrors.

 

Spot Starters

Dylan Axelrod has shown great control throughout the minor leagues and has one certifiable plus pitch in his slider.  That's a pretty useful skill set for a 6th starter stepping in on short notice without extensive scouting and game-planning done for him.  It's also a skill set that suggest Axelrod would best-used out of the bullpen down the road, but his more impressive complement of starts and Spring Training performance has him edging out the other candidate for a roster spot.

Zach Stewart is that candidate, and while he's 25, it doesn't appear as though he's quite found himself as a starter yet. It takes a lot of success early in the game for Stewart to maintain trust in his secondary stuff throughout a start.  He's sinking-fastball is a solid offering, but doesn't yield enough whiffs to be leaned on as heavily as Stewart tends to do.  The Minnesota near-perfect game outing shows what Stewart can be capable of, but one can't help that maybe the velocity uptick from moving to relief would be easiest on him.

Hector Santiago is relegated to relief for now, but with the tremendous personal evolution he's going through with his screwball, he's probably more interesting as a future rotation staple than either of these guys.

Terry Doyle is back!  He's had a hell of Spring.  He's pitched poorly and been given a vote of no confidence by two teams this year, one of which he's currently on.

 

Ultimately, the White Sox rotation figures to be a strength once again, even after letting the great Mark Buehrle walk to the Marlins.  Despite getting pretty much the worst Gavin Floyd and John Danks can be expected to offer last season, the rotation still lapped the American League in fWAR.  Chris Sale and Jake Peavy represent high-ceiling talents capable of dragging the squad to higher heights if they can line up their prime years with one another, and Phil Humber along with decent filler options in Axelrod and Stewart show that the Sox will be dealing in depth in terms of their starter stockpile.  They do this well.

 

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  • Great argument for Humber.

    The stat I like to look at is xFIP, which relies heavily on walk and strikeout ratios (the things pitchers can control) as well as fly ball rates (balls on the ground cannot leave the park). The "X" in xFIP is for a derivative of FIP that accounts for erratic individual HR/FB rates by multiplying a pitchers FB% by the league-average HR/FB rate. This is a good stat to help access the value of Sox pitchers who go to work for 81 games in a homer friendly park. xFIP is weighted to be about the equivilent of ERA (5.00 is awful, 2.90 is excellent) (http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/pitching/xfip/)

    ERAs aside, 4 of the 5 2012 Sox starters (everyone but Sale) were solidly in the "Above Average" xFIP range (3.75) in 2011. Despite his 4.92 ERA, Peavy was a 3.52 xFIP. An improvement on last year's performance would put Peavy in "Great" range.

    Chris Sale had a 3.00 xFIP last year in 58IP and he's a 2.89 career xFIP in 94.1 IP. Presumably that's going to take a hit when Sale transitions to starting (or else, helloooooo CC Sabathia!). Who knows how much. It may mean a little something that Adam Wainwright went from a 3.62 xFIP as a reliever in 2006 to a 4.45 xFIP as a starter in 2007. If Sale were to experience the same increase it would put him at a 3.83 xFIP for 2011, and that would be dandy.

    It's a different way of looking at Sox pitchers, but the conclusion is the same. Sox pitching is good, maybe great, but not enough to make up for an anemic group of hitters who will likely be among the league's worst in runs scored.

    Anyways, xFIP for life, I say. I love it, and yes, I'm going to marry it. (Wait, I'm already married. Damn!)

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    I meant "3.83 xFIP for 2012" in that Sale graph. Read what I mean, not what I write!

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    I get what you're saying with the Wainwright comp, in that "here's another young talented pitcher who made the jump from being an elite reliever to a starter, who wound up adjusting really well eventually, but took an initial hit". It's a view of what a really favorable path for Sale's development might look like.

    However, I'm wary of drawing a straight line to figure out what his drop-off in ERA will be, and certainly wouldn't compare him to Wainwright in terms of pitcher-type. Sale's facing different issues as a lefty starter, who will be having lineups tailored to him a lot more because batting left-handed hitters against him is just an entirely futile enterprise. He's spent the last two years using his slider as his primary off-speed offering, and if he's facing more right-handed batters, he really might have to become closer to the guy he was in college in terms of pitch selection. Or his slider is just so good it won't matter. There's a lot varying factors in this adjustment. When the projection systems spit out his 2012 numbers, they're applying the average hit for the relief-to-starter adjustment across the population, but this is something that works on a case-by-case

  • In reply to James Fegan:

    Do you mean to say that one instance is not enough instances to draw any blanket conclusions about the transition of pitching talent from reliever to starter? I'm failing to see the reason in this.

    Thanks for making a great point. And for waxing on Sale a bit more.

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    Actually, I think you're also saying that many instances is not enough instances to draw any real conclusions because of the nature of pitching. Which is one of the reasons it's a great point.

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    Yeah, more than criticizing your comparison, which I'm sure you made knowing the limitations of, I'm just saying it's really, really hard and specific to Sale how he'll adjust.

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