White Sox relievers are fungible to a fault

White Sox relievers are fungible to a fault
A.J. Pierzynski, Robin Ventura, and a guy who may or may not stick around // Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune

“”We’ve got a bunch of guys who are really bad at starting,”

-Will Ohman, Feb. 26, 2011

Leave it to Will Ohman to make the self-deprecating statement that would later be used in his own post-mortem.  The 2012 season would see the White Sox take a step away from investing in “failed starters”, and their excising of old Will would be a part of that.

They didn’t cut funds–Tony Pena is the only member of the 2011 bullpen who made over the league minimum who departed–but they made a point of standing pat, and going with league minimum guys, even as 134.1 innings of Chris Sale and Sergio Santos left the pen.  Of course, when Will Ohman’s strikeout rate fell through the floor, Kenny & Co. were satisfied to see how competent a cycle of live left arms from Charlotte could do in his place (they were better, but it wasn’t hard).

The $1 million and prospects the Sox ponied up to make flash-converted starter Brett Myers part of the setup man cycle was the only splurge on lesser arms Kenny Williams allowed himself in his last year in the GM chair.  The rest of the season, he relied upon his much-maligned farm system, and fueled a half-dozen defensive Hawk rants in the process.

The results:

First of all, it’s important to remember that the White Sox play in an extremely hitter-friendly stadium, so it’s no fair to analyze the work of their pitching staff simply on the basis of total runs allowed, or raw ERA.

ERA- is a stat that’s adjusted for park, where 100 is the league average, and the lower score is better.  In terms of earned runs allowed, the White Sox bullpen appeared to get better from 2011, but the bullpen work of the entire league improved too, and their ranking among the AL declined.

According to FIP (which attempts to remove defense out of the equation by focusing on strikeouts, walks, and home runs), the quality of their bullpen work declined noticeably.  This may have bore itself out with more inherited runners scoring off of Sox relievers, but the outfield defense was so vastly improved that it throws off all conclusions based on actual scored runs.  FIP says that the bullpen got significantly worse, and that should be trusted.

Especially since it’s all that makes sense.  Ohman, Thornton, Sale, Santos, and Crain threw 71% of the Sox bullpen innings in 2011.  Thornton and Crain stayed the same performance-wise, but Crain was less healthy.  Ohman collapsed, and the best two of the litter were replaced by a farm system devoid of prospects and talent.

Addison Reed (4.75 ERA, 3.64 FIP) was a disappointment, but was also the only contributor to the pen who could be found on any pre-2012 prospect list from the worst farm system in baseball.  Giving everyone in the system a chance produced Nate Jones (team-leading 71.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 3.39 FIP), but also produced Hector Santiago’s ill-advised turn as a closer, Leyson Septimo’s flameout, and Zach Stewart’s earnest attempt to end his own career.

Jones looks to be a major leaguer–even if every ERA predictor and his delirious luck with stranding runners indicates he should have been at least a run worse than his 2012 results–and Donnie Veal seems to be a legit lefty specialist.  But the pen represents another area where the White Sox need to decide what they want to be in 2013.  If they’re looking to be competitive in 2013, an investment to stabilize the relief corps will make work easier for Robin Ventura than cycling through arms and seeing what sticks.

Addison Reed should take a step forward, inevitably someone will emerge from the cadre of rushed but live arms, but leaning on Charlie Leesman, Nestor Molina, and Simon Castro to scratch out something above-average is the type of plan mid-season trades for Brett Myers are made of.

Unless of course, it’s a season where Ventura is trying to find solutions at every position.


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