Will the White Sox bullpen be their secret weapon in 2016?
Bullpens have become a bigger and bigger part of a baseball team over the last decade.
They have gone from being where you stick the lesser pitchers – outside of the closer – to vital weapons to shorten the game. Nowhere was this more evident than with the Kansas City Royals of the last two seasons.
In 2014 the Royals rode their three-headed monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera from the Wild Card game all the way to the World Series before losing in seven games. They followed that up by winning it all last year, thanks again in part to the revised trio of Davis, Herrera and Ryan Madson.
The “big three” at the back end of a bullpen has become the new blue print for teams to copy. Shortening the game helps to relieve pressure on starters to work deep into games and keeps their total innings down, as well as high stress innings late in games with higher pitch counts.
The White Sox bullpen has not been one of their strongest areas over the bulk of the Robin Ventura Era. The organization took steps to fix the problem last year by adding free-agents David Robertson and Zach Duke. The result was a definite improvement, but not quite a weapon yet. This year, that could change.
The Sox have the potential to have their own “big three” at the back end of the pen. And if things do fall into place, it should make life easier on Robin Ventura as he attempts to manage the late innings of tight games.
Obviously it all starts with Robertson. Last season Robertson saved 34 games in 41 opportunities (83%), which was down from his 89% conversion rate the previous season. Robertson posted a 3.41 ERA last year, up from 3.08 the year before. But the secondary numbers were all very solid.
His FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 2.52, down from 2014 and his WHIP was the best of his career at 0.932. His walks per nine innings was the best of his career at 1.8 which also gave him his highest K/BB ratio ever of 6.62. His fWAR of 1.9 was the second highest of his career. There is no reason not to assume Robertson can once again be a top notch closer in 2016.
The big key to making the White Sox bullpen a formidable asset, is Nate Jones. After missing almost all of 2014 and the first four months of 2015, Jones returned to the Sox bullpen last August. The results were pretty good, with Jones posting a 3.32 ERA, a 0.947 WHIP and striking out 27 batters in 19 innings. He did give up five homers, which is a bit of a concern but 12.8 K/9 is a pretty nice number.
Fast forward to this spring and Jones has looked great. He’s tossed seven innings and allowed no runs on only two hits while striking out 10 batters and only issuing one walk. If Jones can continue to strike batters out at those rates, while also keeping the walks in check, he could be one of the best weapons out of the bullpen in the entire American League.
A one-two punch of Robertson and Jones out of the pen allows Ventura some flexibility when it comes to the seventh and (when needed) sixth innings. A combination of lefty Zach Duke and righty Jake Petricka could be a very nice seventh inning duo.
Petricka is having a very nice spring as well having allowed just one earned run over seven innings of work while striking out seven and walking just two batters. In his career Petricka has held right-handed hitters to a .238/.315/.296 slash line with a .611 OPS.
Duke meanwhile, has yet to allow an earned run this spring in 7.1 innings and has allowed just five hits and two walks while striking out five. Last year Duke held left-handed batters to a .181/.303/.301 slash line and a .604 OPS.
With Jones and Robertson as the regular 8th and 9th inning options, this will allow Ventura to pick and choose the best spots for his other relievers, and Duke and Petricka should benefit from that quite a bit.
We also shouldn’t forget Matt Albers, who posted a 1.21 ERA in 30 games last year despite missing time with a broken finger. Albers has also had a clean spring with six shutout innings having allowed just five hits and a walk while fanning six. Albers was also deadly on right-handers last year with a 10.50 K/BB ratio.
All of this is good news for the Sox and Ventura, who should have plenty of solid options when going to the pen this year. Hopefully this will help take the pressure off the starters to feel like they have to take the game all the way through the 8th inning to get a win. It should also help shorten the game for the back end of the rotation and guys like Latos and Danks. The fewer times through the lineup for those guys, the better off the Sox will be.
It may not be as good as the Royals combo the last couple of years, but the Sox bullpen this year has a chance to be one of the better pens in all of baseball. If that turns out to be the case, it will go a long way towards helping the Sox compete for their first playoff berth since 2008.