COMMENTARY | While much has been made of the quite obviously revamped Chicago White Sox offense, what has thus far gone under the radar are the changes to the pitching staff.
This makes sense, as the names added to the mix for pitching spots on the opening-day roster are less than flashy: Ronald Belisario, Felipe Paulino, Scott Downs, Erik Surkamp, and Mitchell Boggs are the most prominent among them. The pitchers lost in the past year, however, will ring a bit more familiar: Jake Peavy, Hector Santiago, Jesse Crain, and Addison Reed.
Though the additions and subtractions all had different motivations, there is a pattern forming that seems undeniably intentional on the part of general manager Rick Hahn. He began to drop clues with one of the first additions to the 2014 pitching staff, Ronald Belisario. After signing the inconsistent reliever, Hahn elaborated that "[Belisario] is a power arm with plus stuff who profiles well for our ballpark."
While Hahn did not explain further what it meant to profile well for U.S. Cellular Field, it takes just a little analysis to see what that might mean. The ballpark has a reputation for being a notoriously hitter-friendly place, especially for home run hitters. A power arm, then, is great for preventing contact in this kind of ballpark. However, that is not what makes Belisario so interesting.
Belisario has an astonishingly high career 60.8% ground-ball rate. This means that of all the balls put into play against Belisario, 6 out of 10 are grounders. The league average in 2013 was 44.5%. Scott Downs, another addition to the bullpen, has a career mark of 58% and has been above 60% for three seasons. Mitchell Boggs has a 52.6% rate for his career as well, meaning all bullpen additions are very strong in the ground ball department.
The new starting pitchers are less flashy when it comes to their ground-ball rates, but are still very solid in this regard. Erik Surkamp posted a 46% ground-ball rate in Double-A Richmond on his way to that league's pitching Triple Crown that season (ground-ball stats are unavailable for last season). Felipe Paulino posted a 45.6% ground-ball rate in his last full season on the bump, which would likely place him in the top fourth of starters in 2014.
This trend is about more than who is coming in, but also who has left and who is staying.
On the 2013 White Sox, the pitcher with 10 or more IP with the worst ground-ball rate was Addison Reed with 33%. Chicago flipped him for its potential long-term third baseman, Matt Davidson, this offseason. Next was Jesse Crain, who was sent away at the deadline while injured. After that was Jake Peavy, who posted a 35.7% rate and was flipped for Avisail Garcia, some other talented prospects, and the cash savings that helped to make the Jose Abreu signing possible.
At this point, it probably comes as no surprise that the next player on the list of worst ground-ball rates was Hector Santiago, yet another player not returning to Chicago in 2014. He netted Chicago its 2014 starting center fielder, Adam Eaton, who will likely lead off and has the talent to have that position for many years.
According to FanGraphs' park factors, U.S. Cellular Field ranks behind only Coors Field (and by a small margin at that) in its friendliness to home run hitters. There are other stadiums that are better for overall offense, but Chicago is nearly unsurpassed for its ease of hitting homers. This means that as a general manager, it makes sense to construct a pitching staff in such a way as to try to prevent home runs in particular, moreso than other types of offense.
For the young pitchers that Chicago traded away, Hahn saw that their inability to induce ground balls was a recipe for disaster so long as they played half of their games in Chicago. For a player like Peavy, he was simply worth more to a team with a less homer-friendly ballpark than he was to Chicago. Chicago ranked 22 out of 30 teams in ground-ball rates, which just does not make sense in its ballpark. Its starters ranked 26 out of 30 in this regard, which is even more worrisome.
In addition to Paulino and Surkamp, Erik Johnson figures to slide into the starting rotation and will have the inside track on the former two pitchers. Johnson has consistently posted great ground-ball rates, with a 48% rate in MLB last season and 49% throughout the minors last season. Andre Rienzo has also approached 50% in his trips around Chicago's minor leagues.
While many fans are trying to get a sense of what their still fairly new general manager is about, the clearest message has been in the way he has enacted his vision on the pitching staff. To take the inducement of ground balls into consideration in this way also demonstrates a more general embrace of advanced statistics that may serve the team well.
If Hahn can continue using advanced insights to realize which of his players are expendable for the purpose of building a better overall team, Chicago has a lot to look forward to in the years ahead.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer on the Yahoo Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and owns the film and TV blog The Renegade's Film Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.
- Sports & Recreation
- Ronald Belisario
- Chicago White Sox
- Felipe Paulino
- Jake Peavy
- Mitchell Boggs
- Jesse Crain