What’s Up With The Sox Starters?

The White Sox, as of Wednesday morning, are 9-24. They have struggled to get anything going as a team, and even with the team focused on a rebuild, this year has been a special type of painful thus far. So what’s been the issue? The bullpen, sure. The offense, yeah. But those things are expected for a rebuilding team. Truthfully, the starting pitching has been particularly awful to begin the year.

I started thinking about this while watching Giolito pitch on Tuesday night. It just felt like he was falling behind each hitter and not throwing enough first pitch strikes. I decided to look at some stats for each of the White Sox’ main starters (Giolito, Fulmer, Shields, Lopez). Here are some of the results:

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 11.49.11 PMScreen Shot 2018-05-08 at 11.49.44 PM
Alrighty, I just threw a ton of numbers at you… let me explain what they mean. F-Stike% is First-Pitch Strike Percentage, which is fairly straightforward… the key: get ahead, stay ahead. White Sox pitchers are struggling to get ahead in the count. O-Swing% looks at what percentage of pitches that hitters swing at outside of the zone. It’s a sort of measure of how nasty your offspeed pitchers are, and how often you can get hitters to chase. Long story short, the White Sox aren’t fooling hitters on pitchers outside the zone. SwStr% is Swinging-Strike Percentage – how many swings and misses Sox’ pitchers are getting. Once again, the Sox are struggling in this category – they haven’t been missing bats.

Now, to cut these pitchers a LITTLE bit of slack, FanGraphs – where I got all of these stats from – only lists the pitcher’s in order and doesn’t specifically rank them (there were 197 SP in the data). For example, there are obviously multiple pitchers with a 9.0 SwStr%. However, the point can still be made that, at best, White Sox pitchers’ have been very below average in terms of some crucial statistics: they aren’t consistently throwing first pitch strikes, aren’t getting hitters to chase (possibly because of how many pitches are missing out of the zone), and when it’s in the zone, they are rarely getting hitters to swing and miss.

The second graph shows a lot more intuitive stats – it looks at BA/OBP/SLG of opposing hitters in a few important situations: first pitch of an at-bat, when a hitter is even in the count (1-1, 2-2), the leadoff hitter of an inning, hitters with 2 outs, and leadoff hitters in an inning. The biggest thing to take away from this graphic is the LARGE difference between a veteran and rookie pitchers. For example, look at even counts: those are big counts in the game. The difference between a 2-1 count and a 1-2 count is huge for young pitchers. The numbers show that James Shields is craftily challenging hitters, while guys like Giolito and Lopez are trying TOO hard to throw a strike in that situation, and are instead getting fat with pitches. Either that, or they are too predictable in certain counts – which is likely for young pitchers who don’t fully trust all of their pitches yet.

What else can we learn from that second graph? Sox’ pitchers need to shut down innings quickly. Batters shouldn’t have a .330+ OBP with 2 outs. Sox’ pitchers also need to focus on getting that first out of the inning: the first strike leads to the first out leads to the end of the innings. White Sox’ pitchers are struggling to get through the first inning of starts as well, and they need find a way to limit the damage in the first inning – perhaps by throwing more strikes and getting ahead of more batters (without getting fat with pitches – this is where veterans like James Shields, Wellington Castillo, and even Don Cooper are so important).

So who’s to blame? Obviously, if you spend any time on White Sox twitter, you might jump to one answer in particular: Don Cooper. He’s an easy scapegoat, no doubt, because he’s the pitching coach. However, you have to consider that these are rookies making very rookie-esque mistakes. These are anticipated growing pains. Granted, these are much larger growing pains than we might expect as fans from top prospects, but they are common: lack of control, then too fat with pitches, and an inability to establish themselves early in a game. That’s why Shields has the best stats in almost all of the categories in the second chart: he’s been through the growing pains and he continues to make adjustments.

So, White Sox fans, yes, the pitching has been awful thus far. But no one is to blame for this – unless you are going to blame the pitchers for being so young. Sure, these growing pains are a lot bigger than we might’ve expected, but honestly, no one learns anything from continued success early on in their career – if you never learn how to deal with failure, you can never grow. So let the kids continue to learn, and stop worrying about them – they are at this level for a reason. It is an important time for the Sox’ young pitchers to transition themselves from simply “throwers” into “pitchers” – the change is a difficult one to make, but is the difference between Dylan Covey and Greg Maddux. Let’s trust that they have the maturity and baseball mental skills to make this transition.

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