Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If the White Sox insist on keeping John Danks in the rotation, they need to give him a shorter leash

White Sox pitcher John Danks is overpaid. Everybody knows that. But this blog entry is not going to be about money. Today we are talking about Danks' poor performance, nothing more, nothing less.

The veteran left-hander had another implosion against an AL Central opponent Monday night. He gave up nine runs (five earned) on nine hits, including three home runs, over 5.1 innings in an embarrassing 13-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins on national TV. Danks getting rocked by a divisional foe is nothing new. We've chronicled those struggles here in the past.

I've heard some folks argue Danks is a "serviceable" fifth starter. Heck, I think I might have made that statement a couple times in the past. But as time goes on and I gather more information, I've come around to the opinion that this guy doesn't belong in the rotation anymore. His 5.38 ERA ranks 50th out of 53 qualifying American League pitchers. That's not serviceable. It's terrible. It's the kind of performance you can't live with if you want to think of yourself as a competitive team.

It would be one thing if the Sox didn't have other options. For instance, we can complain until we're blue in the face about the not-so-dynamic Sox catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto. But the reality is those two guys are the best the team has in its organization at that position right now. You can't do anything else but trot them out there until the front office addresses the issue.

But it's not that way with the fifth starter spot. White Sox farmhand Erik Johnson is pitching well at Triple-A Charlotte. He was just named International League Pitcher of the Week. He has not given up a run in any of his last three outings, striking out 28 batters and walking just four in 22 innings over that span.

Given what we know about Danks and his struggles against the AL Central, and just his struggles in general, wouldn't it be a better play to drop Johnson into the rotation for a week and see how he does? At the very least, he could give teams such as Minnesota and Detroit a different look. The Tigers and the Twins are not fooled by the offspeed pitches of Danks. They've faced him countless times, and they are probably fighting to get to the bat rack, knowing a night against Danks is a chance to pad their personal statistics. Minnesota did a good job of getting fat on Monday night, that's for sure.

If the Sox are going to insist on leaving Danks in the rotation, at the very least they need to give him a shorter leash. Minnesota hung a five-spot on him in the bottom of the fourth inning Monday night, turning a 2-1 Sox lead into a 6-2 deficit. No, it wasn't all Danks' fault. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez made a crucial error behind him that opened the door for the big inning, but the Twins scored three runs after two were out, as well. Danks had opportunities to make pitches, pick his teammate up and minimize the damage. He failed to do that.

He should have been removed after that fourth inning. A four-run deficit is not good, but it's not insurmountable. The Sox's long and middle relievers were all fresh and available to use. Manager Robin Ventura should have gone to one of them. You hope a fresh relief pitcher can keep Minnesota at six runs, and then maybe your offense can come back.

Instead, Ventura trotted the ineffective Danks out there for both the fifth and sixth innings, apparently wanting him to "eat innings." Predictable results followed -- a three-run homer by Kennys Vargas in the sixth made it 9-2. Then, the game was over.

The whole thing was disturbing and disheartening. By sending Danks back out after he had been roughed up, it felt like Ventura was conceding the game. And he can't afford to concede games to division foes right now. The Sox are 30-39, 11 games out and in last place. There has to be an urgency to win right now. You can't allow a struggling pitcher such as Danks to go out there and torpedo everything for 24 other guys. There's no rule that says Danks has to stay in for 90 to 100 pitches no matter what. When he's bad, pull him and give the team a chance to come back and win. This isn't rocket science.

On Monday night, it seemed as though Ventura was managing for tomorrow when he needed to win today. The Sox skipper is running out of tomorrows, maybe a lot faster than he realizes.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gordon Beckham stinks as a starting player, but plays well off the bench

White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham hit the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the 11th inning Sunday for a solo home run, lifting the South Siders to a 3-2 victory over the Texas Rangers in the rubber match of a three-game series.

Beckham entered the game in the 10th inning for defensive purposes and started a 5-2-3 double play in the top of the 11th inning that got the Sox out of a bases-loaded jam. The home run was his fourth of the season, and three of the four have come in games where Beckham has come off the bench.

There is little doubt Beckham is a more useful player in a reserve role. He can provide decent-to-excellent defense at third base, second base or shortstop, and it's clear his bat is better when he enters late in the game. His overall .220 batting average is not impressive, but check out his splits this season:

Beckham as a starter: .198/.263/.264, 1 home run
Beckham off the bench: .333/.375/.810, 3 home runs

Obviously, Sunday's home run won the game for the Sox. Beckham also came off the bench May 29 to hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of a game the Sox eventually won in extra innings. An eighth-inning home run on April 12 took a 4-2 Sox lead to a more comfortable 6-2 margin in an eventual victory.

With third baseman Conor Gillaspie's inconsistent performance both with the bat and the glove, Sox manager Robin Ventura has given in to the temptation of starting Beckham more often in June. It hasn't worked. Beckham has started 13 of the Sox's 19 June games, and he has hit .143 with just one extra-base hit and one RBI in those games. He gets exposed as a weak hitter playing every day. In a bench role, he can be spotted in matchups more favorable for him, and that's where he's been able to contribute to the team this year.

The Sox are having struggles at second base, as well, where Carlos Sanchez has made all the plays defensively, but has floundered to a .155 batting average. It would be easy for Ventura to be tempted to try Beckham at second base. He shouldn't give in to that one, either. For all of Sanchez's struggles, he's 22 years old and learning at the big-league level. He can still get better, and a little patience might pay dividends.

Beckham, however, is not a kid anymore. He turns 29 this year, and this is his seventh year in the big leagues. He is who he is at this point, and he's a utility player. He can do that role and do it well, so the Sox would be well-advised to leave him there.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'The Wreck of the White Sox' by Tom Braxton

With the Blackhawks wrapping up their third Stanley Cup in six years, I haven't had much time to watch or write about the bad White Sox baseball we've been seeing the last few days.

The team is on a five-game losing streak and hasn't scored a run (or had an extra-base hit) since the second inning Sunday. Rather than analyze the nonsense of the past few ballgames, we will instead commemorate the latest losing streak with a poem from my friend, Tom Braxton.

To the tune of  "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot ....

The legend lives on from old Bridgeport on down
To the mills on the sands of The Region.
The game, it is said, often ends with the dread
Of an autumn spent fretting and reachin’.
With a bench of new guys whose talents comprise
So much more than the Sox had last season,
But that team of new hope slid down a hard slope
That the Central Division was greasin’.

The team was the pride of the weary South Side,
Coming back from too long in the cellar.
As big-leaguers go they looked better than most
With a team looking good if not stellar.
Concluding some deals, Rick Hahn, he now feels
That champions are what he’s collected.
And without many wins when we’re ten weeks in,
Could it be the rebuild we’ve expected?

The whiffs and duffs made an ominous sound
Of a team coming loose from its moorings.
And every fan knew, as Hahn must know too,
‘Twas the curse of Navarro returning.
May became June and the team was in swoon
When the streaks began piling up losses.
As the weather grew hot fewer tickets got bought
To the chagrin of Rick Hahn and his bosses.

Does anyone know where the love of fans goes
When the team blows through millions of dollars?
Writers say that worst case they’d have made second place
If they’d only replaced Tyler Flowers.
They might have bad eyes or they might have the yips;
They may have bought their own bravura.
And all that remains are the aches and the pains
And the blinking of Robin Ventura.

In a musty old bar on South Halsted they sang,
In voices exchanging their theories.
The beer bottles clanked and together they drank
To each man from the ’05 World Series.
The legend lives on from old Bridgeport on down
To the mills on the sands of The Region.
The game, it is said, often ends with the dread
Of an autumn spent fretting and reachin’.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Maybe Adam LaRoche isn't going to be a bust after all

I feel like Adam LaRoche hasn't gotten a fair shake from White Sox fans this year.

I knew it was going to be that way, too, because LaRoche is a notorious slow starter, and for many of the meathead fans in Chicago, first impressions are lasting impressions.

Predictably, LaRoche had a bad April for the Sox, and the fans labeled him as the second coming of Adam Dunn.

Some went so far to give LaRoche the nickname "Adam LaDunn," which is an unfair comparison. Unlike Dunn, LaRoche is a good-fielding first baseman, and he has always hit for a respectable average. And, while LaRoche is not exactly a fast runner, he's not the lumbering baseplugger Dunn is, either.

But hey, LaRoche's first name is Adam, he bats left, he used to play for the Washington Nationals, and he's a first baseman. BAM! They must be the same player! So say the meatheads.

Unfortunately for the small-minded folks who want to declare LaRoche a bust, the veteran has been playing better as the year has moved along. His home run in the sixth inning Wednesday night tied the game, and the Sox went on to beat the Houston Astros, 4-1, to complete a three-game sweep.

Let's take a look at what LaRoche has done by month:

April: .191/.286/.353
May: .270/.420/.427
June: .300/.344/.567

LaRoche's career split in April is .222/.316/.397, so this year's start was even worse than normal for him. But, it falls in line with his career trend. His career splits for May and June are .261/.350/.456 and .261/.336/.460, respectively, so just as he has his whole career, LaRoche is showing improvement in May and June.

We can see now that LaRoche is starting to recover from his bad start, progressing toward his career norms:

2015 season: .246/.362/.422
Career: .263/.340/.470

He's not quite where he should be yet, but it's going to take a little while longer to erase that poor April. Nevertheless, we're starting to see evidence that LaRoche is still the player the Sox thought they were getting when they signed him to a two-year contract this past offseason.

Sox fans would do well to get over their obsession with Dunn and his failures and judge LaRoche on his own merits.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Chris Sale latest dominant outing puts him in elite company

The White Sox didn't exactly tear it up offensively on Monday night, managing just three runs on four hits against the Houston Astros.

Fortunately for the South Siders, it was Chris Sale's night to pitch, and three runs were more than enough.

Sale (6-2) struck out 14, walked just one and allowed but five hits in eight innings of one-run ball as the Sox defeated the Astros, 3-1. The left-hander has struck out 49 and walked but four in 30.2 innings over his last four starts.

Here's the fun fact about this recent Sale hot streak: He has struck out 12 or more batters in each of his last three outings, while allowing one run or less in all three.

This is a feat that has been accomplished only one other time in baseball since 1900. Sandy Koufax did it his last three starts of the 1965 season.

Yeah, that's pretty good company for Sale.

MLB Draft: White Sox take Carson Fulmer with eighth overall pick

The White Sox on Monday selected right-hander Carson Fulmer with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft.

Fulmer is the staff ace at Vanderbilt, which won the 2014 College World Series and is headed back to Omaha after defeating Illinois in the super regional in Champaign this week. Fulmer was the winning pitcher in Vanderbilt's 13-0 win on Saturday.

For the season, Fulmer is 13-2 with a 1.82 ERA in 17 starts. He has fanned 152 hitters in 114 innings. Fulmer's fastball sits at 93-96 miles per hour, and his breaking ball is his strikeout pitch. Some scouts consider him to be the best pitcher in the college game this year, but there are question marks about his unorthodox delivery and frame.

Fulmer is 6 feet, 195 pounds. He doesn't fit the 6-foot-4 prototype that scouts drool over these days, so expect to hear questions about his durability. Some believe he projects as a relief pitcher for just that reason.

Of course, White Sox fans have heard that one before. Many scouts pegged Chris Sale as a relief pitcher because of his relatively slight frame and unorthodox delivery. The Sox, of course, made him a starter and have gotten three and a half years of excellent work from Sale in their rotation.

We'll see what the future holds for Fulmer. It might take a little while for the Sox to get him signed. They can't negotiate with him until the College World Series ends, and Vanderbilt might be playing in that all the way to the end.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dan Jennings is still not a left-handed specialist

Let's get this out of the way first: The White Sox did not lose Thursday night because of manager Robin Ventura's bullpen choices. The Sox lost, 2-1, to the Texas Rangers in 11 innings because they cannot hit. They managed just six hits and failed to take advantage of four Texas errors.

That said, Ventura's continual misuse of left-handed reliever Dan Jennings continues to be a point of frustration for me.

We've been over this before: Jennings is better at getting right-handed hitters out than he is against lefties.

RHB vs. Jennings: .233/.404/.395
LHB vs. Jennings: .326/.354/.391

RHB vs. Jennings: .237/.340/.390
LHB vs. Jennings: .296/.354/.401

This is not a new trend for Jennings, nor is this an example of groundbreaking analysis. But in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday night, with a man on second and one out, Ventura had Jennings intentionally walk right-handed hitter Delino DeShields Jr., a rookie, to face veteran left-handed hitter Shin-Soo Choo.

Naturally, Choo got a base hit to win the game because, well, Jennings has problems getting left-handed batters out, despite his left-handedness. And even if Jennings had retired Choo, another left-handed hitter, Prince Fielder, was waiting on deck.

Fielder, incidentally, is leading the league in hitting at .358. Which combination of hitters would you have chosen to face in that situation? DeShields and Choo? Or Choo and Fielder? I think it's a no-brainer to face the former. DeShields is a rookie and might get himself out, and again, Jennings fares better against right-handed hitters. Then, you take your chances with Choo and pray Fielder doesn't get to the plate.

Ventura chose the latter option. He lost. It's frustrating, and it's too bad the Sox let this one get away. Carlos Rodon went six innings and posted a career-high 10 strikeouts. The Rangers were committing errors left and right, and they were just begging the Sox to take this game, win the series and come home with a winning road trip. Instead, the Sox pushed it away and finished the 11-game trip with a 5-6 record.

Next up, a weekend home series with the Detroit Tigers. Here are the pitching matchups.

Friday: Jose Quintana (2-6, 4.33 ERA) vs. Kyle Ryan (1-0, 3.00 ERA)
Saturday: John Danks (3-4, 4.81 ERA) vs. David Price (4-2, 3.15 ERA)
Sunday: Jeff Samardzija (4-3, 4.68 ERA) vs. Alfredo Simon (5-3, 2.97 ERA)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Chris Sale's slider returns, and so does his dominance

The White Sox evened their record at 5-5 on their current 11-game road trip Wednesday with a 9-2 trouncing of the Texas Rangers.

First baseman Jose Abreu returned to the lineup after missing three games with a finger injury, and his two-run home run capped off a six-run rally in the top of the second inning that sent the Sox on their way to victory.

But the big story was ace left-hander Chris Sale, who has not been scored upon in his last 19.2 innings. Sale worked seven shutout innings on Wednesday, allowing just three hits. He struck out a season-high 13 batters and walked only two. Sale has now reached double-digit strikeouts in each of his last three outings.

Check out the difference in his numbers from his first five starts of the year to his last five starts:
First 5: 2-1, 5.93 ERA
Last 5: 3-1, 1.40 ERA

In those last five outings, Sale has worked 38.2 innings. He has struck out 53 men and walked but six, a ratio of almost 9-to-1. He's also allowed just 19 hits.

What changed? Well, Sale has rediscovered his slider, and he's throwing it more each and every time out. Jim Margalus noted this in a recent blog on South Side Sox.

Sale's number of sliders thrown in his last five outings:
May 12: 12
May 18: 14
May 23: 18
May 28: 28
June 3: 32

Remember, Sale missed most of spring training with a broken foot and started the season on the disabled list. His first five outings, he was basically a two-pitch pitcher - fastball and changeup. When he did try to throw his slider, he hung it and it got hit hard.

When a pitcher misses time with an injury that is not arm-related, as was the case with Sale this spring, rediscovering fastball velocity is usually not the main issue. It's finding the release point on the breaking ball, and building up enough arm strength to snap it off the way a pitcher needs to. The breaking ball is more of a "feel" pitch than a fastball, and it takes time and repetition for a pitcher to get that right.

Most pitchers in MLB went through that process during spring training. Sale didn't get that chance because of injury. He had to figure it out on the fly, in real games against major league hitters, and that's the reason why he struggled the way he did early in the season.

Now, his "spring training" is over, so to speak. He's in regular-season form, and we see the difference in results. He's a three-pitch pitcher now, and he's much harder for opposing hitters to handle.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Jeff Samardzija is having problems early in games

I'm not going to spend too much time breaking down the White Sox's 15-2 loss to the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night.

The Rangers are hot. They've won 10 out of 12 games to pull their record over the .500 mark (27-25). They jumped on Sox starter Jeff Samardzija for four runs in the first inning after two were out Tuesday, and the rout was on from there.

The bad first inning continued a season-long trend for Samardzija, who has had a lot of problems early in games.

Check out Samardzija's ERA by inning this year:

1st inning: 11.45
2nd inning: 6.55
3rd inning: 4.09
4th inning: 4.09
5th inning: 2.45
6th inning: 2.00
7th inning: 1.50
8th inning: 0.00
9th inning: N/A

You hear about pitchers getting stronger as the game goes on, but Samardzija's numbers are an extreme case. He's given up a total of 38 earned runs in 11 starts this season -- 22 of them have scored in the first two innings of games, including 14 in the first inning.

Overall, the Sox (23-27) have been terrible early in games this year. They've been outscored 45-14 in the first inning, and 104-60 in innings 1 to 3.

That's an awful lot of playing from behind, and Samardzija has been one of the main culprits in digging the Sox a hole in the early innings.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Eight road games in seven days: White Sox go 4-4

This week could have been a lot worse, couldn't it?

The White Sox had to play eight games in seven days in three different cities, but they pulled through it in decent shape. A week ago, I think most of us would have taken it if we had been told the Sox would go 4-4 in these games, which is exactly what they did.

It's especially good to end up with a split for the week after the Sox opened with back-to-back losses in Toronto. But they recovered to win the finale against the Blue Jays, before splitting a doubleheader in Baltimore on Thursday and taking two of three from the AL West-leading Astros this weekend.

How about the weird shutout for John Danks on Sunday? The Sox left-hander recorded his 1,000th career strikeout by fanning the first batter of the game, Houston right fielder George Springer. Maybe that was an omen everything else was going to go Danks' way, as well.

Danks struck out six and walked one in a 6-0 win over the Astros, and he somehow managed to go unscored upon despite giving up 10 hits.

How rare is that?

Well, the last pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout while allowing 10 hits or more was former Minnesota right-hander Carlos Silva, who gave up 11 hits in a 10-0 win over the Anaheim Angels on Aug. 3, 2004. It's been more than 10 years.

For Danks, it was his first shutout in nearly four years. The last time? Well, it was a three-hitter against the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 27, 2011.

No doubt Danks' complete game was welcome for the weary White Sox bullpen. Not only was this a stretch of eight games in seven days, it also was 18 games in 17 days. That's a lot of innings to cover over a two-and-a-half-week period.

The Sox (23-26) finally get an off day Monday before they play the Texas Rangers in a three-game series down south.