The Chicago White Sox are stocking up on young arms, and that’s not a bad thing, because after all, you really can never have enough pitching.
It’s a formula the Chicago White Sox tried to replicate over the last half decade, before parting with their most premium arm in this winter’s first big blockbuster. The Chris Sale trade netted Chicago infielder Yoan Moncada, a high-end positional prospect primed to be at the forefront of their turnaround.
Moncada seemed to set a new directive. There was a school of thought that Chicago would stray away from arms and double down on offense, a premise buoyed by the fact that position players can make an impact six days a week rather than seven innings at a time.
While RHP Michael Kopech also arrived from Boston, it wasn’t until Adam Eaton was dealt that a new strategy emerged. Eaton drew three top pitching prospects from the Washington Nationals; Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning.
This trio of right handers merely further padded an already burgeoning pitching pipeline.
As baseball’s hot stove shifted into high gear, Jose Quintana rumors were as guaranteed as the sun rising. FutureSox’s Brian Bilek reported ahead of the weekend that Chicago was targeting right-hander Tyler Glasnow from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a potential Quintana deal. This on the heels of Peter Gammons reporting that the White Sox wanted Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, and Joe Musgrove from the Houston Astros for their prized lefty.
Martes, Musgrove, and Glasnow are all theoretical headliners in these swaps and they all have one thing in common; they are all pitchers. It begs the inherent question of why Chicago wants to flip arms for more of the same when that strategy seemingly paid little dividends in years past?
It’s especially hard to grasp when the Boston Red Sox just hit their way to the postseason and the Chicago Cubs executed a near-perfect rebuild on the strength of hoarding controllable bats.
The answer is quite simple. It goes back to that old adage of pitching wins championships.
Run Prevention Remains Supreme
The White Sox did little to add credence to this type of roster construction, but the New York Mets stand as baseball’s most recent example. The Mets hurled their way into the World Series in 2015 on the backs of one of the better rotations in the league. Their rotation wasn’t all that different from Chicago’s that year.
2015 Mets starters fWAR: 17.5 fWAR (4th in MLB)
2015 White Sox starters fWAR: 17.1 (5th in MLB)
*stats courtesy of FanGraphs*
The Mets won 90 games in 2015. They did so with an objectively average offense, as they scored 683 runs (17th), a mark slightly below the 688 average.
The White Sox were dismal though, scoring just 622 runs (28th). Right away, the implication should be clear. The 2015 White Sox merely needed an average offense to make the postseason in 2015. Yet, it’s not that simple. The Mets allowed only 613 runs (5th) in 2015 while Chicago surrendered 701 (#18).
Their Pythagorean Winning Percentage records stood at 89-73 and 72-90 respectively. The White Sox finished 76-86, actually outperforming their Pythag by a few games. The crucial takeaway from this is that the White Sox allowed 88 more runs than the Mets despite having a comparable, plus rotation and only a slightly worse bullpen.
This reveals the real culprit for why Chicago couldn’t win with a plus pitching staff. It wasn’t so much the offense, but rather the defense behind it. I’m a skeptic of defensive metrics, especially for individual players and single season samples, but they’re a little more reliable in the aggregate.
The 2015 Mets were 2.3 defensive runs above average, while the White Sox were dead last at negative 41.5 runs. That’s about a 44 run swing. fWAR tells the truer story though because it uses FIP, a metric that isolates a pitcher from his defense. The fWAR says that their talent was a lot better than what translated on the diamond. It now makes perfect sense that Chicago’s rotation played down.
This isn’t exactly a revelation as the eye test said as much, but it places the onus away from the offense. A slightly above average defense would have put the White Sox within reach of .500. Add an average offense with a credible defense and their Pythag would have been 89-73. That’s how good their rotation actually was and how close they actually were to October.
An average offense and defense are in theory significantly easier to build than a top five starting rotation, yet Chicago could do the latter but not the former.
So the premise of constructing a team based on run prevention rather than run output is hardly flawed. Chicago’s execution was simply a mitigating factor.
That’s why giving it a second go isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
With Carlos Rodon entrenched at the top of the rotation, Chicago already has a head start. The aforementioned Kopech, Giolito, and Lopez all sport front-line potential with the latter two relatively close to making an impact.
There are variety of rotation iterations that can be formed from those names, where Fulmer ending up in the pen isn’t a death sentence anymore. The fact remains that you can always use more pitching. Adding Tyler Glasnow to that group only reinforces the idea that Chicago can once again just be an average offense and defense away from the playoffs.
The more in the pipeline, the deeper the rotation as well. Sale and Quintana comprised 10 of the 12.9 fWAR accumulated by last season’s rotation. Meanwhile James Shields dragged the aggregate figure down by 1.4 fWAR. Having talent up front is great, but there need to be credible options in the back for it to pay off. Hoarding arms will give the White Sox the chance to be just as deep as they are elite.
Using Arms As Currency
Now that I’ve explained why constructing a team from the rotation up has merit, the popular question of how the bats will eventually arrive has to be addressed.
It may seem weird that teams appear more willing to part with controllable arms rather than bats for Chicago’s premier talent. It’s even a form of cognitive dissonance, as these arms are being dangled for the player they could become themselves.
The explanation involves pitching prospects being historically more volatile than bats, simply because of the higher injury risk and lower floor that come along with them. Yet, developing pitching is Chicago’s calling card. From pitching coach Matt Zaleski at the Rookie Ball level to Don Cooper on the major league side, this is where the organization truly shines.
If you were an esteemed baker and had the choice of working with flour and dough versus raw meat, which would you choose? You’d choose the flour, make the perfect cake, and then flip it for the steak later. That is exactly what the White Sox are going to do.
Three premier arms landed five cheap years of Adam Eaton, and it’s conceivable Chicago could flip its own surplus into a similarly controlled bat a year or two from now. At that point it’ll be all about filling out the roster, and the best play is to maximize as many assets as possible, even if some will never actually see “The Arrow” (Guaranteed Rate Fields official -unofficial name).
Some of this pipeline will be relegated to the pen and some will bust entirely but here’s one scenario to illustrate this concept. For discussion purposes, let’s say Quintana is dealt for a package fronted by Tyler Glasnow.
In this scenario, Carson Fulmer winds up in the pen and someone like Alec Hansen flames out. The White Sox would still have the currency necessary to package talented, but surplus arms, like Reynaldo Lopez and Michael Kopech for a Christian Yelich type.
Then there’s Carlos Rodon. The high-ceiling southpaw is a Boras client and will have dwindling control by 2019. Maybe he’s the expendable one to secure the bats needed to fill out the roster. As you can see, the combinations are endless and even if this stockpile of arms only hits its median outcome, it is still deep enough to absorb some busts and print credible rotation options.
So while Tyler Glasnow may be headlining a Quintana trade now, he may just be the headliner that lands a future rental Mike Trout when the White Sox are ready to win in 2019.