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On the White Sox quietly successful pitching development

The success of Giolito, Cease, & Kopech says a lot about the White Sox.

On the heels of a sweep at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays, things are not terrific for the Chicago White Sox. As of this writing, they’re three games under .500 (23-26) and have been looking up at the Minnesota Twins in the standings for the bulk of the year. The offense has been lackluster. They’ve struggled to maintain health. And every single decision their manager makes is second-guessed for a variety of reasons. Hardly what you expect out of a prospective championship contender.

As the plight continues, the positives become more difficult to find. They do exist, though. Even with Tim Anderson out long-term, even with an imperfect roster, and even with questionable managerial decisions, they’re there. You just have to look primarily at the pitcher’s mound to find them.

The White Sox are not necessarily an organization lauded for their player development. Many of their players have graduated to the big league level. Their system doesn’t rank among even the more intriguing ones in the league. While their system isn’t especially loaded, it’s especially rather devoid of arms. As it stands right now, those few of their own top pitching prospects are struggling mightily in the minor leagues. Andrew Dalquist has an ERA at almost seven and is walking almost seven hitters per nine in High-A. Matthew Thompson, also in High-A, has been up and down in terms of performance. Jared Kelley, in Single-A, has an ERA near six.

It’s on the mound, however, is where they’ve experienced a rather quietly significant degree of success. And the positives live therein. At the same time, even that success itself is a little bit paradoxical. The most notable success stories out of their own system were acquired from other teams, largely while they were still considered prospects. Instead, the success of which I speak resides in arms that the Sox acquired when they were part of another team’s system. Most notably this includes Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, and Michael Kopech.

The trio at the top of the Sox rotation represents perhaps the largest positive for the team thus far. Giolito missed some time and Cease had to sit out the aforementioned sweep in Toronto on the restricted list. But in a general sense, those three have represented stability in a season that has been anything but.

Not that they weren’t already considered top prospects with their previous clubs. Giolito was a Washington Nationals prospect. Dylan Cease was set to be a Chicago Cub. And Michael Kopech was a Boston Red Sox prospect included in the Chris Sale trade. They all had a certain level of pedigree. Nonetheless, the Sox do deserve credit for how they’ve turned those three into premier arms.

 

Lucas Giolito: Delivery & Changeup

 

Giolito is an interesting case because he was the closest to the big league level when acquired. One of three arms acquired for Adam Eaton (along with Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning), Giolito didn’t necessarily feature the fanfare that one might expect. He had thrown 21 big league innings with the Nats, struggled with his command and didn’t induce a ton of soft contact. Even his 2017 and 2018 years with the Pale Hose featured a similar degree of struggle. The 2018 season was wrought with free passes and featured an ERA over six, despite just a .268 opposing BABIP.

But the Sox made two key adjustments. One was in Giolito’s delivery. The last few years have seen him become one of the more adept pitchers at hiding the ball while he’s in his motion. That slight deception has been a key. The other factor was the heavier incorporation of his changeup. The seasons since 2018 have shown a dramatic increase in that pitch’s usage, going from 15.7 percent in 2018 to 33.7 at its height in 2020. Even now, it remains at 23.3 percent and is his second most-used pitch, even if he’s begun to incorporate the slider a bit more. Those adjustments served as a springboard for Giolito to latch on to some borderline posthype success and thrive in his role as the South Side’s no. 1.

 

Dylan Cease: Trust the Stuff

 

Cease presents another interesting case. He struggled with the walks, but also with the long ball. In his two brief stints with the Sox big club in 2019 and 2020, he walked 4.89 per nine and featured a 19.8 HR/FB%. His changeup was a bit of a problem, peaking in 2020 when he surrendered a xSLG near 68 percent. While Cease doesn’t have the obvious adjustments that Giolito featured, his evolution has been just as interesting in its own right. Specifically his Zone%.

Overall, Cease’s percentage of pitches inside of the strike zone hasn’t shifted much. But what has changed is his ability to get all of those pitches inside of the zone. In 2021, Cease’s fastball was at 52.4 percent inside of the zone. His slider, which had the lowest, was at 41.9. That’s a notable improvement from the previous year when his curveball, that year’s lowest Zone%, was at just 30.9 percent. This year, they’re even close. All four of Cease’s pitches are within five percent of each other. So there’s an element of trust there that Cease has experienced that wasn’t necessarily there before. It’s led to a direct increase in opposing Swing%, both inside and out of the strike zone, and a spike in his CSW%. Cease has been slightly over 30 percent in each of the last two seasons.

 

Michael Kopech: Health

 

And then there’s Michael Kopech. For Kopech, it’s been more a matter of health than anything. A fastball that touches 100 and a devastating slider can take you a long way. But he didn’t pitch in 2019 after Tommy John and chose to sit out in 2020 amid the pandemic season. This left questions about his long-term role. In 2021, Kopech was essentially a swingman out of the bullpen. This year, he’s settled into a starter’s role to great effect. However, the elite skill set hasn’t necessarily been in play, due to a couple of interesting developments.

Instead of relying on fastball-slider, Kopech has incorporated the curveball heavily in 2022. The slider is still his second-most-utilized pitch, but the gap has narrowed significantly between the two secondary pitches. What that mix has done, though, is keep opposing hitters off-balance considerably. While he isn’t punching hitters out at an astounding rate, and carries a higher walk rate than you’d prefer to see, he isn’t allowing much of anything hard contact-wise. His HardHit% is at just 24.8, while he features a minuscule HR/FB% of just 3.4. The HardHit% ranks 20th out of 113 starters with at least 40 innings, while his HR/FB% is fourth-best.

Where Kopech differs from his South Side counterparts is that he isn’t a finished product. His big league time is limited, so there are going to be some bumps. There are going to be some limits on innings. But the current trajectory, and the results, indicate that he’s on a path similar to that of his compatriots in the Chicago rotation.

Between this trio, and even Reynaldo López, there’s a clear ability to refine pitchers and catapulting them closer to their full potential. Again, it’s somewhat paradoxical. They’re taking pitchers with a certain pedigree and spinning them into what they could’ve been. But development is never linear, nor is it guaranteed. What the White Sox are doing is clearly manifesting into positive results. Time will tell if the White Sox are able to develop their own from start to finish (Norge Vera?). For now, though, there’s at least a little bit of solace amid an otherwise disappointing year in their ability to develop these arms.

 

Photos by:
Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire (2)
Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire

Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. A former high school English teacher, Randy now works in the corporate world and resides in Arizona.

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