Player Profiles 2020: Chicago White Sox Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the Chicago White Sox rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

White Sox At A Glance

We didn’t anticipate a whole lot from the White Sox last season, but we were handed a few surprises along the way. Lucas Giolito‘s surge gets the clear spotlight, shifting into a legitimate ace after adjusting his arm circle and increasing his command. Dylan Cease arrived and has made us wonder if his high ceiling is attainable. And Reynaldo Lopez… ah ReyLo. The man just can’t stop playing with our hearts.

The White Sox also have new arms entering the mix this season. Dallas Keuchel brings a welcome veteran presence to the rotation with Gio Gonzalez likely fighting to hold onto a fifth spot throughout the year. And don’t forget Michael Kopech as he’s sure to make a return this season after missing all of 2019 recovering from TJS.

There’s a bit of upside, there’s some floor, and there’s a whole lot of questions with this rotation for the year ahead.

 

Lucas GiolitoLocked Starter

Nickname: GioDude

 

2019 In Review

We saw a bit of a turnaround at the end of 2018 for Giolito, but we didn’t expect this. Lucas had a quick bump early—possibly due to injury—and returned in May to eight blistering starts of 1.30 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 31% strikeout ball. While his collective 4.42 ERA in his final 16 starts brings an air of doubt on his repeatability, Giolito was more frequently good than harmful, with a few poor outings against the Cubs and Twins weighing down his marks.

Now with 2020 ahead, there’s hope that his breakout season is repeatable, if not a foundation to build upon.

 

Fastball (55% usage)

Giolito’s fastball was the pitch that did it all. It had everything: an 11.5% SwStr rate, a .203 BAA allowed, even a massive jump from a -13.5 pVAL to 20.5. Incredible. His emphasis on staying up with the pitch and his mechanical adjustment to help spot the ball where he wanted returned successful results that don’t seem too fragile.

There is a little bit of concern, less so with his heater as with his secondary stuff. This fastball isn’t as electric as other legit aces, coming in at 94.6 mph and not hovering the edges quite as well. There could be some regression coming in his secondary stuff, which would mean a greater focus on heaters and likely more punishment. I’d be surprised if his fastball performed better in 2020, but it could stay relatively the same.

 

Changeup (26% usage)

This changeup was easily Giolito’s favorite secondary offering, and it did its job well. It missed bats at an impressive 22% clip while stiffing hitters with a .626 OPS.

And yet I worry. Its 52.5% zone rate displays Giolito’s lack of precision with the pitch. He often featured it a bit too elevated and without a strong enough focus to keep the ball under the zone to tempt batters. Its sizeable drop in velocity from his heater helps throw off opponents constantly (12 mph!), though I question if he can repeat the same approach and have consistent success. If he does shift to an approach favoring chases, his changeup may not be up to the task with a 37% chase rate.

This isn’t a death sentence for Giolito’s slowball as it surely won’t be detrimental. It does, however, bring concern for Giolito’s ability to repeat a dominant season. With every ace, we see a definitive secondary offering that gets it done; this pitch may not be it.

 

Slider (15% usage)

This is the biggest area for improvement in Giolito’s game. I don’t expect his curveball to finally click (that would be so wonderful though!), granting the spotlight to his slider. It certainly helped last year and often acted as an early pitch in the zone (near 40% zone rate), but there’s still room to grow as a wipeout pitch when saved for two-strike counts. You want to see higher than a 32% O-Swing on a potential #1 SP’s breaking ball.

 

Curveball (4% usage)

If there were ever a pitch I’d want a starter to figure out, it’s this famous curveball. It has so much drop, but it’s too raw and unwieldy. Giolito experimented with it from time to time, and I’d be shocked if it suddenly clicked this season.

One day…

 

2020 Outlook

I anticipate a small step back from last season’s breakout as his fastball and changeup overperformed a bit last season. However, there is room to grow with his slider that could show itself right away, helping Giolito transition into the starter we want him to be.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 25% K rate in 150 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Lucas Giolito 2020 projection:

3.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 28% K rate in 180 IP

 

Dallas Keuchel – Locked Starter

Nickname: The Bears

 

2019 In Review

After waiting for Keuchel to arrive for a good three months, Keuchel made his first start for the Braves and was… who we thought he was. A 3.75 ERA with a sub 20% strikeout rate and a WHIP entrenched in the mid 1.30s.

There is still room for improvement though. Keuchel’s command wasn’t quite what it used to be as he used to hover the bottom of the zone with changeups, sinkers, and sliders, playing chicken with batters to seduce them into swinging at pitches they didn’t want to touch. Maybe he gets there once again in a new home.

 

Fastball (54% usage)

Keuchel’s sinker never quite clicked in 2020. The pitch sat above a 25% O-Swing, but with just a 42% zone rate, it didn’t get quite enough strikes to force batters to truly extend their comfort zone and give into slapping grounders into gloves. Still, in this era of longballs, the pitch held a remarkable 8% flyball rate, which does wonders limiting extra-base hits.

There’s some tweaking to do as he gets into a rhythm once again. This fastball creates a foundation for a high floor, but it comes with a low ceiling as this pitch will prevent two-strike counts while often putting his fate in the hands of the BABIP gods above.

 

Cutter (20% usage)

Keuchel loves this cutter as it plays a similar game as his sinker, but along the inside corner for right-handers, tempting them to swing at a pitch that will eat their bat handle. It’s not an overwhelming pitch by any means, more of a serviceable option to help Keuchel plod through games and eat innings without the same risk of other secondary pitches.

 

Changeup (15% usage)

Now here’s the real secondary offering and I’m surprised we don’t see this pitch featured more often. Keuchel was able to generate swings on 51% of the slow balls he featured off the plate, allowing for a fantastic .213 BAA and 17% SwStr rate.

Fine, Keuchel only threw it 15% of the time as he found the zone on fewer than 20% of his changeups. This is a chase pitch through and through and has to be set up properly to get the desired results—including being in a deeper count in the first place as many at-bats ended early from his sinker and cutter.

Still, we’ve seen over 30% zone rate from the pitch in the past with 40%+ O-Swing clips and there seems to be room for tweaking in 2020.

 

Slider (11% usage)

Keuchel turned down the slider usage in 2019 and understandably so—he struggled to get the chases he wanted with it off the plate while lacking the confidence to feature it as a strike. There will still be some excellent breakers thrown by Keuchel, but the days of it hinting a 20% SwStr seem to be in the past.

 

2020 Outlook

In all likelihood, it’s more of the same from Keuchel, with a decent chance of falling further with his slider still lacking and a heavy reliance on balls in play. Keuchel will be a safe play deep in your drafts as the Toby of all Tobys.

However, it’s possible with Grandal as a new batterymate that he can nibble as effectively as ever, possibly staving off a decline and pushing closer to a 3.00 ERA. Here’s to hoping he can pull it off.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.20 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 15% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.30 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 21% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Dallas Keuchel 2020 projection:

3.90 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 17% K rate in 180 IP

 

Reynaldo LopezLocked Starter

Nickname: ReyLo

 

2019 In Review

After posting a 3.91 ERA in 2018, we were hoping it was more of the same—if not better—in 2019. We left disappointed as the now 26-year-old put together a horrid 5.38 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. There were pockets of intrigue driven by a sudden leap in fastball velocity from 94/95 mph to 96/97 at the start of the second half, though his inconsistency with not just his fastball but changeup and slider as well added up to a forgetful season.

 

Fastball (59% usage)

There’s so much to like and so much to hate. The pitch took a moment to gear up in 2019, but exploded as it sat 96/97 mph in late July and August, fueling a strong 3.38 ERA and 1.19 WHIP across eleven starts… then it dipped back down again in September.

It’s a four-seamer that can do so well jamming batters high and tight, but without a confident supporting cast, it has had to do more than it can in previous years. It should say a lot that the pitch returned a -3.7 pVAL across 1800+ thrown—ReyLo’s heater is actually a good pitch, but when batters know what’s coming, it can be a tough hill to climb.

 

Slider (20% usage)

When it comes to secondary pitches, Lopez has two options that he relies on heavily for a start. Some days it’s ReyLo’s slider; others it’s his changeup; either way, they both serve similar purposes: find the strike zone. This slide piece returned a 45% zone rate and a middling 33% O-Swing last season and isn’t quite the sharp breaker you want from a pitcher with legit heat. Between the two offerings, there’s more potential in this slider to become that major swing-and-miss pitch, though it’ll likely still be used early in counts to help pitch backward.

If he’s ever going to come close to a 25% strikeout rate, it’ll likely be on the back on improving this pitch.

 

Changeup (15% usage)

Lopez’s changeup loves the zone. A lot. Its 52% zone rate is remarkably high and unnecessarily so. Batters were comfortable slapping the ball around the field, earning a whopping 160 wRC+ off changeups last season and inducing chases just 25% of the time.

There are games where ReyLo leans into whiffs with changeups, and when he can utilize its 15% SwStr and turn to his slider for strikes, things get exciting quickly. It’s a rarity to see both secondary offerings working simultaneously though, and we may still be waiting for a legit breakout.

 

Curveball (7% usage)

Lopez has dabbled with a curveball over his slider, though it performs worse across the board than his slider. It’s not a terrible mix-up pitch, but not one that is needed on his current path of development.

 

2020 Outlook

While there are areas to grow that will help Lopez rebound from a ghastly 2019 season, there isn’t enough in his slider or changeup to suggest a major breakout in 2020. If his fastball velocity can stay above 96 mph, there’s a chance for more, while his changeup or slider needs to pull back from their conservative approach and chase whiffs a bit harder.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 20% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 24% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Reynaldo Lopez 2020 projection:

4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 21% K rate in 190 IP

 

Dylan CeaseLikely Starter

Nickname: The Zombie

 

2019 In Review

We didn’t see a whole lot of Cease in 2019, and what we saw was… interesting. A 5.79 ERA and 1.55 WHIP is sure to turn many away in drafts, but it also came with a routinely 97 mph fastball and an 11% SwStr rate. There’s concern whether Cease has another gear or two in him if he gets a starting gig out of camp, allowing him to showcase a 25%+ strikeout rate through a full year.

 

Fastball (52% usage)

It’s a really hard fastball, sitting 96/97 mph constantly and flirting with triple-digits. That’s wonderful and all, but Cease’s command is questionable. I love the approach to elevate nearly exclusively, but he struggles to land it inside the zone or even tempt properly, returning just a 43% zone rate and 29% O-Swing. It’s not enough.

Meanwhile, he made too many mistake pitches, leading to heaters getting demolished to the tune of a 189 wRC+ and a 1.057 OPS across 700 thrown. There’s potential in its velocity and approach, but his command is too far away at the moment to suggest 2019 was a major fluke.

 

Slider (21% usage)

While his fastball struggles to do what he wants, Cease relies on this slider to fall into the zone to not lose batters. It was the pitch to turn to when everything was failing… and it needs to be a bit better if it is going to carry that burden.

He doesn’t have the command of it yet to bury it into the ankles of left-handers and it has been susceptible to the longball, but its 45% zone and 15% SwStr rates were good enough to help escape moments created by a poor pitch. Its 40% strikeout rate is intriguing, but the pitch isn’t polished enough yet to be a legit weapon.

 

Curveball (19% usage)

Think of Cease’s slider, then think of a worse breaker. This hook held a BAA about 70 points higher, with a 39% zone rate and just 9% SwStr rate. These are not marks you want on your curveball.

Cease isn’t a command pitcher and this curveball was all over the place last year. He may continue to feature it as his third option, but I wouldn’t be shocked in the slow ball got a bit more attention instead.

 

Changeup (9% usage)

Despite its limited use, this changeup was solid for Cease, earning strikes more than any other pitch and holding batters to a paltry .121 BAA. It’s not an elite offering by any means, but it certainly can outperform his curveball and possibly replace his slider as the go-to strike pitch, allowing his sweeper to be the finisher instead.

 

2020 Outlook

There’s a lot to fix with Cease. His fastball command is far from where it needs to be and his inconsistency spreads into his secondary pitches. There isn’t an offering in here that genuinely gets me excited for 2020, though if he makes a mechanical tweak and creates rhythm, there’s hope that his high-and-tight 97 mph fastballs mixed with a strong slider and changeup could elevate him overnight. In all likelihood, we won’t see that for a bit, possibly with a transition to the pen in his future.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 20% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.10 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 26% K rate in 160 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Dylan Cease 2020 projection:

4.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 23% K rate in 150 IP

 

Gio GonzalezLikely Starter

Nickname: GioTwude

 

2019 In Review

Limited to just 87.1 frames due to shoulder tightness, Gonzalez gave the Brewers what they were looking for with a 3.50 ERA and 1.29 WHIP across 19 games. A renewed changeup paved the way for success, especially when he was micro-managed to pitch fewer innings, allowing him to throw the kitchen sink from the start.

Now with Chicago and a larger workload, it’s unclear if Gonzalez can have the same success over a larger sample.

 

Fastball (51% usage)

Gone are the days of 92 mph from Gonzalez; we’re living in the 89 mph present, utilizing an even mix of sinkers and four-seamers to find outs. Neither pitch was successful and will continue to act as hopeful strikes to set up his much better changeup and curveball—his sinker’s .339 BAA and terribly low 34% zone rate tell the full story while his four-seamer’s 46% zone rate and 24% O-Swing amplify the hurt.

 

Changeup (32% usage)

After praying batters don’t clobber his sub-90 mph heat, Gonzalez follows up with a changeup that found its groove in 2019. A 41% O-Swing and .460 OPS are great, creating many outs in the field while limiting extra-base hits to the tune of a .081 ISO.

Expect its high usage to stick around next year, though if batters can resist temptation, they’ll continue to induce Gonzalez’s overall 10%+ walk rate as the slow ball barely touched the zone 1/4 of the time.

 

Curveball (17% usage)

This curveball used to be a strikeout-heavy offering, hinting a 50% rate at its peak, but we’ve descended since then, down to just 30% in 2019. It simply doesn’t miss bats the way it used to, returning a paltry 10% SwStr. While Gonzalez can’t get strikes on whiffs, he can’t get them on called strikes either.

It’s a mix-up pitch, far from the weapon it used to be.

 

2020 Outlook

With Gonzalez’s fastballs and curveball barely getting by, his performance on a given night relies a bit too heavily on inducing chases with his changeup. It spells plenty of trouble in Chicago, even with the expected Grandal bump.

Now that more innings are expected per start, it’ll be tougher to navigate six frames with just one true bullet in his chamber. This could get ugly fast.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 19% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 170 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Gio Gonzalez 2020 projection:

4.70 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 21% K rate in 140 IP

 

Michael KopechFringe

Nickname: Doduo

 

2020 Outlook

It’s hard not to be a bit hyped about Kopech. Pre-TJS, he was touching triple digits and settling high 90s, showing off a solid changeup and slider that could turn into a strong three-pitch mix. We’ll see how the White Sox treat him this year and if he finds himself with a chance at a rotation spot, get ready to snag this lottery pick off the wire.

 

Carlos RodonFringe

Nickname: Country Fair Horse

 

2020 Outlook

Rodon underwent TJS in May of 2019 and it’s unlikely we see him in any capacity this season. It’s possible, though, and if he does return, I imagine it’ll come with limits strict enough to turn us away from spending a roster spot on him. Not to mention he wasn’t wowing us with his command before the injury.

 

 

Nickname explanations:

Lucas Giolito: GioDude. You know, like the Pokemon.

Dallas Keuchel: The Bears. He is who we think he is. i.e., The Chicago Bears from Dennis Green’s infamous press conference.

Reynaldo Lopez: ReyLo. It’s just what we do, smash first and last names together.

Dylan CeaseThe Zombie. He is D. Cease(d). Say it out loud.

Gio Gonzalez: GioTwude. I know he was around first, but he’s the #2 Gio now.

Michael KopechDoduo. Co-Peck. Two birds, pecking you, and I’m keeping the Pokemon references. Sue me.

Carlos RodonCountry Fair Horse. He’s the animal that we all… rode on. Also, he’s a workhorse on the mound and holds a high Pitches Per Start.

 

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor. Worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

  • Avatar Ryan says:

    Dang – that Dylan Cease assessment is as straight shooting as you can get. When you put the facts out like that, it throws a lot of cold water on any talent speculation people may have on Cease for 2020. Cease was baaaad. 2 questions:

    1) Cease’s curveball was supposed to be a great pitch … do you think part of the problem is:
    a) Cease’s curve at its fundamentals is not a good pitch
    b) Hitters can easily spot Cease’s curve (see Max Fried and Lance Mccullers)
    c) Cease’s curve has good stuff, he just does not have control on placement
    d) Other

    2) Cease had a pretty good September albeit against weak competition – Did you see any skills improvement in Cease as the 2019 season progressed?

    Thanks!

    • Nick Pollack Nick Pollack says:

      The real problem is Cease simply isn’t a command pitcher.

      I can imagine the curveball getting better over time, but it’s hard to think he’ll harness the pitch effectively early enough this year to return a strong season.

      And that strong finish was three starts that returned 3 ER and…a 5.09 SIERA. And 1.53 WHIP. And 16% BB rate.

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