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The greatest benefit that recent trade acquisition Luis Avilan offers to the White Sox is a more comfortable ordering of the bullpen depth chart for the near-term future. Though there have been several recent stints in which the White Sox have had only one lefty available out of the bullpen, it’s typically more natural for a team to have two. Prior to Avilan’s acquisition, it would appear that Aaron Bummer and Jace Fry would have had the inside track for spots in a two-lefty relief corps. Now, the White Sox can carry Bummer (who held lefties to a .171/.277/.341 line in a small sample last season) if they’d like while allowing Fry, a recent 40-man roster addition with three minor league options remaining, some additional time to hone his craft at Charlotte. Fry had a rocky major league debut last fall, but shone brightly in the Arizona Fall League and will still have plenty of chances to become a quality bullpen piece.
Aside from Avilan’s impact on the bullpen pecking order, he also might give the White Sox something they’ve infrequently had in recent memory: a stable LOOGY.
A LOOGY, or Lefty One-Out Guy, is a type of reliever that baseball fans are quite familiar with, even though they might not know the acronym. They’re the lefties that come out of the pen just to face one left-handed hitter (a Prince Fielder or a David Ortiz, for example) and then exit the game before they can get punished by the right-handed hitters that made them relievers in the first place. Many teams have historically carried a guy like this simply for this purpose. The White Sox are not one of those teams. Here’s a look at how the White Sox have attempted to fill that role (if at all) each year since 2005:
2006: Neal Cotts reprised his role from the outstanding 2005 bullpen. Unfortunately, Cotts didn’t have a repeat performance in him and was flat out bad. He allowed a .813 OPS to lefties and was eventually relegated to mop-up duty, where he was smacked around by everyone.
2007: Boone Logan actually fit the role pretty well, but you’d never remember it because of how few leads the 2007 bullpen was given and held. Lefties slugged just .291 off the Booner in his debut season in the role.
2008: The Sox tried Logan again, but he got obliterated even by same-handed hitters, and Matt Thornton was simply deployed for a full inning whenever tough lefties were lurking.
2009: Again, the Sox rode Thornton as a full-inning reliever and didn’t carry a second lefty of note until late July, which marked the beginning of The Randy Williams Era. Williams hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2005, but he actually gave the Sox a couple of quality months of LOOGY work, holding lefties to a .549 OPS while striking out nearly a third of them.
2010: As might have been expected, Williams’ success was short-lived. “Out” is a rather key word in the LOOGY acronym, and letting 44% of lefties reach base on you probably disqualifies you from the label. Williams never pitched for the Sox again after June.
2011: Not wanting to repeat last year’s catastrophe, the White Sox sign Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million deal. Despite allowing three runs in each of his first two appearances, Ohman actually wound up okay, though a .232/.299/.374 opponent line is hardly dominant for a specialist. It nonetheless qualifies as one of the most successful seasons on this list from a LOOGY.
2012: Ohman actually got better results against lefties, but rookie skipper Robin Ventura probably managed Ohman out of a roster spot, as he consistently stuck with him longer than he should have. The Sox cut ties with Ohman at the end of June and he never saw the major leagues again. Given Ohman’s sudden lack of strikeouts, that was probably for the best.
2013: The Sox break camp with Donnie Veal, who looked promising in the LOOGY role at the end of 2012. Like many others on this list before him, Veal didn’t have a quality second act.
2014: 38-year-old Scott Downs is signed to a one year, $4 million deal with a vesting option. After watching Downs lose the strike zone for three months, the Sox decide that they’re not gonna let that option vest.
2015: Zach Duke is signed, though he’s intended to be a primary setup man a-la-Thornton. The White Sox trade for Dan Jennings to serve as the pen’s second lefty, but he has a history of a reverse platoon split. The split reverses itself somewhat in 2015, but not to the degree that Jennings could serve as a lefty specialist. He’s mostly asked to eat innings once the game is out of hand.
2016: In response to Duke’s uneven first season with the team, Ventura more often begins to call upon Duke for just one batter. Once Duke is traded, Jennings is treated as the pen’s lefty specialist, albeit one that walks 12 percent of lefties.
2017: Jennings is the only lefty breaking camp with the team. His control is once again too shaky to thrive in the role, and subsequent trades of bullpen pieces eventually bump him up to the the role of “primary set-up man” before getting dealt in July.
Avilan has held lefties to a .211/.286/.283 line in his career and the Dodgers used him as a specialist last year until the acquisition of Tony Watson bumped him down to low-leverage duty. He brings with him some of the same control problems that doomed some of the past White Sox in this role, but history suggests that he’ll strike out enough hitters to make up for it. Nothing in his track record gives rise to any concern about being able to handle same-handed hitters.
If there’s one thing that gives me pause about suggesting that Avilan might put an end to the White Sox’ parade of failed LOOGYs, it’s that he might wind up pitching himself into an expanded role. Jim noted that Avilan throws his changeup more often than his fastball, which is strange for a specialist because changeups are often used as an equalizer against opposite-handed hitters rather than as a magnifier of the platoon advantage. Prior to 2017, Avilan never had difficulty getting righties out, and Statcast’s quality-of-contact metrics suggest that last year’s results have a bit of a fluke flavor to them:
- Avilan wOBA vs RHB allowed: .364
- Avilan xwOBA vs RHB allowed: .324
Given his repertoire and history, it’s certainly possible that the 28-year-old Avilan winds up being more than just a situational guy in the White Sox bullpen. Even if he doesn’t, though, it’s nice to know that the White Sox should finally have a bullpen lefty with a good platoon track record who isn’t about to age his way out of baseball.