Following up: An easier night for the bullpen, a tougher one for Matt Davidson

The White Sox' winning streak comes to an end, but in a way that allowed a reliever to fail without grave consequences

Watching the White Sox win four consecutive games against the Royals and Rays over the weekend, I began to think victories were overrated. Not in the this-is-costing-them-draft-position sense, but the it’s-hard-watching-this-bullpen one.

I wrote about it in my Monday Sox column for The Athletic:

White​ Sox​ manager​ Rick​ Renteria, in the midst of​ all of​​ his desperate, frantic pitcher-switching activity during the seventh inning on Sunday, created a daring work of abstract expressionist art.

Tampa Bay had the bases loaded, and every single Ray on the field was the responsibility of a different White Sox pitcher.

Tyler Danish entered the game to deal with Carlos Gómez at the plate, and he inherited three baserunners. On third stood Jake Bauers, who had reached with nobody out on a walk by Xavier Cedeño. On second was Ji-Man Choi, who tied the game with a two-run single off Jeanmar Gómez. Kevin Kiermaier occupied first base after drawing a walk from Jace Fry.

Had Carlos Gómez somehow thwarted the matchup and slammed Danish, he would have put a run on the tabs of four different pitchers with one swing of the bat. Instead, he bounced out to second, and the game headed into the eighth inning tied at six.

This bullpen isn’t equipped for high-leverage situations, and based on the way he managed such scenarios, Renteria knows it better than anybody. Rather than hang any one guy out to dry, he tries to disperse the responsibility and/or blame. It works for one night at a time, but when he earns three “four-pitcher inning” tags during a four-game stretch, Tommy Callahan comes to mind.

The biscuit is the bullpen, which is better than the biscuit being the win. Still, after watching Renteria give both perhaps a little too much attention over the last four games, I didn’t mind seeing the White Sox get beaten decisively on Monday. It allowed Matt Davidson to take the mound for a third time, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

More pragmatically, it allowed a young reliever to make mistakes.

I can’t say it was fun watching the Yankees eliminate Thyago Vieira‘s slider and decimate his fastball, but at least everybody can learn something from it. That’s the first time in Vieira’s MLB career he gave up runs on hits (the other two scored on a wild pitch and sac fly), so the ramifications of poor breaking stuff are more real. Vieira’s reaction to his first MLB save was fun, but this outing underscored my concerns about trying for an encore.

Likewise, Jace Fry has faced four batters over three August outings, so I’d like to see him get back to longer looks. I suppose it doesn’t matter how the Sox handle Jeanmar Gomez, but at the very least, it’s not a whole lot of fun seeing him throw just 4 2/3 innings over eight appearances. With two more against the Yankees, followed by three against Cleveland, this week may be the time to falter in peace.

* * *   * * *   * * *

And then there’s the matter of Davidson, who again gave a loss some purpose with his third scoreless inning in as many tries. He also added to his highlight reel with a strikeout of Giancarlo Stanton.

I’m limited to the Yankees broadcast this series, and it’s fun watching another team’s crew learn that Davidson’s outings are more than a pure novelty. Aaron Boone liked what he saw from the other dugout:

“Not bad,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone of Davidson. “I mean, spinning that breaking ball up there, popping the low 90s, that’s a little bit of an asset to have that. Preserved people, and he made it tough on our guys.”

But the Yankees also gave Davidson’s limitations their greatest test yet. He had to deal with his first two baserunners, as Didi Gregorius resisted a 3-2 curveball to draw a two-out walk, and Aaron Hicks singled him to third. The career-high five batters led to a career-high 21 pitches, and Kevan Smith used a mound visit to give him a breather (see above). His fastball had dipped from 92 to 87 by the time he retired Gleyber Torres to get out of the inning.

That’s my lone concern with fully advocating Patrick’s idea for Davidson, especially since Davidson knows enough about pitching to try for strikeouts. He’s running out of comparable cases. Hernan Perez is the only other position player to take the mound three times this season, but he threw a 48 mph slider his second time out, and he got stomped in his most recent expedition last week. The season before, Christian Bethancourt made four appearances, but the Padres tried grooming him as a two-way player in the minors, and it turns out he wasn’t good enough as a pitcher or backup catcher to make it work.

Chris Gimenez is the only one who has explored this territory more thoroughly than Davidson. He made six appearances for the Twins as their backup catcher/mopup man in 2017. Yet even with Gimenez racking up twice as many pitching appearances as Davidson, his case isn’t particularly instructive. He never threw more than 20 pitches in an outing because his approach is the opposite of overthrowing. His fastballs wouldn’t break the speed limit in some states.

Davidson is out here on his own as a position player with a real repertoire, and if this becomes a more regular deal, he and Renteria will have to have a plan for if and when he has a Bruce Rondon-like outing. Maybe he’ll find his own lob-and-smile mode to keep Renteria from warming up another pitcher, or maybe Herm Schneider will put Davidson on his shoulder-strengthening plan. It’s not fun to overthink Davidson’s moonlighting, but if it gets to the point where opponents start actually preparing for Davidson, the Sox have to prepare for other outcomes themselves.

Take a second to support Sox Machine on Patreon
Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

Articles: 3781
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lurker Laura

“If it gets to the point where opponents start actually preparing for Davidson…” I’ll take Phrases I Never Expected to Hear this White Sox Season for $1,000, Alex.

GrinnellSteve

I wonder if the Sox and Davidson could reinvent him as a reliever who could be used as a right-handed power bat off the bench. On nights when he’s not available out of the pen, he’s on the bench. Or he pinch hits, then stays in the game as a pitcher.

I question his utility as a hitter going forward. Just wondering if he might have value as a reliever who could occasionally make the bench longer.

roke1960

That’s his best chance at sticking with the Sox. It actually allows for an 8-man pen and occasionally a 4-man bench.

Trooper Galactus

Well, as a right-handed pinch hitter, Davidson is a rough matchup for lefties late in games. This assuming his numbers against LHP this season aren’t an anomoly.

gibby32

Davidson as the 25th and 26th player on the roster is plausible for 2019. As Patrick persuasively spelled out, it’s his only real shot at a longer career, probably short-term, with the White Sox. On a roster that includes Adam Engel, last night’s catch notwithstanding, and Nicky Delmonico, it’s hard to figure out the downside. One hopes that after 2019 it will be more difficult to find a spot for such a player.

PauliePaulie

When this team is good, we’re all gonna look back at “Matt Davidson, Reliever” and “Daniel Palka, Bench Lefty” with strangely fond derision.

Lurker Laura

Maybe just “strangely fond.”

Greg Nix

Michael Baumann was tweeting about this last night.

35Shields

I feel like he’s being unfair. I don’t think anyone’s arguing that position players pitching is ‘exploitative’.

The objections seem to fall into two categories:

1. It makes for bad baseball – The novelty has worn off. Having someone float 70 mph ‘fast’balls over the plate is a bullshit way to reward fans who came to the game. Like the rest of baseball’s new “win or don’t even bother trying” attitude, it makes for a worse product to watch.

2. You’re putting these players in a situation they haven’t prepared for and potentially risking injury. This what Jim was talking about. Matt Davidson was gassed after throwing 20 pitches, not having pitched in 10 days. Unsurprisingly, he’s not prepared to be used as a bullpen arm. Using him like this is certainly risking injury, which is unfair.

#1 doesn’t really apply to Davidson, in my mind. He’s much better than the average position player. He has three ‘legit’ pitches. If most position players would be considered 20 grade relievers. Davidson might be a 30 grade reliever, which seems acceptable for a low-leverage reliever that’s used sparingly. #2 does concern me.

PauliePaulie

On top of that, the Sox are repeatedly trotting him out there while carrying an 8 man ‘pen.

“Let me distract you from a weeks worth of terrible bullpen management with this played gimmick”- RR

Greg Nix

I think that’s the remnants of a different conversation. I mostly posted it because it’s interesting he thinks super-duper-utility players (infielder/pitchers) are the future. How the marginal reduction in innings for current relievers affects their pay scale is something else entirely (and not a huge deal imo).

Trooper Galactus

Pitching fewer innings certainly hasn’t hurt a lot of starting pitchers’ paydays over the years.

Patrick Nolan

I think that what he meant by “exploitative” gets at your #2, above. They’re essentially asking position players to take on extra work in a role in which they’re not used to, causing the position player to bear the additional injury risk with no added compensation or insurance (for potentially-damaged future earnings).

If I recall correctly, there was an incident where Phillies players (might have been another team) a couple seasons ago got pissed at the manager for hanging a position player on the mound to throw more than 50 pitches.

gibby32

Sure. If that’s Matty’s role, he needs to be appropriately paid for it.

Trooper Galactus

Davidson is arbitration eligible in 2020. If they try a hybrid relief pitcher/bench bat role for him in 2019, he could set a new standard pay-wise if this becomes a more prevalent industry practice. For the time being, he’s paid appropriately in the sense that he’s paid exactly the same as every other pre-arb player.

Holland23

Sweaty Matty