The final game of the season meant nothing to the White Sox, as the Houston Astros cinched up home field advantage for the ALDS the night before. The Sox lost to the Tigers 5-2, but everybody came away from the game healthy, which was the primary objective.
While everybody would shrug at the results, there was one element of the performance that couldn’t be completely written off. The Tigers stole four bases on the White Sox in four attempts, including three off Dylan Cease and one on Michael Kopech’s tab.
In the process, they emphasized a season-long problem as the White Sox embarked on their first real postseason since 2008.
The White Sox surrendered 119 stolen bases over 2021’s 162 games. Nobody else is close. The Red Sox were second in the AL with 92, and the league average was 74, even including the White Sox’s outlier at the top.
White Sox catchers threw out 16.8 percent of baserunners, good for the fourth-worst percentage in the AL, and well below the league average of 23.3 percent. Because of their inability to slow the running game, White Sox pitchers finished with a Defensive Runs Saved total of -43.
The biggest offenders:
On one hand, this is an argument for keeping Dallas Keuchel on the postseason roster, as he only allowed two stolen bases on six attempts over 162 innings. On the other, Reynaldo López limited runners to two steals in eight attempts, including two pickoffs over 57⅔ innings. Baserunners were 28-for-37 against him over the previous three years. We knew about the shortened armswing helping his command, but perhaps here’s another benefit of a more compact delivery.
Tony La Russa said the raw numbers might not tell the whole story of the effort, although he also acknowledged all the room for growth.
“The more important part of that is defending the running game,” La Russa said Saturday. “And we’ve been active. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s more obvious. But there are several of our pitchers that have gotten better at their moves and quickening to the plate.
“There are things we’ve worked on to get better. We haven’t helped our catchers enough this season. That’ll be a big priority next year in camp.”
López is one pitcher who can claim dramatic improvement, and the White Sox are tied for fourth in the American League with eight pickoffs. Then again, the latter number is likely the result of teams (correctly) thinking they can run at will against the White Sox, and getting slightly reckless as a result.
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The question is: Does it matter?
It turns out that’s not such a simple question to answer.
The White Sox are lapping the American League in stolen bases allowed, but if you expand the scope to include the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers have yielded 108 steals. Throw in the Red Sox with 92 and the Brewers with 91, and four of the five worst teams are in the postseason. On the flip side, you have the Cardinals, Giants and Astros among the top six in stolen-base stinginess. I wouldn’t say there’s zero correlation, but it’s probably more along the lines of “can’t hurt to be good” than “actively harmful to be bad.”
There’s also the matter that all the White Sox pitchers on the above board enjoyed good-to-great seasons. Cease’s presence is especially noteworthy, because you might assume that his breakout season included some marginal gains like limiting stolen bases. Instead, the opposite has happened:
- 2019-20: Four steals in five attempts over 131⅓ innings.
- 2021: 22 steals in 24 attempts over 165⅔ innings
It’s only weird until you consider what those first 26 starts looked like. A runner on first probably didn’t think about swiping second because one of his teammates already occupied that base. In this light, Cease can be flattered by all the activity, because it means 1) he dealt with fewer baserunners than ever, and 2) the guys who did reach were more skeptical that subsequent batters would advance them.
The Brewers and the Dodgers being in the top five underscores this point — stolen bases can sometimes be an indicator of how deep the opponent needs to dig in order to do damage.
That said, I think this argument is better limited to starters than relievers. The guys in the rotation have a bigger picture to worry about (six innings, 100 pitches), and if you have somebody like Cease who is still trying to develop muscle memory for well-executed pitches, diverting focus to defending 90 feet during the third inning of a 2-1 game might be counterproductive to the larger mission of a quality start.
Whereas if Aaron Bummer comes into the game with runners on first and second with the goal of getting a double play, then gives up a double steal on the second pitch, his very limited job just became considerably more difficult. The same can be said for Craig Kimbrel, whose propensity for wild pitches already makes giving up 90 feet an already present threat.
So let’s try to put a specific value on this fear: How many times did stolen bases against the White Sox’s better relievers result in runs?
He’s allowed five steals in six attempts with the White Sox, and three of those steals led to runs. However, both of those steals occurred on wild pitches that turned 90 feet into 180. The only situation where a stolen base loomed large in and of itself was Sept. 20, when Robbie Grossman was hit by a pitch with two outs, stole second and scored the go-ahead run on a Harold Castro single.
Then again, Grossman was clipped on the foot with an 0-2 knuckle curve, and then stole second on a fastball that reached the backstop, so Kimbrel’s bigger problems seems to be pitches that transcend “wild” and border on “bacchanalian.”
He’s allowed six steals in six attempts, those six attempts have only occurred in four of his 69 appearances. One of those steals (by Toronto’s Tesocar Hernandez) came around to score on a single … but a second single, after the first one only advanced him to third.
In the other five steals, one was followed by a walk and a double play. The other four came with two outs, and Hendriks rendered them inconsequential with strikeouts. We can say that he focuses on the hitter for a reason.
Now here’s a case where stolen bases have turned into runs. Facing the Royals way back on April 11, Bummer gave up a go-ahead run in the eighth inning on a leadoff walk, stolen base and RBI single. Against the Yankees on May 23, Bummer gave up a leadoff single, then a stolen base that required an intentional walk, which eventually led to Hendriks’ walk-off walk. Most recently, he gave up a double steal to the Tigers on Sept. 21, and both runs came around to score.
He has the strikeout powers to pitch around them, but he’s also generated the kind of soft, weird contact that doesn’t lend itself to easy outs no matter the base. Perhaps Yasmani Grandal might want to program some pickoff calls into his sequences.
Two of the steals Kopech allowed came in appearances where he covered three innings or more, so I’m inclined to give him the starter’s leeway for those, even if Akil Baddoo’s leadoff single and stolen base came around to score on two productive outs in the season finale.
Even after isolating those games, stolen bases have been a thorn in his side during more conventional relief appearances. They haven’t always converted into runs, but they’ve required backfilling first base and ground-balling relievers like Bummer and Evan Marshall to clean up his messes.
Kopech’s inconsistency over the second half, particularly with his slider, means that you probably don’t want him worrying about stolen bases he might not prevent even with better efforts. What he brings to the table is the ability cover two or three innings better than the average reliever, rather than nailing down one given inning. Given that Kopech’s last two appearances of the season covered six innings, La Russa seems to think the same.
Similar to Hendriks, Crochet has given up his six stolen bases over four games. Both of the multi-steal games were the result of double steals, and Crochet stranded both runners both times.
Only one of his six steals ended up scoring, when Jorge Polanco doubled with one out, took third and scored on a Nelson Cruz sac fly in the ninth inning on July 21. That run merely extended Minnesota’s lead from four to five, so I’m guessing Crochet was more focused on taking care of business against Cruz.
He’s only allowed three stolen bases over 65 games this year, and while opponents are 2-for-2 against him over his 22 games with the White Sox, the second of those steals came in Tepera’s first game back from a finger injury on Oct. 1, so he probably wasn’t all that consumed with what Willi Castro was doing on first base with two outs in the seventh inning of a game the Sox led by four.
Tepera also gave up a steal to Tyler Wade of the Yankees after inheriting him with two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game on Aug. 14. Tepera ended up issing an intentional walk to DJ LeMahieu after falling behind 3-0, after which he struck out Brett Gardner to end the threat.
That episode is worth mentioning because while Wade was an ordinary kind of threat on the season (17 steals in 23 attempts), he went 3-for-3 against the White Sox. If the Sox end up facing the Yankees this October, that’s something they’re going to have to keep in mind. Then again, if the White Sox end up facing the Yankees this October, it means that enough things are going right so far.
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After looking at all the instances of late-inning stolen bases against the White Sox, the question at hand — “Does it matter?” — is a lot easier to answer in the present perfect tense. It has not mattered, at least in a way that defines it against other random allowances of 90 feet. Like we discussed with starters, the bullpen’s collective faith in its abilities to dispatch hitters gives it the luxury of putting the running game on the back burner. The White Sox have the second-best bullpen according to FanGraphs WAR, which speaks to their confidence. Their performances tend to validate it. You wouldn’t call the White Sox bullpen bulletproof, but perhaps you can reframe the scars as “speed holes.”
That something has not happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. A back burner still has “burn” in its name, so maintaining the status quo without reflection isn’t the best of ideas. Alas, while past performances don’t guarantee future results, they naturally inform future mindsets, and the Sox’s tendency to surrender stolen bases lies in the tension between those two realities.
La Russa is aware of it, so there’s hope that somewhere in his catalog of experiences is a way to quickly instill a healthy amount of attention for baserunners — more than neglect, less than preoccupation. Of course, if it could be that simple, then why wouldn’t they have done it already? My reading of La Russa’s quotes suggest an acknowledgment of a flaw that will take more time and less important situations in order to properly address it, and the Sox pitchers who make the cut have the talent to absorb it.
That only provides so much comfort, because the only teams remaining are teams with offenses that might be able to exploit this flaw, whether by an increase in steals or a better chance of productive plate appearances behind them. Still, after six months with this pitching staff, which combines pitchers still learning how to execute with pitchers with utmost confidence in their abilities to do so, I’m prepared for the White Sox to play the hand they’re dealt and hope those stolen bases continue to fall short of meaningful materialization. The alternative is hoping La Russa and Ethan Katz have an ace up their sleeves, but I’ve seen enough shows to know playing those can lead to beatings just the same.
(Photo by Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)