The White Sox just saw what an opener can do

After a month of having nowhere to hide, the White Sox have taken advantage of June’s six off days to set aside their fourth- and fifth-starter issues, although Odrisamer Despaigne stands a chance of reigniting the former today if his second start doesn’t go as swimmingly as his first.

The trouble signs are still there, though, even if the calendar allows them to be spaced further apart. Extra rest hasn’t helped Reynaldo López and Iván Nova draw any closer to the rest of baseball’s qualified starters, so they still boast the two worst official ERAs in baseball. The bottom five for context:

  • Michael Pineda, 5.04
  • Anibal Sanchez, 5.04
  • Jacob Junis, 5.35
  • Nova, 6.28
  • López, 6.31

The White Sox’ perilous lack of rotation depth — undermined further by the injury to Jimmy Lambert — isn’t likely to heal itself, and thus stands a great chance of flaring up again when the White Sox open the second half with 17 straight games and 27 in 27 days. If Dylan Cease’s last two starts make it difficult to assume he can force Rick Hahn’s hand by the time Despaigne, Manny Bañuelos and/or Dylan Covey return to the routine, then they don’t really have many other options.

This is the situation we discussed in late May when wondering why the White Sox were so averse to the opener. Rick Renteria had outlined his thinking, which is definitely the glass-half-empty approach to the idea:

“For me, if you use an opener, it’s just potentially a bullpen day,” Renteria said. “I think that openers, and this is just one man’s opinion, speaks to the state of your pitching staff in general. I think most people that are solidified in their starting rotation don’t even think about it, to be honest.”

Renteria often deploys “to be honest” or some form thereof before or after he says something that might be unpopular.

Ironically, “honest” is a tell. Renteria isn’t revealing a lie when he does it, but it often indicates that he’s giving the weak side of a decision more weight than it deserves. When a questionable bunt fails, it’s because Ryan Cordell didn’t do it right, not because bunting on a drawn-in defense ups the degree of difficulty. When a successful bunt still doesn’t result in a successful inning, it’s because the hitters behind Yolmer Sánchez faltered, not because that’s what the run expectancy matrix says is more likely to happen. When the Times Through the Order Penalty punishes a naturally vulnerable starter like Bañuelos, it’s merely unfortunate, not because TTOP is a documented pattern.

The alternative is admitting that he inadvertently put a player in a position to fail, which isn’t easy. Furthermore, on a roster that makes a bunch of decisions look like booby traps, all the dust a rebuilding site kicks up might make good risks indistinguishable from bad ones.

Take for instance his decision to use James McCann as the designated hitter on Saturday. A two-catcher lineup looks like a sensible call when the alternatives are Yonder Alonso, Charlie Tilson and a potentially injured Yoan Moncada, because, hey, how often does a catcher leave a game early?

But because Renteria’s job is seldom easier than it has to be, Welington Castillo picks that night to get ejected, Renteria goes down with him out of solidarity, and Joe McEwing is left to double-switch Eloy Jiménez out of the game in the ninth.

Looking at it one way, that’s why a manager shouldn’t use both his catchers in the same lineups. Taking the longer view, that was only Castillo’s second career ejection, and you’d expect he or any other starting catcher would be more mindful of the team situation going forward.

* * * * * * * * *

Which brings us back to the opener, and Renteria’s predisposition that a bad day from the long man can throw the whole mission into abject chaos. Renteria isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s once again an overemphasis on the short side of a debate when the growing body of opener examples suggests it’s better than hoping a flawed starter doesn’t get knocked out in the fourth.

Renteria got a great look at the opener at its best on Saturday night. The Yankees pitching staff gutted the Sox for 16 strikeouts in a game opened by reliever Chad Green, and the way it worked out is exactly what a team is going for.

Step One

In theory: Start a live-armed reliever to face the top of the order.

In practice: Chad Green retired six of the seven he faced over two scoreless innings, all by swinging strikeout.

Step Two

In theory: Use a pitcher who throws with the opposite arm and normally has trouble facing a lineup more than twice, but let him face the bottom of the order to get rolling, and anything you get after two turns is gravy.

In practice: Nestor Cortes Jr., a lefty in the mold of Bañuelos, started his night by facing the eighth and ninth hitters, and didn’t face the top of the White Sox order a third time until he’d thrown five scoreless innings, after which he started finding trouble (although his defense didn’t help).

Step Three

In theory: Hope you’re in the late innings and can resume normal bullpen usage with your best relievers to protect the lead.

In practice: Aaron Boone used Jonathan Holder and Aroldis Chapman to cover the eighth and ninth.

It doesn’t always work out to perfection like that, but it’s working for the Yankees, who ran their record to 5-0 in games opened by Green. It also worked cleanly enough to help the Rays win 90 games with a mostly anonymous roster last year, and the A’s 97 after injuries dismantled their planned rotation. Maybe the White Sox don’t have the pitching staff for regular success no matter which they arrange it, but there’s enough success around the league to show it’s worth trying.

With a fresh example to point to, I’d take it a step further. If Renteria is concerned about the “opener” being merely a fancy label for “bullpen day,” perhaps the time to experiment is when they have all these off days to regroup, rather than dipping into Charlotte’s bullpen for reinforcements.

Mapping out a theoretical combination, let’s say Renteria aims to have Thyago Vieira’s triple-digit stuff open the game, followed by Bañuelos’ slider-heavy lefty approach. If it goes well, Renteria just had Bañuelos pitch through the sixth inning — he just had to sit on the shoulders of a guy who Renteria wouldn’t use in high-leverage situations to fill out the trenchcoat. That’s what you want out of the deal.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Renteria gets what he fears. Maybe Vieira (or Juan Minaya, or whoever) opens the game with a thud, Bañuelos walks four over three-plus innings, and Renteria is forced to scramble to cover the second half of the game. Maybe that happens, but it’s no different from Bañuelos walking four over the first three-plus innings, rather than innings two through five.

If Despaigne Days devolve into despair starting this afternoon, it’s harder to make an argument against experimenting with the opener, and sooner than later. Maybe Renteria would rather use the off days to rearrange the rotation, but as long as said rotation is Lucas Giolito and baseball’s two worst qualifying ERAs, the Sox are effectively trying to fashion a combover out of a single strand of hair. When the calendar is this forgiving, they may as well come to terms with it now, close-crop the rotation, and take the extra off days to try getting used to the new look. If they don’t or can’t, they can always grow it back, inadequate as it may appear to everybody else.

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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.

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roke1960

Great stuff, Jim. You just so eloquently spoke what we all have been thinking. If Ricky and his staff can’t adapt to the way the game is played now, then they need to go. But unfortunately, this probably all has the blessing of Rick Hahn.

christmastime

You knocked it “out of the park” Jim. As much as I’d like to see Omar sitting in the dugout in the future, I fear he too would be more of the same. 

Patrick Nolan

Great piece.

asinwreck

Maybe Renteria would rather use the off days to rearrange the rotation, but as long as said rotation is Lucas Giolito and baseball’s two worst qualifying ERAs, the Sox are effectively trying to fashion a combover out of a single strand of hair.

Happy Father’s Day, everybody!

soxfan

The most important line is: “Maybe the White Sox don’t have the pitching staff for regular success no matter which they arrange it…”