With White Sox bullpen, it’s hard to get what they paid for

It’s always ill-advised to judge a player off two games, but sometimes it’s fun for noting purposes.

After his disastrous eighth inning on Thursday in which he retired the first two batters before failing to retire his last five, Joe Kelly is already -0.5 WAR in the hole according to Baseball-Reference.com’s calculations. FanGraphs is kinder and probably more faithful to the concept of WAR at -0.1, but since Kelly has taken the loss in one of his two games, -0.5 WAR has a logical consistency underneath the visceral, RealFeel nature of his face-plant out of the gate.

Kelly’s track record says he should be better than this, and by the end of the year, I’m guessing he’ll settle into an above-average season as long as his arm allows it. But while watching Kelly unravel, I began to think about how the White Sox have prioritized relievers during four recent acquisition periods:

2020 draft: Selected Garrett Crochet with the express purpose of fast-tracking him to the bullpen.

2020-21 offseason: Made Liam Hendriks their highest-paid acquisition (although Lance Lynn drew even after his extension).

2021 trade deadline: Swung separate deals with the Cubs for Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel.

2021-22 offseason: Picked up Kimbrel’s option and invested the most money in Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly.

It’s a mixed bag of results. Hendriks has been mostly great and Tepera did everything he could. Crochet helped during his first year-plus, but now he’s out for a year-plus with Tommy John surgery. Kimbrel was a disaster, and while the Sox were able to flip him for AJ Pollock, exercising his option rerouted the Sox’s attention to the barter market, rather than using the $16 million any way they pleased.

Graveman and Kelly are still in first-impressions stages, with Graveman’s as good as Kelly’s is gross. Yet despite the chasm between their results, the gap between the satisfaction with their signings is considerably smaller. Nobody is happy yet with Kelly because he was unavailable, and now he’s uneven.

But Graveman’s success has its own catches. He’s pitched so well that he started the season pitching too frequently, prompting Tony La Russa to withhold Graveman from situations that would normally demand his services. Cautious fans are afraid that Graveman might wear down, while the carpe diem fans are irritated that one day of rest isn’t sufficient.

Relievers are the only players who carry such a heavy concern of overuse. Sure, if the White Sox extended Carlos Rodón the qualifying offer, they’d have to be wary of his workload, but starters come with set expectations of scheduling and usage. They pitch once every five or so days, and everybody’s hoping for six or so innings when they work. When all is said and done, they should have around 25-30 starts on their record, with hopefully enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Quality relievers have big-picture expectations — 60-plus games, 70-plus innings — but their week-to-week patterns can shift dramatically. An imbalance of high-leverage situations can take them out of so many games where they’d normally make an impact.

Watching Hendriks and Kelly experience high-profile duds while the Sox try to prevent Graveman from overheating, I wonder if there a detrimental effect to investing so much time and money into a position that can’t play as much as possible.

Take the Kimbrel-Pollock trade. A snapshot of the deal shows the Dodgers coming out ahead …

  • Kimbrel: 7.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7, 5/5 SV
  • Pollock: .210/.242/.306 over 66 PA

… but Kimbrel’s velocity is down from last year, and he’s averaging more than three days of rest between appearances. He still requires careful handling, and the Dodgers are one of the few teams with the offensive firepower and pitching depth to give it to him.

Pollock had an abysmal start with a hamstring strain holding him back, but he’s shown signs of life over the last week, with a couple multi-hit games, a couple of extra-base hits, a couple of walks. If he trips and falls into a ditch to start the season, he can theoretically try climbing out of it the very next day and not stop until he’s in the black. When Kelly does the same, he has to wait two or three days before redemption, so it takes considerably longer for his impact to unfold.

Repeat that over the course of four acquisition periods, and games like Thursday show what it looks like when they reach the point of diminishing returns. Going back to the bullpen over and over again while slapping patches on position-player shortcomings is a defensive, conservative approach focused on preciously guarding the leads acquired. It’s great when it works, but it requires so much of the first six innings to go according to plan, and the Sox haven’t spent nearly as much time addressing the first six innings.

Now, Hahn had reasons to believe that some gaps could be addressed by internal improvements — full seasons of Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert, the maturation of Andrew Vaughn and Dylan Cease — so I’m wary about overemphasizing one particular moment in time. Maybe Vaughn returns without skipping a beat, Pollock returns to the height of his powers, José Abreu breaks out of his slump, and the offense stops looking like a problem. Then again, here were prominent injury, decline and discipline concerns among the incumbents, so the rocky start stops just short of a shock.

I’m prepared for both outcomes, especially if the Central continues to be so flawed that it elevates the White Sox by default. This idea of a saturation point of bullpen spending would explain why the team can nevertheless feel so incomplete when their mettle is tested.

It seems like the White Sox are chasing that 2014-15 Kansas City Royals model of success, except KC acquired Kelvin Herrera (international signing), Greg Holland (10th round) and Wade Davis (secondary player in a trade) for very little in terms of payroll dollars. The Royals paid that trio less than $10 million in the year it established itself as a pennant-winning force, while Kelly is nearly commanding that amount by himself. It’s hard for a lockdown bullpen to provide a similar boost when it gets in the way of how the rest of the team is built. Whenever the White Sox start mobilizing for more moves, I’d request that they look toward players who can’t possibly play too much.

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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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karkovice squad

They could’ve made the bullpen better by DFAing Keuchel and retaining Rodón. That alone would’ve shaved 14 IP off their workload and given it to a better pitcher, to boot.

jhomeslice

As if missing the first month did not make it obvious the stupidity of choosing Kelly over Tepera, for MORE money no less, I have a bad feeling that by year end they may lament signing Kelly altogether.

Add that to the bonehead list of stupid decisions they have made the past 2 years, starting with hiring the worst coach in pro sports.

itaita

Maybe baseball but that Pro sports title over the last 2 years goes to Urban Meyer by far.

a-t

tepera has not been that great so far. his strikeouts have been down noticeably and he’s currently surviving on a .108 BABIP allowed

dwjm3

How much do you guys think Jerry would have to spend in order for Hahn to delivery a World Series?

We are a tick below 200 million (195ish with Cueto) in payroll right now. The Yankees are at 246

Could Hahn win a title at 210 or 220? Honestly, if Jerry matched the Yankees in spending I’m not sure Hahn could win a title.

The other thing I was thinking about is what would Hahn do with the Guardians 56 million dollar payroll? The Guardians are on pace to win 79 ballgames. I think Hahn would have them on pace to win about 55 ballgames if he was in charge of that team.

Our payroll is 3.5x the Guardians and we are on pace to win 10 more ballgames than them.

My message to Jerry is you are getting ripped off by your GM and it is your fault.

Last edited 3 months ago by dwjm3
As Cirensica

Our payroll is 3.5x the Guardians and we are on pace to win 10 more ballgames than them.

Even though you make a good point, I don’t think the number of wins and the $$$ spent is a linear relationship. One thing is for sure, historically teams that spend more, tend to win more….unless your team is managed by Hahn. Then all the bets are off.

roke1960

Jerry’s not getting ripped off- he’s getting exactly what he paid for. Plus, it really seems that right now the biggest problem the Sox have is with their manager, and that was Jerry’s decision. Yes, Hahn should have allocated payroll differently, and I’m certainly not giving him a free pass- he should have been fired years ago- but, this is Jerry’s ball club. I’m sure he has no intention of removing Tony, Hahn, Kenny or anyone in the front office. The blame for any shortcoming lies at the feet of the owner.

jhomeslice

You’re definitely correct that Jerry deserves more blame than Hahn or anybody else. TLR didn’t hire himself. Nor does Hahn decide that he can’t commit money to any top tier free agents.

As Cirensica

One thing I have never understood is how so Jerry holds so much power over the White Sox when he does not even own more than 20% of the team. How can he get away with it? Where is the other 80% ownership? Are they just silent partners?

gibby32

Their partnership agreement cedes all the power to Reinsdorf.

chisoxt

Yes it’s in the ownership agreement that JR runs the show and everyone else is silent

mrridgman

All reliever acquisitions cited above, other than Crochet, were acquired after TLR was hired. There are many indications of TLR’s love for the bullpen, and also of Jerry’s loyalty to TLR. I’m not suggesting that Hahn shouldn’t allocate resources better; I am suggesting that these moves may be influenced more by TLR than Hahn.

The Sox have had a dysfunctional organization hierarchy from at least the time of Hahn’s elevation to “GM”, while Kenny continued to act as an equal spokesperson.

chisoxt

Curiously, at the time KW stepped down, TLR quit managing and I was convinced that JR would hire him instead of Hahn…well, I was sort of right

dongutteridge

$350 mil

MrStealYoBase

A couple years ago, I thought it was a pipe-dream to think payroll would ever get to this level. I was hoping for $170M but realistically expecting $150M. Credit where it’s due, Jerry is investing in the team.

Aaaaand that’s about all you can give him credit for. I actually thought it was impossible for a team to spend this much and have as incomplete a roster as they do. Pennywise and pound foolish all the way.

The most inefficient place to spend a dollar in the free agent market is the middle to low tier. What do the Sox do? Double down on spending in that bracket. Where is the one place this team seems to be able to find contributors in the late rounds of the draft and on the waiver wire? The bullpen. Where do they spend an outsized part of their budget? The bullpen.

roke1960

Very good point. If you would have told me this year’s payroll would be $150M, I would have thought they would have solved right field and 2nd base. But no, they paid $10M for 2 below average 2nd basemen instead of spending $10M for someone like Eduardo Escobar. Then they committed another $16M to relief, which is more than anyone spends. It’s amazing how they can spend so much money and still leave glaring holes in the roster.

jhomeslice

Yeah, I mean how could anybody get excited about their prior offseason with the biggest addition being Liam. He had a decent year, but even good relievers pretty rarely have a WAR above 2.5 or so. There isn’t huge upside there. Springer has a 1.2 WAR already this year, he was the type of player they needed and Jerry’s refusal to commit to someone of his caliber epitomizes why this rebuild is likely to wind up a total waste. Adding TLR to the equation makes that nearly a certainty.

As Cirensica

Springer would have be nice, but the player Hahn/Reinsdorf really whiffed was Bryce Harper. If we had Harper, this team would have been dynamically so different. We would be a powerhouse with that lefty masher in the middle of the order and a decent RF for once. not even TLR could fuck this up.

Last edited 3 months ago by As Cirensica
roke1960

Yes, yes, yes. Harper didn’t want to go to Philly. He would have been a rock star in Chicago and also filled so many needs with one signing. They could have had him for $23M per year, and Jerry wouldn’t even consider it. We should have known then when Jerry didn’t sign Machado or Harper when they basically fell into his lap that this rebuild was never going to be completed. And now here we are with a $190M+ payroll and still many holes in the roster. Complete mismanagement at every level. They still have the talent to win the World Series, because they have enough pieces that a hot 3 week stretch could do it, but it will be in spite of management’s ineptitude at filling out a roster.

jhomeslice

Of course I like Harper too but he signed for over 300M. Springer was 5 years for 125, which was totally within Reinsdorf’s budget. There would have at least been a chance with Springer, they were never going to be the highest bidder for Harper.

roke1960

But Harper signed for less per year than Springer. Jerry will be long dead by the time Harper’s 13-year contract is over, and by then $23M will certainly be worth much less than it is now.

jhomeslice

Jerry would look at the 300M number and be terrified. The Sox have never signed anybody to even a 100M commitment, they aren’t going anywhere near a 300M contract until Jerry is actually dead.

I get what you’re saying and agree they could (and should) have done it, Harper or Machado would have been totally worth it, and made this team incredible. But accepting that they probably will never do a contract that big, Springer was much more within the ballpark of something Jerry might actually do if he has a few drinks in him.

roke1960

Jerry probably looked at the 125M number for Springer and became terrified.

jhomeslice

true.

asinwreck

Jerry will be long dead by the time Harper’s 13-year contract is over

Imagine if that is not the case.

a-t

WAR is really not the proper way to evaluate a reliever lol

jhomeslice

I think WAR is relevant to compare the relative value of a really good reliever versus a position player. Liam is an excellent reliever making 13M. That’s way less than what a good position player costs, because the position player has more impact (and a higher WAR). I would have been way more excited about Springer than Liam, at any rate.

As Cirensica

No? Please do tell.

I understand WAR is an all encompassing contributions of each player and adjusted by position, and translated into a simple value “contributing to a win”. It roughly follows that a team with replacement level players should win around 45 games, and the rest of the wins comes from players with positive WAR (ableve replacement).

For example, in 2021, the White Sox won 93 games

Position players fWAR = 24
pitchers players fWAR = 27

Roster of Replacement Level players = 45

Total wins = 96 (Actual 93)

I believe the 45 mark varies from year to year. In any event, how so WAR is not the proper way to assess a reliever?

Last edited 3 months ago by As Cirensica
a-t

Because for relievers it’s about leverage? A reliever that is lights out in blowouts but falls apart with the game on the line is not worth much even if the WAR/rate stats are pretty good; we saw that with Ruiz last year. WPA (win probability added) is really important for reliever evaluation.

As Cirensica

WAR calculations include leverage!

jhomeslice

Unless the economics of baseball players make no sense at all, both WAR and players salaries are in complete agreement that a good position player is worth a lot more than a top flight reliever.

Which is why Sox fans have been rightfully pissed about what they’ve done the past two offseasons.

670WMAQtheElder

I used to be an RH fan, but not after this off season. Rodon should have been offered the QO. He’s too much talent to lose even if injuries are a question. If he left, we would have a draft pick. Tepera should have been resigned. Kimbrel should have been released. Priorities should have been more SPs, top tier, 2B and RF. Heck, it was so obvious.

BenwithVen

I don’t know if the problem is Hahn insomuch that this FO doesn’t seem united around a single plan or approach. I also think Jerry likes it that way.

670WMAQtheElder

I thought KW lost his power after the Shields trade. It had to make JR mad to pay so much money for such really bad results. I think we saw RH in command until the 2020-21 offseason when he clearly was going to hire Hinch but JR wanted to make amends with TLR. Roster construction since, I my opinion, is being driven by what TLR wants…basically a lot of pieces he can play with. Different lineups. Lots of relievers. I think RH wanted an everyday core of guys and strong starting pitching. As for KW, I’m quite sure he’s in JR’s ear a lot. Never seemed like a guy to stay quiet very long.

a-t

an elite, deep bullpen is clearly a requirement for a title contender in this day and age. how you get there is another question. they’ve invested in FA/trade relievers but also recently developed what look like three useful to pretty good ones in Bummer, Ruiz, and Foster. my main criticism is that I think they have not been trying enough reclamation project type guys to try and let Katz to work his magic; they do seem to have well above average pitching development, and they could save some money spent on FA relievers if the reclamation relievers worked out more often.

670WMAQtheElder

Does Katz have magic, or is he part of the problem? Or does it matter because no one can cross TLR because JR’s in his corner?

Greg Nix

Cease and Kopech are shoving. Not to mention Rodon. I trust Katz.

roke1960

Good news- Vaughn is reactivated! Good job Rick!

Giolito to the Covid IL- hopefully he won’t miss a start. Time to get Cueto up to Chicago.

mrridgman

Probably Guardians fallout? More to come?

jhomeslice

And Leury is their starting RF tonight with Vaughn not in the lineup because of our deranged manager.

roke1960

No, I’m sure Vaughn is probably en route from Charlotte. I would guess he would be available later in the game.

As Cirensica

We are talking about a less than 2 hours flight. It is not like Vaughn is in route from Canberra.

roke1960

And if he gets there early he might be in the lineup. It will probably take longer to get from OHare to the park than from Charlotte to OHare.

roke1960

If Vaughn is there in plenty of time to start and Tony still starts Leury over him, he should be fired on the spot.

As Cirensica

If I had a penny….

jhomeslice

I don’t think they would declare Vaughn as active for tonight’s game if there was any doubt he would be in the park when it starts. He’s probably in Chicago already.

TLR should be fired on the spot in any case, for crimes against Sox fans!

Nellie Fox

Why is it that kc or Cleveland always find this Young talent and the Sox find the ones who can’t throw strikes until it is a 2-0 count? And please get something in a mocada trade as he is worthless when it counts .

chisoxt

General Managing 101- You do NOT overpay for overused relievers- and how many times has Rick Hahn done this??

Greg Nix

Absolute insanity to look at why the Rays and Dodgers do, and decide the best way to compete with them is expensive bullpen arms.