The White Sox as a franchise have historically been built on pitching and defense. In the period before the Black Sox era, Ed Walsh was the principle figure: the man to whom belongs the lowest career ERA in the history of the game (1.82!) and was also responsible for much of the designs of Old Comiskey Park. The 1917 World Series-winning team, while incredibly strong at the dish, was also led by its pitching–Ed Cicotte and Lefty Williams, to name but a few. During the 30-year dark ages of Sox history, between the Black Sox and the dawn of the Go-Go Sox, only one Sox player aside from “Old Aches and Pains,” shortstop Luke Appling, really stands out. That’s Ted Lyons, a Hall of Famer in his own right.
Following that, the Go-Go Sox era of the ’50s and ’60s ushered in a Sox renaissance of defense and especially pitching. Southpaw Billy “The Kid” Pierce is the obvious icon of this era. His rivalry with Yankees lefty Whitey Ford mirrored the general competition between the AL’s two top markets. Pierce was often touted as the best lefty in the AL, and in 1955 he started the All-Star Game and became the only pitcher between 1946 and ’63 to post a sub-2 ERA. But Pierce did not stand alone, as in the pennant-winning season of 1959 it was former Indian Early Wynn who would lead the Sox to glory, winning their first Cy Young Award.
After Pierce departed for San Francisco in 1962, there was a bevy of promising pitchers to take his mantle, most significantly 1963 Rookie of the Year Gary Peters (the lefty often seen as Pierce’s spiritual successor), knuckler Hoyt Wilhelm, Tommy John, and Joe Horlen. Horlen would have one of the greatest pitching seasons in team history in the heartbreaking 1967 season which would see the Sox lost the pennant in the final weekend in the thick of an astounding four-team race. All-Star Horlen tossed the first Sox no-hitter in a decade in September of that month en route to leading the American League in both ERA (2.06) and shutouts (6).
During the 1970s knuckler Wilbur Wood would make his mark on Sox history as well, especially thanks to his incredible endurance. In 1973 he would pitch 30 innings in three nights, and start both games of a doubleheader. The “Winning Ugly” era was also chock-full of starting pitching talent, most notably ’83 Cy Young LaMarr Hoyt, Floyd Bannister and a special cameo by Mets legend Tom Seaver, who would win his 300th game in a Sox uniform.
While the talented Sox teams of the early 90s, led by “Batman” Frank Thomas and “Robin” Ventura, could certainly hit with the best, they were no slouch in the pitching department. 1993 Cy Young winner “Black Jack” McDowell is still the most recent Sox pitcher to win that award, and arguably still the team’s last true ace. Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and Jason Bere would also contribute.
Starting in the late 90s the Sox would follow the trend of the rest of the steroid-induced major leagues and place absolute emphasis on hitting the ball, and hitting it hard. The 2000 AL Central champs were powerful but weak off the mound, which probably was the cause of their anticlimactic ALDS sweep by the Seattle Mariners. While Mark Buehrle would emerge at the end of this season, and Esteban Loaiza would pitch out of his mind in 2003, Kenny Williams failed to land an ace pitcher (see David Wells) and the following years were a lean period for the Sox, both generally and from a pitching perspective.
A lot of this would change in 2005, when a solid pitching staff would emerge to support a potent offense. Lightning struck and the Sox excelled in both the regular season and the playoffs. Most notably, Jose Contreras, Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia would toss four consecutive complete games in the American League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Angels.
Since that glorious year the Sox have entered each season with a reasonably strong rotation, but not has reached the heights of 2005. The Javier Vazquez experiment failed in spectacular fashion, but the steadiness of Mark Buehrle, the redemption of Gavin Floyd and the rise of John Danks have led to considerable optimism among Sox fans in recent years. These expectations soared following the trade for former NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy in late 2009. While on the disabled list at the time of the deal, the Peavy acquisition was seen as a massive move for 2010. A terrific short stint of three Sox starts at the end of the season added fuel to the fire of Sox fans’ expectations of a rotation of Peavy, Buehrle, Floyd and Danks. These four horsemen, backed by reliable elder statesman Freddy Garcia, were the cause of much optimism going into the 2010 season, despite numerous questions about the offense. Fans and writers touted the Sox starting staff as among the best in baseball, rivaling the Red Sox and Yankees. However, like the rest of the team, the starting pitchers just failed to deliver.
An incredible Opening Day appearance by Buehrle was followed by disappointment after disappointment for the first two months of 2010. Criticism was especially directed towards Jake Peavy, who looked nothing like the pitcher from September 2009, let alone his Cy Young winning form in 2007. Gavin Floyd again displayed his maddening inconsistency. John Danks pitched just as well as he had to begin the 2009 season, and Freddy Garcia was the big surprise, entering the All-Star Break with a 9-3 record.
Of course, the Sox didn’t perform so far below expectations all season. The historic 25-5 run which catapulted the Sox into first place corresponded with a significant uptick in pitching performances, especially in the case of Gavin Floyd, who was untouchable for a period of about a dozen starts. Peavy, too, started to show signs of a rebound, including a shutout at Washington. However, he went down to injury in early July and threw the Sox season back into disarray. Edwin Jackson, acquired in a trade for top Sox pitching prospect Dan Hudson, was incredibly good to close out the season, but Buehrle, Floyd and Danks regressed back to their previous standards. Freddy Garcia’s pact with the devil seemed to have ended. The 2010 White Sox ended the season wondering what might have been, had only they been able to consistently reach their potential quality.
The 2011 Sox rotation should again be quite strong, though fans are approaching the season with more trepidation than last year. One has to wonder if Peavy will stay healthy and be able to perform at a decent level for most of the season (as I addressed in a previous piece), or if Edwin Jackson will continue to pitch as he did after his trade from the Diamondbacks. Nobody’s boldly claiming that the Sox have the best rotation in baseball anymore–the Phillies understandably have a monopoly on that claim, with the Red Sox, Giants, and Brewers, among others, also entering into the conversation.
Is the potential there? Undoubtedly. If the Sox could somehow harness the ability that John Danks has shown in April and May, Floyd in June and July, Buehrle in the first half of 2009, Edwin Jackson in August, and Peavy anything approaching his career highs, the Sox rotation will be a force to be reckoned with. It can’t hurt that the offense should be significantly improved from last season either.
Going into 2010, many people were talking about where the current Sox rotation ranked amongst the team’s all-time greats. A cursory glance throughout Sox history shows that while the current staff has the potential, they have a long way to go before being considered amongst the names of Walsh, Cicotte, Lyons, Pierce and Wood.