Exit Interviews: Donnie Veal

Donnie Veal

‘s freakish left arm and an odd, blurry white orb. // Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

These “exit interviews” will be going over the entire 40-man roster and looking to see how each player does or does not fit into the White Sox future.

The term “exit interview” is usually used when an employee is leaving the company. I took that into consideration…and kept it.

Donnie Veal – Former top prospect turned mercurial left-handed specialist.

Age by 2014 Opening Day: 29

Contract: One more year of pre-arbitration salary. Four more years of team control.

Relevant stats: 50 games (all relief),  29.1 IP, 4.60 ERA, 26 H, 3 HR, 29 K, 16 BB, 1.81 K/BB, 94 ERA+.

Interpretation: No trace of the world-beater from last season, but returned to being a significant contributor in the second half after a trainwreck start.

Emblematic split: After second call-up: 36 games, 22 IP, 3.27 ERA, 15 H, 2 HR, 24 K, 7 BB, 3.43 K/BB, .541 OPS against.

Pre-season expectations: Filling a small, unsexy role so perfectly, there was a temptation to just plug Veal into the LOOGY slot without giving much consideration of the chances of a complete collapse. In his bullpen preview, Kevin Wallace had to do little more than cite Veal’s superlative performance record to explain his chokehold on an Opening Day roster spot.

"“Veal filled the left-handed specialist role (sometimes affectionately known as a “LOOGY”) nearly perfectly, allowing only five base runners over 34 plate appearances against left-handed hitters.”"

Quote of the year: Veal famously dealt with being sent down at the beginning of May with maximum smoothness.

Donnie’s story: As completely unhittable as Veal looked against left-handers throughout 2012, the total breakdown of his approach betrayed its simplicity. While his slider might be completely untrackable to left-handed batters, it’s predicated on his fastball location being taut, or at least being enough to grab strikes. That was a foregone conclusion in 2012, but Veal quickly displayed the control breakdowns that had made him a bit of a baseball vagabond before coming to the South Side.

According to Brooks Baseball, his rate of fastballs that went called for balls jumped up 11% from 2012, making a decisive switch from one out of every three to nearly half, and tilting the balance for how hitters approached him. Instead of the normal defensiveness that comes with falling behind in the count, hitters just waited for Veal to stumble into trouble, and swings at his punishing slider dropped by half. With those struggles in place, Veal couldn’t even pretend to fill his small role, since lefties were holding a .600 OBP against him when he was first sent down in May.

When he returned two weeks later to the majors for two quick appearances, he seemed even farther away. He allowed seven of the ten batters he faced to reach base and made Hector Gimenez do this:

Veal returned to the majors to stay right before the All-Star break, pitching in all three games of a July series in Philadelphia. In his first game back, he easily stepped in and dominated powerful lefties Chase Utley and Domonic Brown, and basically pitched like the first half of the season never happened from there on out.

Robin Ventura‘s patterns of usage reflected and celebrated the relative return to form, as Veal made 36 appearances over the last two and a half months, in a focused and specifically short-ranged, lefty specialist role. He was essentially pretty great, better than even his 3.27 ERA after his last call-up would suggest. He struck out 24 batters over 22 innings and allowed just a .192/.259/.282 batting line.

The only outlying issues with Veal’s blissful return to the LOOGY role he once owned–besides the ever-present doubts that the 2013 White Sox second half really dictated strictness about reliever handedness–was that he never generated true LOOGY results. Ventura managed to generate more lefty-skewed opportunities for Veal than he ever managed for Will Ohman, but Veal’s results against lefties started out lagging behind his work against righties and they never caught up, and lefties were 80 points of OPS better against Veal for the year.

The issues were largely the product of BABIP oddities, and just watching him sweep sliders across the plate from the left side explains what can be expected going forward, but surprisingly bland splits came out of his minor league work in 2013 as well. Veal started the year generally awful and eventually migrated to being generally effective, with no fun bits of nastiness.

Assessment: Veal plugs in nicely to the primary LOOGY role for 2014. As of this writing, all are banned from worrying about LOOGY’s until further notice.

He also offers another season of working for the league minimum, and while he might make a decent throw-in, his small role removes him from the category of players who might be used as trade bait. The volatility of Veal’s 2013 provided an easy insight onto how tenuous the hold non-elite relievers have on the command they need to remain major leaguers, which means he should neither be hoarded, nor removed from having to compete for his role with the rest of the left-handed flingers in the system.

Veal should be counted on to provide the White Sox quality innings in 2014, but if he made all the way through his arbitration years with the organization, it would be a welcome surprise and would necessitate a far longer stretch of hot command than he’s managed at any point yet. When Veal can throw his fastball for strikes and snap his slider, he’s a major leaguer and a useful one, and that’s as far as the commitment goes.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan