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White Sox Reliever Zach Putnam Finds A Home On the Southside

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The White Sox signed Zach Putnam last January hoping to add depth to their Triple-A bullpen in Charlotte, optioning him to the Knights following the completion of spring training in 2014. Putnam, who spent most of the 2013 season with the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, was only five months removed from having surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow and joining his fourth team in as many major league seasons. It was not the headlining roster move fans expected to have an immediate impact on the White Sox pitching staff. What a difference a few months can make.

On April 17th, 2014, the White Sox purchased Putnam’s contract from the Charlotte Knights after optioning a struggling Donnie Veal back to Charlotte. Five and a half months later, the 27 year-old “prospect” would finish the year with a 1.98 ERA, lower than any White Sox pitcher, edging Chris Sale by 0.19, according to MLB.com. He would also record 46 strikeouts, six saves and five victories for the good guys; all significant contributions by a previously unheralded acquisition.

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Putnam relied on a splitter that features significant downward movement to pile up strike outs or induce weak ground balls. He mixed in four seam fastballs and cutters to keep hitters off-balance, but the splitter was his bread and butter pitch in 2014, throwing it roughly 56% of the time, according to Fangraphs.com. As you can see below, Putnam had good reason to put a great deal of trust in his favorite pitch. On April 22nd, shortly after joining the club, Putnam made a relief appearance against the Detroit Tigers, striking out four batters in two innings of work.

The effectiveness of the splitter made it easier for Putnam to throw his cutter and four seam fastball by hitters who were behind in the count, expecting his “out” pitch. Below, we see Houston Astros catcher, Jason Castro, in an 0-2 hole against the White Sox reliever in the top of the 9th inning on July 19th, 2014. At this point in the season, American League hitters had plenty of scouting material on Putnam and had to know how much Putnam relied on his favorite pitch. The threat of the splitter allowed Putnam to throw an 89 MPH fastball by Castro, who was so far behind the pitch you would think Putnam was throwing 95 MPH.

Putnam was adept at keeping the ball down in the zone, away from trouble and out of the reach of opposing hitters. The heat map from Brooks Baseball below illustrates Putnam’s preferred location for his splitter in 2014, which was over the middle, but well below the strike zone.

His ability to consistently keep the pitch low helps explain his impressive 4.3% home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) in 2014. While it may not be fair to expect that low of a ratio the remainder of his career, it’s clear Putnam knows how to keep the ball in the yard.

One thing to keep in mind going into next season, is Putnam’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In 2014, Putnam benefited from a below average .257 BABIP, per Fangraphs.com. Not coincidentally, Putnam’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) is more than a point higher than his ERA, at 3.08. Judging by Putnam’s career FIP of 3.20 and ERA of 3.21, it seems likely Putnam will regress closer to the mean in 2015. The good news is, even those numbers would be better than what the typical White Sox relief pitcher produced in 2014, as the bullpen posted a combined 4.38 ERA in 2014.

Putnam definitely played his way into the White Sox plans for the future and figures to be a stable member of the Chicago White Sox bullpen in 2015. Thankfully, after bouncing around a bit, Zach Putnam seems to have found a home on the Southside.

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