White Sox bullpen projections not kind

Chicago White Sox pitcher Evan Marshall. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago White Sox pitcher Evan Marshall. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago White Sox answered the question about who would close games for them in 2021 when they signed Liam Hendriks, the top free-agent closer on the market this season, to replace another free agent, Alex Colome.

But baseball in the 21st century means more than just starters and closers. With pitch counts being tightly monitored and workloads being a constant concern for the guys in the rotation, the bridge guys in the bullpen — those valuable, but often overlooked, setup men who get the ball from the starter to the closer — are extremely valuable.

We started looking at projections for the 2021 season by evaluating the starting rotation and we continue in that vein by looking at the other part of the pitching staff.

Looking at two data sets, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts and the Marcels method published at Baseball-Reference, let’s see what 2021 may have in store for the White Sox relief corps.

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At the end, we start with Hendriks, who was dynamite on the back end over his final two seasons with the Oakland A’s. The Australian will be 32 next month and is coming off a shortened 2020 season during which he converted 14-of-15 save opportunities after going 25-for-32 in 2019, when he was named an All-Star.

Last season, Hendriks had a 1.78 ERA and 0.671 WHIP in 25.1 innings over 24 appearances, walking only three — one intentionally — and striking out 37. He had the same 13.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate in 2019 as he had last season, so that wasn’t an anomaly.

Depth Charts projects a bit of a step back for Hendriks — a 3.12 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 68.0 innings with a Fielding Independent ERA of 3.04, 12.50 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.53 walks per nine. Not so sure about that last one from a guy who averaged 1.1 bases on balls per nine innings a season ago.

But Marcels has an even more dire look, projecting a 3.26 ERA and 1.145 WHIOP over 69 innings, with rates of 11.0 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings. That projection is based 53 percent on performance and 47 percent on regression to the mean.

Is Evan Marshall’s last two seasons the real deal for White Sox?

It would not be at all surprising to see right-hander Evan Marshall handle the eighth inning. He will be 31 in April and after a solid rookie season with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, Marshall almost pitched himself out of the majors. The White Sox took a flyer on Marshall after he refused an outright assignment from the Cleveland Indians and it has paid off in spades.

Marshall reinvented himself upon arrival in Chicago, relying much more on his changeup and slider and for a right-hander, he is devastating against left-handed hitters, holding them to a ridiculous .119/.213/.143 slash line last season after allowing a .221/.321/.279 mark in 2019.

Featuring his slider more in 2020 increased Marshall’s strikeout rate from 19.6 percent to 32.3 percent and his walk rate dipped by 4 percent as well.

Depth Charts projects Marshall with a 3.85 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, a 4.04 FIP and rates of 8.55 K/9 and 3.38 BB/9. Marcels is in the same ballpark (pun absolutely intended), with projections of a 3.84 ERA, 1.295 WHIP and rates of 9.1 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9.

That is based on 38 percent performance and 62 percent regression to the mean, so the model is not convinced he can sustain his work of the past two seasons.

The bullpen lost Colome, still unsigned, as well as Steve Cishek (free agent), Ross Detwiler (now with the Miami Marlins) and lightly used Gio Gonzalez (free agent).

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Right-hander Codi Heuer had a tremendous rookie season after making the club coming out of Spring Training 2.0 last July, posting a 1.52 ERA and 0.887 WHIP in 23.2 innings and 21 appearances. He walked nine, struck out 25 and gave up one homer.

Marcels projects a sophomore jinx of sorts — a 3.79 ERA, 1.211 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.5 walks per nine. That is based 19 percent on performance and 81 percent on expected regression. Depth Charts’ figures are a 4.00 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.45 K/9, 3.30 BB/9 and a FIP of 4.16.

Right-hander Matt Foster came out of nowhere as a former 20th-round pick in 2016. He debuted last season with a 2.20 ERA and 0.872 WHIP in 23 appearances and 28.2 innings, walking nine and fanning 31, showing improved velocity.

Depth Charts projects Foster with a 4.72 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 54 innings, with 7.89 K/9, 3.86 BB/9 and a 5.04 FIP. As for the Marcels model? A 3.90 ERA, 1.194 WHIP, 9.4 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 in 67 innings, based on 21 percent performance and 79 percent regression.

Left-hander Aaron Bummer should be healthy after missing most of last season with a biceps strain. He was terrific in 2019, breaking out with a 2.13 ERA and 0.990 WHIP in 67.2 innings and 58 appearances. He walked 24 and struck out 50 and was on target to improve on that in 2020, opening with a 0.96 ERA and 1.071 WHIP in nine appearances and 9.1 innings.

Marcels projects Bummer with a 3.68 ERA and 1.227 WHIP in 44 innings to go with 9.2 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9, based 39 percent on performance and 69 percent on regression. Depth Charts has Bummer at a 3.40 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.67 FIP and rates of 9.32 K/9 and 3.78 BB/9.

Rookie left-hander Garrett Crochet was nearly flawless in his debut, coming up on Sept. 18 and pitching six shutout innings in five appearances, allowing three hits with no walks and eight strikeouts. Crochet is entering his age-22 season after being picked 11th overall last June by the White Sox out of the University of Tennessee.

Depth Charts projects Crochet with a 3.86 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 45 innings to go with an 8.74 K/9 rate, 2.83 BB/9 rate and a FIP of 3.96. Marcels doesn’t anticipate high usage either, projecting a 4.09 ERA and 1.242 WHIP in just 33 innings, with rates of 9.8 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. That projection is based just 5 percent on performance and 95 percent on regression.

The last reliever we’ll look at is 27-year-old left-hander Jace Fry, who had a 3.66 ERA and 1.424 WHIP in 19.2 innings over 18 appearances, walking 12 and striking out 24. He doesn’t figure to get a lot of high-leverage situations, with a Marcels projection of a 4.42 ERA and 1.386 WHIP and rates of 10.3 K/9 and 4.7 BB/9. This rating came from a 45/55 performance/regression split.

Depth Charts forecasts a 4.09 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 10.37 K/9, 5.16 BB/9 and a FIP of 4.18.

The on-field results could look radically different in either direction because outside of Hendriks and Marshall, much of the White Sox bullpen is relatively untested and will likely require adjustments as opponents get more video of them and more scouting data on their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

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But if Hendriks and Marshall can lock down the final six outs, all Chicago will need is for one of the rest of the group to emerge as a seventh-inning bridge from a capable rotation and that will make this pitching staff look very formidable as the White Sox appear poised to make a run in the AL Central.