White Sox pitching staff remains in good hands with Ethan Katz

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox
Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox / Ron Vesely/GettyImages

Ethan Katz is arguably the best gift Tony La Russa gave the Chicago White Sox over the past two seasons.

The 39-year-old pitching coach, hired just two weeks into La Russa's second term (2021-22) as White Sox manager in November 2020, is now in his third season in Chicago. La Russa, who retired because of medical reasons after last season is now gone, but Katz is the gift that keeps on giving.

The hiring of Katz, though, might have been La Russa's first surprise as White Sox manager. Little was known about Katz at the time, after all, other than he was the high school pitching coach of White Sox starter Lucas Giolito and continued to coach the right-hander in the off-season.

Katz had spent seven years as a minor league coach and just one at the major league level as an assistant pitching coach with the San Francisco Giants.

This was the guy to replace Don Cooper, the White Sox pitching coach since the middle of the 2002 season. Katz was certainly a bold and odd choice to take over the pitching staff of a team now ready to win after four trying rebuild years. But, it turns out he was one thing La Russa clearly got right in the last two years.

Ethan Katz is one of the best parts of the White Sox coaching staff.

Nobody can blame Katz's pitching staff for the White Sox falling short of the World Series the last two years. The White Sox were second in the American League in earned run average in 2021 (3.73) and eighth last year (3.92).

The last full season the Sox had an ERA as low as the last two years was 2005 (3.61). The 2020 team was at 3.81 but that was in the 60-game pandemic season.

The White Sox also had 13 shutouts in 2021 and 14 last year, the most in back-to-back years since 1972 (14) and 1973 (15) teams had 29 combined.

Only one other Sox team (2011) had as many as 14 shutouts since 1973. The White Sox also had 43 (2021) and 48 (2022) saves in the last two years, its most in consecutive years since 2000 (43) and 2001 (51).

Katz's pitchers also allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in each of the last two years by a wide margin (1,204 in 1,403.1 innings in 2021 and 1,330 hits in 1,447.2 innings last year).

The Sox pitchers also struck out a team-record 1,588 hitters in 2021 and 1,450 last year, the second most in team history.

They led the American League in strikeouts in 2021 and were third last year. The Sox were first in the league in fewest hits, runs, and earned runs allowed in 2021 and second in ERA, and second in fewest home runs (182) allowed.

Of course, the pitching staff must take some of the blame for the 81-81 finish a year ago after winning the Central Division in 2021 at 93-69. But all things considered (injuries, fill-in starters), Katz and his staff were the biggest reason the team finished .500 and not 10 or more games under.

The White Sox did give up 81 more runs in 2022 (717) than the year before (636) but a closer look reveals the Sox finished 11th in the league in runs allowed but also a respectable eighth in earned runs allowed (631). The Sox defense allowed 86 unearned runs last year, its most since 2000 (88).

Katz had to piece together a staff last year that battled adversity all season long. Dylan Cease (1408, 2.20 ERA in 32 starts) had a breakout year under Katz.

But Giolito struggled all year (11-9, 4.90), Lance Lynn (8-7, 3.99) missed his first 10-12 starts because of an injury and Michael Kopech (5-9, 3.54) was able to make just 25 starts.

While the Sox starters were battling injuries and sub-par performances last year, former Sox starter Carlos Rodon (2015-21) was going 14-8 with a 2.88 ERA in 31 starts in his first year with the San Francisco Giants.

It also didn't help that Dallas Kuechel's career came to a crashing halt with a 7.88 ERA over eight starts to begin the year.

Cease was the only Sox starter who was either not injured or was inconsistent for a good chunk of the season. But Katz somehow revitalized Johnny Cueto's career, guiding him through an 8-10, 3.35 season over 24 starts.

Katz also squeezed nine starts each out of Vince Velasquez (3-3, 4.78) and Davis Martin (3-6, 4.83) without the Sox ship sinking.

The bullpen was anchored by Liam Hendricks at the back end (58 games, 2.81 ERA, 37 saves) and Reynaldo Lopez had his breakout season under Katz at 6-4, 2.76 in 61 games. Kendall Graveman was also solid (3-4, 3.18 ERA, 65 games).

But the rest of the bullpen was a rollercoaster ride that severely hindered what La Russa and Katz could do on a given night.

Joe Kelly (6.08 in 43 games), Jose Ruiz (4.60 in 63 games), Matt Foster (4.40 in 48 games), and Jake Diekman (0-3, 6.51 in 26 games) were inconsistent all year. Garrett Crochet missed the entire season with an injury.

Under Katz's guidance, the staff somehow held its own last year despite all of the concerns. Strange managerial decisions, a lack of power and clutch hitting, injuries throughout the starting lineup, shoddy defense, and base running were all to blame more for the disappointing 81-81 season than the pitching staff.

The White Sox staff this year underwent only minor changes after last season. Cueto is now with the Miami Marlins, Valasquez is with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Hendriks will miss time as he battles non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

With Hendricks sidelined, Katz now has to somehow piece together a reliable closer-by-committee bullpen for the first time in his brief pitching coach career.

He pieced together a reliable starting staff last year so a bullpen shouldn't be a major problem, considering he has a bunch of talented and experienced arms to choose from (Graveman, Lopez, Ruiz, Kelly, Foster, Diekman, Aaron Bummer and, if all goes well, the dynamic Crochet at some point).

Crochet is expected to be back on a mound by the middle of May and, if healthy, could resemble a young Billy Wagner coming out of the pen.

Kopech says he's healthy and Mike Clevinger, signed as a free agent last December, could be a significant addition to a starting staff once Major League Baseball's investigation into his off-field issues is resolved.

Katz, La Russa's parting gift to the Sox, deserves the bulk of the credit for the pitching staff remaining respectable a year ago when all else (offense, defense) around them was falling apart.

There's a reason, after all, that Katz was retained by new manager Pedro Grifol as the pitching coach for his first managerial opportunity.

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