With Geovany Soto out, White Sox work to get young catchers up to speed

With Geovany Soto out, White Sox work to get young catchers up to speed

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Omar Narvaez started his 54th career game on Tuesday night. He has yet to face the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros.

Kevan Smith has appeared in 12 games. The list of opposing hitters he has yet to familiarize himself with is even longer than of Narvaez.

Yet with Geovany Soto out for several months after he had arthroscopic elbow surgery on Tuesday, the two young backstops are what the White Sox will move forward with for the time being. While both catchers are green, the White Sox like what they have, a studious, intelligent pair who are driven to learn. All they have to do now is get up to speed as quickly as possible in order to aide the White Sox pitching staff.

“We do a lot of videos,” Narvaez said. “Whatever it takes to help the pitchers and the team we do. We talk a lot. We have a pretty good relationship. We’re friends. We’re competing but we’re still friends, that kind of relationship. We help each other. That helps a lot to help the pitchers.”

All pitching coach Don Cooper wants is a smart catcher who will take the information provided and best apply it to aide his staff. It’s critical they know the strengths and weaknesses of their pitchers and of the opposition and figure out how to attack. Though Cooper’s staff has a heavy influence in the preparation, it’s up to the catcher once the game begins.

“They’re holding the brain for that day to a large degree,” Cooper said. “They’re holding the plan to carry out.

“I like our catchers. They’re good. They’re young. They’re into it and they want the information and they want to learn.”

Because they have a combined 66 games of experience, Smith and Narvaez are hitting the books big time. Both spend a lot of time poring over video, reading scouting reports and looking at spray charts trying to get a feel for opposing hitters. Much of it is handled in pre-series pitchers’ meetings and then on an individual basis before each game.

But the White Sox also don’t want to overload their youngsters. Bullpen catcher Mark Salas, who appeared in 509 games from 1984-1991, said he thinks Narvaez and Smith should pick and choose from the information they receive.

“I’d just take everything in that you think is going to work and let the other stuff go,” Salas said. “But the main thing is try to listen and learn and watch. If you’re not playing, then you’ve got to watch the game.”

Starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez said he always advises his catcher to trust whichever pitch is working best that day. If it’s the cut-fastball, Gonzalez wants his catchers to turn to that more often than his other pitches.

Whereas he rarely shakes off Soto, Gonzalez said he won’t hesitate to ask the younger backstops for another pitch. But he also likes the effort to learn he has seen from Narvaez and Smith.

“If we have to shake for a pitch then we’ll do it,” Gonzalez said. “Geo has a lot more experience in the big leagues and he knows the hitters so we feel a little more comfortable going out there and whatever he throws down, trust it.

“But we feed off each other just helping each other out.”

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Narvaez writes down notes after each game to build his knowledge for future use. He said one of the biggest benefits is how Cooper handles mistakes, which are inevitable. The wrong pitch is going to be called from time to time. But Narvaez said Cooper withholds his anger and tries to offer constructive criticism.

“All he wants do is help us,” Narvaez said. “I feel great with Cooper right next to me to support me, supporting what I do and to teach me when I do something bad.”

Cooper realizes how important catchers are to the equation. Rather than having them run scared, he wants them to be ready to handle constructive criticism. Even though he might be angry, Cooper tries his best to hold back.

“If something doesn’t go right, I’ll word it like, ‘Hey, what were you thinking there? Hey, this is what we might be able to do the next time,’ ” Cooper said. “You don’t want them coming back to the dugout like you’ve got a newspaper rolled up and they’re the dog and you’re going to beat the dog. You don’t want that. Nobody wants to work under those situations. But that doesn’t stop me from getting pissed sometimes.”

The way Cooper handles him has Narvaez in a great frame of mind. Given all the ground he and Smith must cover, Narvaez feels like he’s in a pretty good place — and that’s good for everyone involved.

“Things I pick up, that’s when I write it down and next day,” Narvaez said. “ ‘Ok, from this game I picked this and that might help me for the next game. I take a lot from each game I catch.

“It’s always good to learn. For me, I’ve just got to keep an open mind and pick up whatever I can to be better and make the pitchers better. That’s the whole idea as a catcher.”

Derek Holland, White Sox down Royals to salvage series split

Derek Holland, White Sox down Royals to salvage series split

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The way he has thrown and feels, Derek Holland believes he's deserved to wear the daily champion wrestling belt already once or twice this season.

He finally received it on Thursday afternoon.

Following a dominant outing well supported by his offense, Holland proudly bore a championship wrestling belt during his postgame interview. Holland delivered 6 2/3 sharp innings and Jose Abreu and Matt Davidson both homered as the White Sox pounded the Kansas City Royals 8-3 in front of 36,525 at Kauffman Stadium. Holland allowed two runs and struck out seven to help the White Sox split a four-game series with the Royals.

"Definitely (earned it)," Holland said. "I thought I had really good command of everything. For the most part, it's always going to be the defense. If I'm keeping them on their toes, they are going to make the plays. I attacked the zone big time today. My pitch count was fairly low for the most part. My offense did a great job putting runs on the board."

After every victory, White Sox players hold a ceremony to determine the player of the game. Said player then receives the WWE belt that Holland brought with him to the White Sox when he signed a one-year deal for $6 million in December.

Since joining the club, Holland has suggested he's as healthy as ever after three years of dealing with injuries. The veteran lefty said all spring he was excited to work with pitching coach Don Cooper -- that being here had Holland best positioned to regain the form that produced 8.6 f-Wins Above Replacement from 2011-13.

He provided another demonstration of how good he can be against the struggling Royals. Working quickly and mixing all five pitches against an aggressive Royals lineup, Holland soared through the early innings. He made fast work of Kansas City, getting his offense back into the dugout at an expedited rate through each of the first four innings. Holland needed only 41 pitches to complete those first four and his offense rewarded him with five early runs.

"Especially against a team that's kind of struggling right now, you don't want to let them get any momentum," third baseman Matt Davidson said. "We did a good job. We scored our runs, he went out and put up a zero and that's all you want."

"As a defender, he's working quick, he's throwing strikes -- it's everything you ask for."

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Holland could have asked for a little better luck in the fourth when Mike Moustakas ended his streak of 10 straight batters retired to start the game with an opposite-field double just inside the line. Otherwise, Holland didn't find trouble until the seventh, when he already possessed a seven-run lead.

Holland struck out two batters in the first and fifth innings and one each in the third, fourth and sixth. He allowed one earned run, three hits and walked one.

The effort raised Holland's K-rate to 20.2 percent, his highest mark since he finished the 2013 campaign at 21.1. Last season, Holland finished with a career-low 14.5-percent strikeout rate.

He also lowered his ERA to 2.02 in 35 2/3 innings.

"I think he's doing exactly what everybody expected of him to be honest," manager Rick Renteria said. "He's been around, he's a veteran presence. He came in wanting to have success. He's been doing a really nice job, throwing a lot of strikes, mixing in secondary pitches very well.

"He's very poised out there and continues to give us innings and keeps us in the game and fortunately we score a few runs and stay there."

Holland didn't have to be half as good as he was the way the White Sox hit Ian Kennedy.

Abreu gave the southpaw an early cushion when he obliterated a 2-2 fastball for a two-run homer to left center. Abreu's fourth round-tripper had an exit velocity of 113 mph.

An inning later, Davidson hit a 452-foot homer into the waterfall in left center to make it 3-0. A last-minute addition after Todd Frazier was scratched with a stiff back, Davidson also singled and walked in four trips. 

Cody Asche added some padding to the lead in the fourth inning with a bouncing, two-run double down the right-field line. Avisail Garcia put the game out of reach in the eighth inning when he followed a single by Melky Cabrera (2-for-5, two runs) and an Abreu double with a two-run, seeing-eye single to right.

Yolmer Sanchez also had a sac fly for the White Sox, who improved to 14-10 against American League Central opponents. Last season, the White Sox finished 32-44 in the AL Central.

"My job once they do that is to make sure I shut the other team down," Holland said. "I thought we did a good job of establishing in and out, up and down as well. The defense is right there making those plays."

"Once they put up runs on the board I still have to treat it like a 0-0 game. I can't get caught up whatever they do. I have to get out there and do my job."

He did once again and it finally resulted in a championship belt.

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

He absorbed a ton of information in spring camp, but perhaps it’s what Michael Kopech observed watching Jose Quintana that could help most.

For five weeks in big league camp, the extremely motivated White Sox pitching prospect gleaned every piece of information he could from more experienced teammates.

Kopech and veteran starting pitcher James Shields discussed pitch sequencing and the importance of the changeup. Infielder Tyler Saladino talked with the No. 14-ranked prospect in baseball about visualizing success. Catcher Geo Soto told Kopech pretty much everything about life in the majors.

But even though he didn’t say much, Quintana’s practice sessions may have provided the most valuable lesson of all. The key takeaway, Kopech said, is how Quintana performs every action with a purpose. The young pitcher knows how critical the example Quintana provided is to his development and wants to implement a similar approach.

“(Pitching coach Don Cooper) likes to call it focused practice,” Kopech said. “For me that’s one thing I haven’t done well, is get locked in. You have to be locked in all the time. That’s something that came from Coop and all the big leaguers I was around. Quintana is a great guy to watch when it comes to stuff like that.

“That’s a guy that is a definition of a silent leader. He doesn’t talk about much. He goes and gets his work in and you can just watch him and know that’s the way the game should be played.”

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Kopech took a nice step forward in his development on Tuesday night when he pitched a season-high six scoreless innings for Double-A Birmingham. He struck out eight and allowed a hit while walking four and lowered his ERA to 2.50. The Texas native had only compiled 12 innings in his previous three outings because of “hit-and-miss” fastball command that led to 10 walks.

Along with perfecting his fastball command, one of the keys to Kopech reaching the majors is an increase in workload. Kopech — the 33rd overall pick of the 2014 draft — has never pitched more than 78 2/3 combined innings he produced last season. The White Sox would love for Kopech to reach the 180-inning mark by 2019.

“He doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He hasn’t been able to have that build up so that’s something we’re going to make sure he can focus on. We’re going to make sure he’s in the right spot so we can do that properly.”

In order for Kopech to eventually hit that mark, he’d need to pitch between 110-130 innings this season and then throw around 160 innings in 2018. But to reach those figures, Kopech must first pitch deeper into games.

Through his first three starts, Kopech worked on a strict pitch count that varied based on performance. If he was on, he could throw as many as 85 pitches. But if he ran into command issues, Kopech might only throw 75.

On Tuesday, Kopech pitched well enough to throw 95 pitches (65 strikes) against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. He thinks the key to consistency in games is directly tied to his effort in between. It’s yet another area where Kopech — who reads self-help books, is into Cryotherapy and salt baths and eats meals on the road pre-prepared by his nutritionist — strives to improve.

“From Day 1 to Day 4, you need to be just as focused as Day 5,” Kopech said. “I can’t stress that enough. If my bullpen tomorrow I lose a little focus, then I know I need to get right back into it to prepare for my next start. That’s something that’s going to have to kick in sooner than later.”

Birmingham manager Julio Vinas likes how Kopech has handled himself early in the season. Vinas thinks Kopech has the proper mindset and tools to be a special pitcher.

‘He’s got the right mentality and now it’s executing and it’s going to be there,” Vinas said.

He may have been there this spring, but Kopech preferred to not be seen or heard by his veteran teammates. Kopech couldn’t do anything about the onslaught of attention the media paid to him after he came over with Yoan Moncada in the Chris Sale trade. But he could control the rest of his time around teammates. Little by little, he’d engage the veterans without drawing too much attention.

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“I just didn’t want to make it about me,” Kopech said. “It was my first big league camp and a lot of those guys are getting ready for a big league season and I’m competing for a job that’s not necessarily on a big league roster right away. I was just trying to take care of my business. All ears, not really any talk and take away as much as I could without pissing anybody off, really.

“I got the chance to face some good hitters and take away a lot of knowledge from older guys and I think that’s the best I could do to prepare for the season.”

But Kopech agrees the best preparation came from watching Quintana, who Cooper always lauds for his practice effort. Kopech hopes to be able to emulate how the 2016 All-Star pitcher handles himself soon enough.

Kopech thought he focused well from the second through the fourth inning in an April 20 start at Tennessee. But he wasn’t as pleased with his effort in the first and fifth innings.

“That’s the way I want to lock in when I’m on the mound,” Kopech said of Quintana. “I haven’t been doing that, but it’s something I’m going to work on going forward.

“I have to remind myself to stay locked in even though I’m doing what I always do because I need to have the same focus (in practice) I do when I’m pitching on the mound.”