White Sox still searching for bullpen answers

White Sox still searching for bullpen answers
July 6, 2014, 1:15 pm
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On Saturday, Zach Putnam became the sixth White Sox reliever to blow a save in 2014 when he surrendered a pair of runs to Seattle in what wound up being a 3-2 extra-inning loss.

As a unit, White Sox relievers have combined for 11 blown saves and 14 losses (though one of the latter was charged utilityman Leury Garcia) this year. Injuries to Nate Jones — who's still only lightly throwing — and Matt Lindstrom have removed arguably the team's two best relievers from the equation.

And that's left the White Sox with a number of young, inexperienced pitchers to be thrown into the fire of pressure-packed situations. Entering the 2014 season, the trio of Jake Petricka, Putnam and Daniel Webb had only 213 combined days of major league service time.

"You’re seeing them kind of get their feet wet and get in situations that they probably haven’t been in before consistently," manager Robin Ventura said. "There’s probably going to be some growing pains with it and hopefully those guys grow into being able to get it done."

[MORE: With chance to win pitcher's duel, White Sox bullpen falters again]

Putnam entered Saturday's game with a 2.20 ERA, but he's someone who doesn't miss many bats. Weak contact certainly isn't bad, but his blown save was set up by a couple of soft ground balls that found holes to go for base hits. Eventually, Seattle's Michael Saunders made solid contact and ripped a game-tying single.

White Sox relievers have the majors' worst walk-to-strikeout ratio, worst walk rate and third-lowest strikeout rate. In high-leverage situations, Petricka has a 15.2 percent strikeout rate, Putnam a 9.3 percent strikeout rate and Webb an 8.6 percent strikeout rate.

For comparison's sake, Jones has a 25 percent strikeout rate in high leverage situations in his career. That ability to miss bats can become crucial in late-game situations, and it's an ability those young White Sox relievers haven't developed yet.

It's a tough balance to strike, though, since aggressively going after strikeouts can create other problems. In his first month with the White Sox this season, Petricka walked nine 16 2/3 innings. And while his walks have still been high — 15 in his 30 innings since — he's limiting hitters to a .200 batting average while not necessarily focusing on striking everyone out.

"Earlier in the year, I was trying to be too perfect and I'd get myself into hitters counts or even walking batters," Petricka said. "With runners on already you can't come into an inning and do that."

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While Ronald Belisario's been the subject of plenty of fan vitriol, he and Javy Guerra are the two White Sox relievers most likely to get a high-leverage strikeout. But Belisario's strikeout rate in those crucial situations is only about 17 percent and opponents have a .778 OPS against him.

Guys like Petricka and Putnam have generally gotten the job done despite not generating many strikeouts and issuing some walks, too. It's worth noting, though, that 19 of the top 20 relievers as ranked by Fangraphs' WAR are averaging at least one strikeout per inning, a rate only Guerra has hit among White Sox relievers.

But Petricka, Putnam and Webb have all had varying levels of success striking guys out in the minor leagues. And it's worth noting that Jones didn't begin his career as a big strikeout pitcher — he averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings against four walks per nine — and developed into that guy in his second year in the majors.

"Stepping in the first year to where he was with his progression, he started out in the fifth, sixth inning then all the sudden you start seeing him later in games, getting big outs in the eighth," Ventura said. "… It’s missed. You want a guy like that."

Even if the young White Sox relievers aren't there yet, they could wind up developing into the type of guys who don't have to worry too much about bleeders getting through for base hits — the kind of hits that doomed Putnam's save opportunity on Saturday.