The White Sox’ Rotation Could Be Anything

The Chicago White Sox are projected to win 65 games in 2018 and lose 97. That’s fewer projected wins, and more losses, than are forecast for any other team in the league — including the majors’ new go-to bogeyman, the Miami Derek Jeters Marlins. The 2018 White Sox are projected to be the worst team in baseball.

But pretty soon, the White Sox are going to be pretty good. That’s not just me saying so; you believe it, too. A few weeks ago, when Jeff Sullivan asked readers to project out each team’s next five years, you collectively gave the Sox a little over 81 wins a year for each of the next five years — and that includes 2018, during which you presumably expect the Sox to be terrible.

It’s not that 81 wins is a tremendously impressive total on its own. It does, however, represent the 14th-highest figure readers gave to any of the 30 teams. For the next five years, you expect the Sox to be just above average. And, more than that, you expect the White Sox to trail only the Astros and the Phillies in terms of their performance over the next five years relative to their performance over the last five.

And I agree with you. Since kicking off their rebuild last winter with the Chris Sale trade, the Sox have managed to turn their star pieces of yesterday into a tremendous collection of young talent for tomorrow, sufficient to give them (according to Baseball America) the fifth-best farm system in the game and (according to Kiley and Eric) six of the top-100 prospects in all of baseball. So far, so good.

But there’s more road to travel. The team has gotten itself effectively from Point A to Point B of the rebuild. Getting to Point C, though, is a bit complicated, because it’s really two trips in one. The Sox have to (a) discover which of their young players will actually take a step forward in the next few years (as opposed to those who could potentially take a step forward, which is all of them) and then (b) find free agents who can fill in the gaps left behind by those who don’t advance.

The good news is there’s an awful lot of room to improve. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on just the rotation, because it features the most room to improve. The White Sox are currently projected to have the worst group of starters in baseball this year*:

2018 White Sox Rotation
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
James Shields 164 7.2 3.8 1.8 .306 69.8% 5.55 5.58 0.2
Miguel Gonzalez 163 6.1 3.1 1.8 .304 68.5% 5.54 5.52 0.3
Lucas Giolito 143 7.8 4.3 1.4 .304 70.8% 5.00 5.10 0.9
Carson Fulmer 122 6.8 5.3 1.7 .302 69.1% 5.88 5.95 -0.3
Reynaldo Lopez 120 7.8 4.0 1.7 .295 71.0% 5.14 5.30 0.5
Carlos Rodon 112 8.9 3.8 1.3 .307 72.4% 4.35 4.40 1.5
Michael Kopech 83 9.6 5.2 1.4 .299 72.5% 4.77 4.94 0.6
Hector Santiago 27 7.3 4.3 1.9 .294 70.4% 5.59 5.79 0.0
Dylan Covey 9 6.0 4.1 1.5 .311 68.8% 5.49 5.45 0.0

It is not, all things considered, an especially pretty sight. This year, I think, will mostly represent an opportunity for the White Sox to figure out what exactly they have in each of their young hurlers. Chicago seems to think so, too. Don Cooper is still their pitching coach — as he has been since the, uh, don of time — but the Sox have also brought in Dave Duncan as a consultant to provide a second set of eyes and, presumably, help the organization’s young arms along.

So the White Sox have a wide range of possibilities in front of them insofar as their young pitching is concerned, and they’ll attempt to use 2018 as an opportunity to get as many of their pitchers to perform at the top of that range as possible, then fill in the gaps they find left behind them. How wide, precisely, is the range with which they’re working?

Well, thanks to the very kind Jared Cross, who ran these numbers for me whilst in the middle of a family ski trip to Colorado (trips which also, in my experience, have a wide range of possible outcomes), we can take a look at the 10th- and 90th-percentile outcomes, in terms of runs allowed per nine innings (RA9), for each of the Sox’ top seven rotation candidates. All numbers are park neutral, and all columns are sortable.

The Range of What Could Be
Name IP Steamer RA9 Steamer 10th Steamer 90th 10th – 90th
James Shields 164 5.58 7.01 4.28 2.73
Miguel Gonzalez 163 5.57 7.01 4.27 2.74
Lucas Giolito 143 5.09 6.58 3.75 2.83
Carson Fulmer 122 5.92 7.65 4.36 3.29
Reynaldo Lopez 120 5.17 6.78 3.74 3.04
Carlos Rodon 112 4.49 6.06 3.11 2.95
Michael Kopech 83 4.85 6.72 3.22 3.50
SOURCE: Jared Cross, Steamer

The first second- and third-to-last columns are sort of interesting. They teach us some things we already knew (that James Shields can be anywhere between basically fine and truly terrible); some things we didn’t know for sure but could probably have guessed (that the same is true of Carson Fulmer); and some things which, at least, I didn’t know (that the worst-case scenario for Reynaldo Lopez is pretty good for a 24-year-old with fewer than 100 big-league innings under his belt).

But the final column is what highlights just how much uncertainty the Sox currently have surrounding their starting pitching. It’s not just that it’s bad now (although it is), it’s that there’s a pretty solid chance it could be quite good, too. Among starters with as many innings projected as Kopech (83.0), just two have as wide a range of possible outcomes for 2018 — A.J. Griffin and Phil Hughes — and all seven potential Sox starters fall within the top-90 starters league-wide by this metric, which is a little more than 2.3 times as many as you’d expect if this kind of volatility were evenly distributed.

To a certain extent, this is a “young teams are hard to project” story, which isn’t particularly exciting or new. But I hope you’ll also read it as a “rebuilds are hard” story. If everything goes well for the Sox, they’ll look up at the end of the year and feel pretty good about the way their rotation looks for, say, 2020. But if all goes poorly, they’ll spend next winter wondering how they’re going to find pitching to support the big bats they have coming up. It could, honestly, go either way, which is more than can be said for a lot of teams. The 2018 season will be the one where we find out which way it’s headed.

* Not including Hector Santiago, who signed a minor-league deal with the Sox on Valentine’s Day.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

For comparison purposes, how does this sort of variance compare to other rotations around the league? How about compared to other young players?