Underachieving White Sox Drop Keuchel and Lose Anderson as Well

Dallas Keuchel
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox have spent the first two months of the season meandering around .500 due to injuries and underperformance. Over the long holiday weekend, they offered reminders of both issues, first designating struggling starter Dallas Keuchel for assignment and then losing Tim Anderson to a groin strain. With Lance Lynn likely to return from a knee injury within the next couple of weeks, the rotation should remain a source of strength for the defending AL Central winners, but Anderson’s absence looms large in a lineup that’s missing several other key players and struggling to score runs.

The 34-year-old Keuchel had pitched poorly this season, with a 7.88 ERA and 6.20 FIP. He’s averaged just four innings per start, walked hitters at the same rate as which he struck them out (12.2%), and served up a career-high 1.69 homers per nine despite being one of the game’s top groundballers. He appeared to be righting the ship with a pair of solid starts against Red Sox and Yankees earlier this month, allowing two runs in 11 innings against the pair on May 8 and May 14, respectively, but both teams pummeled him upon getting a second look, with damage totaling 12 runs in six innings on May 21 (Yankees) and May 26 (Red Sox).

The White Sox signed Keuchel to a three-year, $55.5 million deal in December 2019, and he pitched well enough the following season (1.99 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 1.8 WAR) to place fifth in the AL Cy Young voting. But last year, even while the team ran away in the division race, he was little more than an innings-eater, pitching to a 5.28 ERA and 5.23 FIP in 162 innings and being left off the Division Series roster. Last year’s Statcast expected numbers (xAVG, xSLG, xwOBA, xERA) were actually worse than this year’s numbers:

Dallas Keuchel by Statcast
Year BBE EV Barrel% Hard-Hit% xAVG xSLG wOBA xwOBA ERA FIP xERA
2018 661 87.3 4.1% 32.8% .246 .362 .305 .293 3.74 3.69 3.60
2019 348 88.8 5.5% 38.5% .261 .423 .327 .329 3.75 4.72 4.82
2020 198 86.8 4.0% 31.3% .278 .394 .249 .317 1.99 3.08 4.27
2021 558 88.3 8.9% 39.7% .302 .493 .356 .372 5.28 5.23 6.15
2022 124 88.3 8.9% 34.7% .280 .445 .411 .349 7.88 6.20 4.48
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Looking back, Keuchel’s 2020 expected numbers contained some warnings that his season wasn’t nearly as good as his ERA or even his FIP suggested. His results on his cutter, in particular, were way out of line with his expected results:

Dallas Keuchel’s Cutter
Year % AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff
2018 15.5% .231 .235 .398 .356 .289 .279 21.7%
2019 19.8% .290 .273 .565 .514 .387 .366 16.3%
2020 30.9% .203 .328 .246 .517 .241 .393 21.4%
2021 24.4% .329 .314 .518 .508 .381 .373 17.4%
2022 17.2% .419 .300 .935 .633 .589 .403 21.5%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Note that those odd 2020 expected results, which no doubt owe something to the small sample, bore much closer resemblance to his xBA and xSLG for the following year than to his actual AVG and SLG from ’20. Long story short, Keuchel came out smelling like roses when his overall wOBA allowed was 58 points below his xwOBA, but when his barrel rate more than doubled and his wOBA rose 62 points above his xwOBA in 2022, he was out of a job.

Said general manager Rick Hahn of the move to DFA Keuchel with about $14.1 million still owed: “Obviously, given the back of the baseball card, so to speak, we wanted to give him the opportunity this season to show that he was able to get himself back on track… There was not a magic number of starts, necessarily, that would have been required before we made that decision.”

Hahn cited the reversals of fortune against the Yankees and Red Sox as weighing in the decision:

“In fact, though we had been talking about this internally for a period of time, his starts against New York at our place and Boston at Fenway were impressive enough to continue to give him the ball. Obviously, the trend from the last couple, especially the other night, was enough for us to say it was time to try something else in that spot.”

Keuchel’s departure from the organization, which put him on release waivers on Tuesday, owes something to the initial success that Johnny Cueto has had since joining the rotation in mid-month after signing a minor league deal in early April. The 36-year-old Cueto, who joined the rotation just in time to help the team navigate through a pair of doubleheaders in a six-day span, has pitched to a 2.41 ERA and 2.76 FIP in 18.2 innings over three starts so far. He’s done that while throwing predominantly sinkers (31.8%) and sliders (24.8%) and mustering a higher average velocity on his sinker (92.0 mph) and four-seamer (92.4, thrown 15.2% of the time) than in any full season since 2015, though this is actually the fourth straight season he’s gained a bit of steam. We’ll see the extent to which that holds up, but it’s a promising rebound after injuries limited him to just one appearance last September.

Meanwhile, Michael Kopech (1.29 ERA, 2.71 FIP), Dylan Cease (3.69 ERA, 2.86 FIP), and Lucas Giolito (2.63 ERA, 3.69 FIP) have all pitched quite well. Lynn began his rehab assignment with three scoreless innings for Triple-A Charlotte on Sunday, throwing 39 pitches, and figures to make two more starts before rejoining the White Sox. In the interim, the Sox will likely continue with Vince Velasquez, who has been shaky (5.79 ERA, 5.49 FIP) — seriously, when has he not been shaky? — in the fifth starter spot, or once again recall Davis Martin from Charlotte for a spot start or two. Cease, who is unvaccinated, was placed on the restricted list (as was reliever Kendall Graveman) and will miss this week’s trip to Toronto. As he pitched Sunday, he wasn’t due to start during the three-game set, but he wasn’t eligible to be replaced on the roster, either — leaving the team shorthanded for a few days.

If Saturday was dedicated to the White Sox making a move to replace their weakest starting pitcher, Sunday required them to make plans to replace their most productive hitter. Fresh off a week in which he was in the national spotlight for winding up on the receiving end of comments from Josh Donaldson that Anderson called “disrespectful” (and others called racist), the 28-year-old shortstop left Sunday’s game in the fifth inning after making a standout defensive play on a grounder off the bat of the Cubs’ P.J. Higgins:

Anderson’s right groin strain was apparent enough that manager Tony La Russa acknowledged he would miss time even before the team sent him for an MRI. “He made that spin, not sure exactly if he got his spike stuck or something,” said La Russa. “That’s typical, he goes on the IL making a great play at the time we needed it.”

The White Sox have offered no indication yet how long Anderson will be out [Update: at least three weeks], but amid the lineup’s other injuries, his absence is glaring. The All-Star shortstop is hitting .356/.393/.503; his batting average ranks third in the AL, his 2.2 WAR fifth, his on-base percentage and 163 wRC+ eighth, and his slugging percentage 10th. Elsewhere, the team is also without Eloy Jiménez, who hasn’t played since April 23 due to a right hamstring strain; Luis Robert, who was placed on the COVID-19 injured list on May 24; and Yoán Moncada, who has been limited to 15 games all season due to an oblique strain and a sore left quad, the latter of which has kept him to a single plate appearance over the team’s last three games. While Robert and Moncada (who has hit just .133/.175.250 in 63 PA) could return to the lineup later this week, Jiménez (.222/.256/.333) tweaked his injured hamstring during the second plate appearance of his rehab assignment on Saturday and hasn’t played since.

That’s a lot of talent to lose at once — three of the team’s top four players by WAR last year, even with the various 2021 injuries — and it helps to explain why the Sox are third-to-last in the league in scoring (3.63 runs per game), wRC+ (89), on-base percentage (.290), slugging percentage (.356), and WAR (2.3). So does the fact that five of the team’s top 10 players in terms of plate appearances thus far have a wRC+ of 83 or lower, namely Gavin Sheets (83), left fielder AJ Pollock (65), second basemen Josh Harrison (51) and Leury García (36), and catcher Yasmani Grandal (49). It hasn’t been pretty.

While Anderson is gone, Garcia and Danny Mendick (who was recalled from Charlotte to take Keuchel’s roster spot) are the likely fill-ins at shortstop. Garcia, who’s coming off the best performance of his career (98 wRC+, 1.8 WAR), is hitting just .190/.200/.276 this year, and he’s banged up as well, nursing a bruised side that kept him out of Saturday’s game and limited him to a pinch-hitting role in Sunday’s 12-inning walk-off victory. Mendick, a 28-year-old utilityman, has been bouncing between Charlotte and Chicago since 2019 and is a career .240/.299/.350 (80 wRC+) hitter who was even worse (.220/.303/.287, 68wRC+) last year. Luke Appling ain’t walking through that door.

According to our Playoff Odds, the White Sox left the gate with a 59.2% chance of winning the division, a 72.2% chance of making the playoffs, and a 5.3% chance of winning the World Series. Today, they’re 4.5 games behind the Twins in the AL Central race, and their odds of winning the Central have dropped to 48.0%, with a 64.1% chance of making the playoffs and a 2.8% chance of winning the World Series. More than half a dozen AL teams with worse records would willingly take those chances at this point, but the White Sox need Anderson and the team’s other injured players to return in timely fashion and help offset the other slumping players before they wind up in an even deeper hole.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 month ago

I enjoyed the irony implying that Luke Appling would help a team full of ‘ol aches and pains