Homegrown: How the White Sox Built their Bullpen

In an era of Major League Baseball increasingly dependent on bullpen usage, a deep bullpen is an absolute must for any team with realistic World Series aspirations. According to STATS LLC and Baseball-Reference, the league average for average innings pitched per start (IP/GS) was 4.77, the lowest mark since 1901, and down from 5.18 IP/GS in 2019.

While it could have been loosely related to the pandemic season at least in part, the 5.18 IP/GS in 2019 was also the lowest since 1901, so it’s definitely not limited to just the truncated 2020 season.

The Chicago White Sox ranked in the middle of the pack in that department with 4.8 IP/GS in 2020, almost a full inning less than their mark in 2018 (5.5) when they weren’t a team with hopes of contending for a playoff spot. In 23 games last season White Sox starters threw less than 80 pitches, games that were often started by relievers and played as “bullpen games,” a trend that we’ve seen gain league-wide traction in recent years. By comparison, the Tampa Bay Rays who are at the forefront of that trend, had 35 (over half) games in which starters threw fewer than 80 pitches.

The White Sox called on their relievers to toss a combined 239.1 innings, the more than 20 other teams in baseball, and yet they still performed inside of the top-10 in a plethora of metrics as a unit in 2020. The White Sox bullpen ranked third in the American League in wins, accounting for 17 of their 35 victorious decisions, behind only Tampa Bay and Toronto. Here’s how they stacked up in some other areas.

CATEGORYSTATMLB AL
fWAR2.58th6th
ERA3.767th5th
FIP3.988th5th
HR/91.057th5th
BABIP.28010th6th
WPA1.866th6th
LOB%74.17th4th
BB%9.18th7th
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Everyone remembers the bullpen blowing an early lead in the deciding Game 3 of the Wild Card Series with the Oakland Athletics, but that was a small outlier incident in an otherwise very strong body of work for the White Sox bullpen. A bullpen comprised largely of homegrown talent that was scouted, drafted, and developed by the White Sox.

Alex Colome served as the primary closer for the White Sox in 2020, hammering down 13 saves, and is an exception to that statement as he was acquired by way of a 2018 trade with the Seattle Mariners. Outside of Colome, the White Sox leaned heavily on a group comprised of Aaron Bummer, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, Evan Marshall, Jace Fry, and Jimmy Cordero. Of that group, only Cordero and Marshall were acquired from outside of the organization.

Aaron Bummer, widely considered one of the best left-handed relievers in the American League these days, was drafted by the White Sox in June of 2014 with the 558th pick in the MLB Draft. Rookie relievers Codi Heuer and Matt Foster were selected by the White Sox with the 168th and 596th pick in the 2018 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Only Jace Fry, a third-round pick in 2014, was taken in the first five rounds of any given MLB Draft that produced this group of players.

For more on the processes that led up to the selections of these guys, I spoke with White Sox Special Assistant to the General Manager, Nick Hostetler. Prior to being promoted to that position — which focuses more on the major league scouting side of things — Hostetler oversaw the amateur scouting department in Chicago from 2015-2019 as the Director of Amateur Scouting.

Photo: Chicago White Sox

Even before being the head of the amateur scouting department with the White Sox, he was the No. 2 man in that role and the club’s east coast crosschecker, so Hostetler’s fingerprints are all over the last decade-plus of White Sox draft selections.

How do the White Sox hit on their selection of a struggling starter at Nebraska like Aaron Bummer, who fell to the nineteenth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, or a guy like Codi Heuer, who Rick Hahn saw in person for the first time watching other potential draft picks? Strong amateur scouting, that’s how.

Aaron Bummer posted a WHIP of 1.42 with a BB/9 of 3.5 in his final season at Nebraska in 2014, but it was what Nick Hostetler and his staff saw of him the year prior in the Cape Cod League that landed him in the White Sox organization on draft day.

“He was a guy that we saw a year earlier in the Cape Cod League, and he threw out of the bullpen there,” said Hostetler. “We saw him in what we felt was going to be the right role for him [the bullpen], just mechanically, the way the arm worked, we thought that he was ultimately going to be a bullpen guy.

“We saw him there with really good stuff. Velocity was up, breaking ball was really sharp, the slider was really good, and we really liked the athletic ability.”

Despite impressing scouts in a relief role in the Cape Cod League in 2013, Bummer started 15 games for the Cornhuskers in 2014, something that Hostetler says was more a decision based on need and depth for a Big Ten school like Nebraska as opposed to a larger school where pitchers can be used in more efficient roles due to greater depth of talent up and down the roster.

“This happens a lot,” said Hostetler. “This isn’t a knock on Nebraska, but they are not a perennial top-25 school, somewhere short of a Vanderbilt or a Louisville and a lot of times guys can get slotted into roles because their depth at those schools is so good, where at Nebraska Bummer had to go back and be a starter there. It just wasn’t the role for him.”

With that in mind, Hostetler and his team still valued Bummer as a potential fit in the bullpen at the professional level and ended up taking Bummer 558th overall with the hopes that they could put Bummer back into a position where they saw him have success in the Cape Cod League the year prior.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Fast-forward to current times, and Bummer is widely considered one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. The one-time struggling starter at Nebraska signed a five-year contract extension last spring and is now an integral part of the Chicago bullpen.

But Bummer isn’t the only player throwing impactful innings for the White Sox these days that came to Chicago by way of deep scouting that goes beyond your traditional mock draft boards around the internet. Matt Foster, who went 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA and a 9.73 K/9 in his rookie season this past summer, was a pitcher that scout Warren Hughes went to bat for with the White Sox leading up to the 2016 MLB Draft.

“Our area scout Warren Hughes did all of that,” Hostetler said. “He [Foster] was at Alabama and a guy that Warren had known from junior college. He just pounded the strike zone, and I knew that Warren really liked him.”

Hostetler recalled that they weren’t even sure that Foster was going to sign with whichever team drafted instead of returning to college for his senior season the following spring, but credited Hughes for getting that deal done.

“Warren worked on that and ended up getting the deal done with him and we took him,” Hostetler said. “When he first went out he had success doing what Warren said he would do, throwing strikes and pounding the zone.”

The White Sox even considered using Foster as a starter during his early years in the Chicago farm, but quickly realized that Foster’s best path to success was going to be as a reliever, and the organization committed to that role on the player development side. Four years later, Foster was pitching out of the White Sox bullpen in a playoff game after being selected 596th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft.

However, not all of the players in this group were late-round picks that the White Sox saw something in that others didn’t, in both Bummer (2014) and Foster’s (2016) draft classes the White Sox took pitchers in the earlier rounds that are now a part of the mix in Chicago. In 2014 the White Sox took southpaw Jace Fry in the third round of the MLB Draft, and in 2016 they selected Zack Burdi at No. 26 out of Louisville. As Hostetler says when speaking of Burdi, some of these are easier decisions than most.

“He was obviously a well-known guy throughout college baseball and on the [scouting] circuit being a Team USA guy,” Hostetler said. “You saw a mound presence that he was in charge, then when you watch the pure stuff it was 100-plus, power slider, a changeup that did this and that — he was a guy that you looked at and thought that he could be here in Chicago rather quickly.”

While that, unfortunately, wasn’t the case with Burdi, who has battled injuries for much of the time since that 2016 draft, Hostetler said that the makeup that they saw in him back at Louisville is not only a big reason why they drafted him, but a reason that they were confident that he could overcome the injuries that he faced since then.

To me, the most intriguing player of the bunch is Codi Heuer, who was electric in his rookie campaign in 2020. Heuer baffled opposing hitters with a 100 mile-per-hour fastball to the tune of a 27.2 strikeout rate and a minuscule 1.52 ERA in his 21 appearances. Heuer often looked like a guy with future ninth inning stuff, and Hostetler recalls the process of scouting him leading up to the 2018 MLB Draft as one with a tricky story at the center of it.

Heuer was a part of the 2018 Wichita State team that won 35 games and produced Phillies star prospect, Alec Bohm as the third-overall selection in that draft class. According to Hostetler, Heuer was a player that was seen a lot by other clubs because of the demand to see Alec Bohm — and fellow teammate and second-rounder Greyson Jenista — produced.

Photo: Carin Goodall-Gosnell / Wichita State

Hostetler tells a story when Rick Hahn, Chris Getz, and himself took a trip to Wichita State to see the Shockers host Shane McClanahan and South Florida, a game that Heuer was starting opposite McClanahan on the mound for Wichita State, one in which Hostetler hoped that Heuer was good, but not too good in front of a massive scouting presence.

“I told both of them [Hahn and Getz] that we really liked the starter for Wichita State, but I’m kind of hoping that he doesn’t throw all that well,” Hostetler said. “Just because if he throws that well there’s going to be other GM’s there, there’s going to be other scouts there.”

With Bohm a consensus top-five pick, and McClanahan a pick that fits into the second half of the first round, and Greyson Jenista a potential late first-round or second-round pick, it was a delicate balance that Hostetler had hoped to play out that Friday night.

“When both of them came into watch that game, I was pretty nervous,” Hostetler said. “When you bring in a GM to see a player, you want that guy to think that you know what you’re talking about.

Hostetler recalled that Heuer performed well that night, which he did. Heuer tossed eight innings while allowing only a pair of earned runs and secured a win for Wichita State over McClanahan and South Florida. The White Sox ended up taking Heuer in the sixth round of the 2018 MLB Draft just a month later.

It’s often bandied about by fans and pundits the success — or lack thereof — when it comes to drafting in professional sports. The Major League Baseball draft is vastly different than the must-see spectacles that are the NFL and NBA drafts but is ironically held to the same loose grading scale by many. That scale is often simply who did the team take in the first round or two, and are they any good today, completely disregarding the complexity and depth of a baseball draft and the setup of the minor league and player development workings of baseball compared to the other professional sports.

Hostetler knows that his draft classes, and even the ones he was a part of as a scout before 2016, are often judged quickly and without regard for those aforementioned details, and notes that if one is looking for recognition or an atta boy, amateur scouting is probably not the job for them.

Even despite the amateur scouting teams in baseball being vastly misjudged and underrated, Hostetler is proud of the work that the Chicago amateur scouting department has done. As he should be, he and his team are directly responsible for constructing one of the best bullpens in baseball, just as the White Sox open their contention window.


 

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