Kevan Smith

Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers

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USA TODAY

Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers

CLEVELAND -- His young catchers have made enough gains this season with game calling that Rick Renteria isn’t sure if he’d want to add a veteran backstop for 2018.

The White Sox intended for veteran Geovany Soto to be their primary catcher this season with Omar Narvaez serving as his backup. Consecutive elbow injuries for Soto wiped those plans out early in the season and forced the White Sox to employ Narvaez and rookie Kevan Smith, who collectively had almost no big-league experience. But after nearly a full season of learning the league, Renteria said he’s on board if the White Sox decide to bring back Smith and Narvaez again in 2018.

“I would not be uncomfortable taking these same two guys again in the coming year and allow them to continue to grow with those guys that we have because they’ve actually gained some ground in understand what they’re doing,” Renteria said. “Might as well not waste this thing that we’ve been able to gain because of what’s occurred over this season.”

Narvaez entered the season with 34 career games played, including 30 starts. Smith had six games behind the plate with three starts. The loss of Soto to elbow surgery in May put the White Sox in a difficult spot.

“It’s very tough because we play 162 games and these guys have to learn,” bullpen catcher Mark Salas said. “Granted, we play them three in a row, maybe four, and you try to learn the guys. But it’s easier with the Central guys because we play them so much. But Anaheim, we haven’t played them in three months and it’s a process going over them again and getting the feel, seeing what they’ve got and go with that.”

The process has many facets for the young catchers to decipher.

Smith and Narvaez must be totally familiar with their own pitchers and their strengths and weaknesses. Then comes preparation for each opposing hitter and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. The catchers, pitching coach Don Cooper and the pitchers then overlay the two sides to provide a rough game plan. But even then, other factors must be considered, including how that day’s pitcher is throwing.

Smith mentioned that one advantage of game-calling in the majors versus the minors is the consistency of the lineup.

“When you start seeing these teams over and over it’s not like the minor leagues where it might be a new team the next time you face them just because of callups or guys getting sent down,” Smith said. “You can kind of start predetermining a game plan with the guys you’re going to catch against that series and kind of seeing how those guys strengths match up against (hitters) weaknesses. It just puts your mind at ease a little bit and lets you go out and play and kind of slows the game down for you.”

A season’s worth of learning has considerably helped both Narvaez and Smith. Soto has aided the process when he could, specifically being available on the bench at the majority of the team’s home games for counsel. James Shields and Mike Pelfrey have also offered the input only a veteran pitcher can supply.

Salas is hopeful that next season Cooper would feel comfortable enough to allow either catcher to lead a pregame meeting as the White Sox discuss their strategy. Given how Renteria feels, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

“What these two have done over the last three-and-a-half, four months is actually on-the-job training,” Renteria said. “The biggest thing is how they’re going to be able to take a young staff in certain situations and get better and understand how to make adjustments.

“That’s been a huge gain for us.”

'Improved' Juan Minaya adds split-fingered fastball to repertoire

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USA TODAY

'Improved' Juan Minaya adds split-fingered fastball to repertoire

The White Sox wanted Juan Minaya to add another pitch when he casually mentioned a few weeks back he throws a split-fingered fastball.

The hope is to another pitch could help the rookie reliever improve against left-handed hitters. Minaya -- who has converted seven of eight saves with 49 strikeouts and a 4.75 ERA in 41 2/3 innings -- threw a split-finger fastball when he pitched in the Houston Astros farm system. But Minaya said the Astros thought he threw it too hard and discouraged its use. The White Sox are more than happy to have Minaya be able to attack another quadrant.

“The (changeup/split-fingered fastball) has been a nice addition,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “We’re also trying to get him better and more consistent with his breaking stuff.

“Minaya has probably been one of the most improved guys, from the moment we picked him up from Houston, getting his delivery better. He’s throwing more strikes than he ever has with all of his pitches and the delivery enables that.”

Minaya, 27, hasn’t been scored upon in his last five appearances, though Avisail Garcia bailed him out with an assist on a wild game-ending play on Friday night.

Part of that success has come from the addition of the split-fingered fastball, which Minaya has thrown 16 times this month. Before September, Minaya had thrown the pitch only 11 times at the big-league level.

[MORE: Where does Jose Abreu fit in long-term plans?]

Minaya already throws a four-seam fastball, curve and a slider. But the split gives him a secondary pitch for lefties, who have an .829 OPS against Minaya this season.

“You can see he has confidence in it because he’s shaking to it a lot, which I love,” said catcher Kevan Smith. “He needed to throw that off his fastball. He has more than above average breaking stuff, but he broke it out a few weeks ago and we were like, ‘You’ve been holding out on us all season with that.’ That’s just going to bring more value to him, make more effective. A little more confident and successful.”

With the team’s entire original bullpen cast either traded or injured, Minaya has temporarily been thrust into the closer’s role. The mild-mannered righty has handled the ninth as well as could be expected and has shown the White Sox he has the stuff to potentially help out in the bullpen moving forward. Minaya would like to improve his fastball command but is pleased with how he’s handled a tricky situation. He’s also glad to have the White Sox supporting him throwing the split-fingered fastball.

“The other day I was talking with Coop and he said you need to get another pitch for lefties,” Minaya said. “I said I can throw the split, but I throw it hard. He said OK and I started throwing.

“The ninth inning is a tough inning, but you have to go out and compete.”

How Lucas Giolito overcame an inconsistent fastball and thrived against Royals

How Lucas Giolito overcame an inconsistent fastball and thrived against Royals

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Lucas Giolito didn’t have his best stuff on Wednesday and he thrived anyway. Catcher Kevan Smith thinks it has a lot to do with the pitcher’s large frame and the movement on his pitches.

The 6-foot-6 Giolito had poor fastball command early, only induced a few swings and misses and put six runners on base in the first three innings. But that didn’t prevent him from success. The White Sox rookie induced a boatload of weak contact over 6 1/3 strong innings to help send the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium.

“His stuff is moving,” Smith said. “Guys get in the box joking, ‘This guy is 7-foot-5, how am I supposed to hit?’ It’s funny when guys have that perspective with him. It’s fun seeing a pitch that he didn’t hit his spot but guys pop it up. It’s like, ‘All right, something is moving there,’ especially with the caliber of hitters on that side.”

It was evident in the first inning Giolito didn’t have crisp command. He walked two and gave up a single and only escaped with the helped of a botched double steal and a leaping grab by shortstop Tim Anderson.

Giolito’s fastball command issues carried into the third inning when he hit one batter and walked another. But the White Sox rookie needed only four pitches to rebound as Eric Hosmer struck out and Salvador Perez grounded into a force out.

“It was one of those battle days,” Giolito said. “Right out of the gate walking the first batter, two in the first inning. I definitely felt a little out of sync in the beginning.

“But once it got to situations with runners on base and less than two outs, especially, that’s when I really tried to slow the game down to my pace and make quality pitches. We were able to do that.”

The quality pitches early were critical. Consider that Giolito’s fastball averaged 91.6 mph (down from his 92.5 mph average) and he only induced six swings and misses. He also threw strikes on only 58 percent of his pitches (54 of 93).

But the Royals couldn’t take advantage.

“Gio did a nice job of just working through the game today,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He got deep. His ball-to-strike ration wasn’t as effective. This outing might have been similar to his last outing in terms of strike effectiveness. But he kept working through it, got some big outs when he needed to and made some pitches when he needed to.”

Giolito finished with a run and four hits allowed in 6 1/3 innings. He walked three and struck out three. The strikeout total was significantly down from a Sept. 3 outing when Giolito struck out 10 hitters against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Giolito -- who has a 2.56 ERA in 31 2/3 innings in the majors -- suggested that the low strikeout total was because of poor fastball command. But he showed once again he isn’t afraid to pitch around an inconsistent fastball and the Royals struggled to hit what Giolito had. They produced an average exit velocity of only 73.9 mph on the balls they put in play, which resulted in a lot of easy outs.

“I think it depends on the stuff I’m bringing that day, especially commanding the fastball,” Giolito said. “I feel like I missed out on a lot of strikeouts today just not commanding the fastball and not getting ahead of guys as well as I would have liked.

“I’ll take early, weak contact over strikeouts any time just because as a starting pitcher it means you can throw more pitches, throw deeper into the game.”

Smith thinks Giolito can induce weak contact because of his height. Because Giolito is tall, he throws from a different, deceiving angle. That natural ability gives the 22-year-old a chance on days when his fastball isn’t popping like it can.

Only Perez did damage against Giolito with a solo homer in the sixth inning off a 91-mph fastball.

“The big thing for him is angle,” Smith said. “When he gets that he’s almost unhittable. He got burned on that one pitch there. But he did a great job getting through that first inning, dealing with those ups and down.

“Overall a solid outing.”