White Sox

Flowers a not-so-invisible hand pushing Chris Sale’s success

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Flowers a not-so-invisible hand pushing Chris Sale’s success

ST. LOUIS — As Chris Sale bulldozed his way to tying a major league record over his last eight starts, there’s something he hasn’t done much, if at all.

Shake off catcher Tyler Flowers.

Sale and Flowers have as good a working pitcher-catcher relationship as you’ll find in baseball. Whatever Flowers calls, Sale throws. If an adjustment needs to be made during a game, Flowers will make it and Sale will trust it.

That happened Tuesday night when Sale didn’t have good command of the inner third of the plate. Flowers made the adjustment and called for more two-seamer fastballs away to a righty-heavy lineup and mixed in more sliders than usual — Sale threw 24 percent of the time, up about eight percent from his season average.

The result: Eight innings of one-run ball with 12 strikeouts — all swinging — giving him eight consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts to tie Pedro Martinez’s major league record set in 1999.

“We both trust each other entirely,” Flowers, who's caught all 15 of Sale's starts this season, said. “It just allows him to stay focused on whatever pitch, executing that and not worrying about the preparation as far as pitch sequences and those kind of things. He leaves that in my hands, and I kind of enjoy that aspect of the preparation to help him have success and give us a chance to win.”

As Sale said after a start earlier last month: “Just follow Flow, whatever he’s got, that’s what I’m throwing.”

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The Sale-Flowers relationship is a subtle aspect to the White Sox ace’s success over the last few seasons. The pair worked together during Sale’s brief stint in Triple-A in 2010 and have formed the White Sox battery 74 times, teaming up to limit hitters to a .212 batting average and .591 OPS. In 446 2/3 innings with Flowers behind the plate, Sale has 538 strikeouts.

Those on-the-fly adjustments Flowers is able to make on an inning-by-inning, batter-by-batter, pitch-by-pitch basis have helped keep Sale effective even if he doesn’t have his best stuff or command.

“He’s caught him enough and he can tell if one pitch isn’t as sharp as another,” manager Robin Ventura said. “There is trust when he puts down down different fingers that there is a reason for that. They get along well. They’re in sync, he doesn’t spend much time shaking off and standing out there.”

Ventura said Sale’s preferred rhythm is similar to the one former White Sox starter Mark Buehrle is known for — get the ball, get on the mound and throw it quickly. Having a strong trust in Flowers to call the right pitch in the right location helps Sale find that rhythm and not overthink things.

[MORE: More Rodon could mean more rest for Chris Sale]

The results, especially in 2015, have been staggering. If Sale makes 17 more starts at his current pace he’ll finish the season with 301 strikeouts, a total which hasn’t been reached by a pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002. And if Sale racks up 10 or more strikeouts in his next start — which will be either Sunday or Monday next week — he’ll set a major league single season record for most consecutive starts with double digit strikeouts.

The relationship between pitcher and catcher didn’t develop immediately, but it did develop quickly. And it’s become an important part of Sale’s dominance.

“It’s easier for pitchers to trust in a guy when they have success, and it’s easier for me to have success with him when he can execute, and we have some weapons to work with,” Flowers said. “So it kind of goes hand-in-hand where he gave me a shot to run the game, to run an inning, to run the next inning with some success and it just kind of snowballed into where we’re at today.”

White Sox Talk Podcast: Future looking bright for White Sox rotation

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USA Today

White Sox Talk Podcast: Future looking bright for White Sox rotation

Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber take a look at the young guns in the White Sox starting rotation (Giolito, Lopez and Cease) who are coming off their best week together as a trio and why they are excited about the future (1:00). Ivan Nova has a lower ERA than some of the best pitchers in baseball. Seriously. (5:20). The competition going on behind the scenes with the starting rotation (6:40). What will the rotation look like in 2020? (13:00) and more.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

White Sox Talk Podcast

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With young arms dealing, Reynaldo Lopez sets high expectations for White Sox rotation in 2020

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USA TODAY

With young arms dealing, Reynaldo Lopez sets high expectations for White Sox rotation in 2020

The White Sox starting rotation of the future won’t be complete until Michael Kopech returns from Tommy John surgery. It won’t be complete until Rick Hahn’s front office is done shopping this winter.

But what the team’s young pitchers, the ones throwing right now at the major league level, have done of late has to have everyone feeling good about the starting staff’s prospects in 2020.

Lucas Giolito called his most recent outing, a shutout of the high-powered Minnesota Twins, the “best I’ve ever felt pitching in my life.” Dylan Cease settled down nicely after some early struggles against the Texas Rangers on Friday and called his performance the best he’s had as a big leaguer. Reynaldo Lopez had to leave Sunday’s outing after just five innings, his days-old sickness a little too much to handle, but he didn’t allow a single hit before his departure.

All in all — and that includes recent strong showings from veterans Ivan Nova and Ross Detwiler, too — the rotation has a 2.09 ERA in the last seven games, five of which have ended in White Sox victories.

“We’re excited,” Lopez said through team interpreter Billy Russo after Sunday’s game. “This is a very, very exciting moment for all of us and for the organization.

“I think the expectations that you can have right now and that we have right now for the future are really, really high because we all know what we’re capable of doing. And if we’re just doing it right now, then it’s going to be just part of the process, just continuing doing what we’re doing right now.

“The learning process for all of us, for the young guys, has been outstanding. I think all of us have been learning a lot outing by outing and just putting those lessons on the field, too. It’s not just learning and, ‘OK, yes, learning this today and going to apply it in a week.’ No, you need to apply it right away and we’ve been doing that.

“I think you can see the results and for us as a group, it’s a very good moment.”

To those not so sure, there are perfectly valid reasons to be skeptical about the makeup of the 2020 rotation.

Lopez has been terrific since the All-Star break, his second-half ERA down to 2.82 after the five scoreless innings Sunday, but that doesn’t erase the woeful 6.34 number he had in the first half.

Cease has shown what everyone, including manager Rick Renteria, calls “electric stuff,” but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s got a 5.76 ERA and has allowed a homer in all nine starts he’s made since his promotion.

Giolito has been an ace but will have to show that his transformation from the guy who gave up more earned runs than any pitcher in baseball in 2018 into an All Star is permanent.

Kopech’s next start will be just his fifth as a big leaguer and will come, at the earliest, nearly 19 months after his fourth. And while the White Sox remain confident, there’s no telling, until we see him in action, what kind of pitcher he is following the surgery.

And though Hahn has pledged aggressiveness this offseason, we don’t know what kind of pitcher the White Sox will be able to add this winter.

But all that can be effectively countered by what’s happening right now before our eyes.

“They continue to mature, grow, learn,” Renteria said. “It's not necessarily the outcomes, even though you want those good outcomes to occur. It's what they're feeling in terms of what they believe they're capable of doing in certain moments. They're starting to trust themselves a little bit more and able to execute and get through games.”

No matter what the White Sox front office does this offseason, it figures to have four 2020 rotation spots spoken for: Giolito, Lopez, Cease and Kopech. That’s 80 percent of a rotation made up of homegrown arms, or if you’re a stickler on the definition of “homegrown,” guys acquired in those rebuild-jumpstarting trades in 2016 and 2017.

With Giolito and Lopez dealing of late and Cease getting positive reviews while going through his learning process in his first taste of the major leagues, Lopez’s words ring true. There should be excitement and high expectations for next season. These young arms and what they’re doing right now, not hypothetically but in reality, is part of what makes a transition from rebuilding to contending in 2020 look possible.

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