White Sox

Zach Putnam becoming a strikeout machine out of White Sox bullpen

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Zach Putnam becoming a strikeout machine out of White Sox bullpen

Four of baseball’s top five relievers at generating strikeouts feature mid-to-upper 90’s fastballs and devastating breaking balls. The other is Zach Putnam.

The 27-year-old White Sox reliever is averaging 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings, the fourth-highest rate in baseball. He’s doing it with his sinker/cutter/splitter combination, baffling opposing hitters with pitches that range between 84 and 89 miles per hour.

Putnam doesn’t fit the profile of the hard-throwing, strikeout machine relief pitcher. But he’s nonetheless up there with Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman (15.7 K/9), New York’s Andrew Miller (14.7 K/9) and Dellin Betances (14.7 K/9) and Cleveland’s Cody Allen (13.7 K/9). Established power relievers like San Diego’s Craig Kimbrel and White Sox closer David Robertson haven’t generated strikeouts at a rate as high as Putnam.

“I don’t know if it’s surprising, but we know what he’s got and he uses his offspeed stuff very well,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He’ll sit there and he’ll throw out his fastball and be able to get a guy chasing after it, but you know his bread and butter is going to be his offspeed stuff. So he has to be able to throw it for strikes and get guys to chase it. When he’s doing that, he’s tough to pick up.”

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After a rough start to 2015, Putnam’s found that balance and a way to build on his success last year. The right-hander allowed four runs in his first two games this season, but since has a 2.18 ERA while limiting opponents to a .181 batting average over 22 games. 

That he’s having success while striking out so many batters (35 in 22 2/3 IP) is a little more surprising than Ventura is letting on. 

Putnam had one game in 2014 in which he struck out three or more batters, and that came in a two-inning appearance. He finished the year with 46 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings, good for a strikeout rate of 7.6 per nine innings.

Despite that low K-rate, Putnam still had a 1.98 ERA. But he had some luck on his side — a .257 BABIP and 80 percent left-on-base rate.

He’s counter-acted those luck regressions (.319 BABIP, 73.6 percent LOB rate) by striking out tons of hitters so far this season. His splitter has been an effective out-pitch — he’s throwing it on three of every four pitches with two strikes, and opposing hitters are whiffing at it nearly 25 percent of the time.

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Putnam credited his catchers with setting up ideal pitch sequences to generate plenty of swings and misses so far.

“Honestly, I’d like to thank Geo (Soto) and (Tyler Flowers) for that more than anything,” Putnam said. “I’m doing everything the same. I trust those guys to put down the right fingers. They do a lot of research, they work real hard trying to figure out what’s going to be the best pitch in the right spot to certain guys and they’ve done an unbelievable job with me and the rest of the staff.”

After his rough beginning to the season, Putnam and pitching coach Don Cooper made a few minor tweaks to his mechanics that he said have helped. With his memories of his strong 2014 season still fresh, he was able to trust his ability to get major league hitters out, too.

Putnam has only recently been eased into some higher-leverage situations, and as recently as June 13 he coughed up two runs and was saddled with a loss in a 5-4 defeat to the Rays at Tropicana Field. But as long as he’s racking up strikeouts, Ventura plans on turning to him in those pressure-packed spots going forward.

“He’s worked his way into getting into some tough situations, as far as innings and those tougher, late innings, where there’s no room for error,” Ventura said. “He’d done a really good job of coming in there and bridging that gap to where we can get to (Zach) Duke or Robertson.”

White Sox Talk Podcast: Rebuild advice from 3 Houston Astros All-Stars

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Rebuild advice from 3 Houston Astros All-Stars

With the White Sox in the middle of a rebuild, Chuck Garfien spoke with 3 Houston Astros All-Stars who explained how they went from a rebuilding team to World Series champions. Jose Altuve, George Springer and Alex Bregman talk about how they dealt with losing, how they learned how to win, the importance of adding veterans to the young core, and how they kept hope alive during the rebuild.  Then later, Chuck spoke with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain trying to understand how he dominated the White Sox for so many years.

Jose Abreu didn't come to White Sox looking for leadership role, but he's the face of the franchise on the All-Star stage

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu didn't come to White Sox looking for leadership role, but he's the face of the franchise on the All-Star stage

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jose Abreu didn’t come to the White Sox to be a leader. But that’s what he is as he took his spot among the best in baseball at Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.

Abreu is the face of the South Side baseball club and he’s had a stellar-enough first four and a half seasons in Major League Baseball to earn the distinction of a starter in the Midsummer Classic. But Abreu, unsurprisingly, doesn’t look at himself as one of the best in the game. He looks as himself as a hard-worker.

“I don’t believe that I’m the best,” Abreu said through a team translator on Monday. “I’m just a person who likes to work hard every day and try to do my best.”

That humility is nothing new to folks who follow the White Sox on a regular basis. And neither is talk of Abreu’s work ethic, the admiration of everyone involved with the team and a constant talking point from Rick Hahn, Rick Renteria and all Abreu’s teammates.

Abreu has become as important for his off-the-field roles as he has for his on-the-field production for this rebuilding White Sox team. He’s been described as a role model for all the young players in the organization, whether they’re on the big league roster right now or coming up through the system.

“None of them have told me that yet,” Abreu joked. “But I know that. It’s definitely a compliment, and I take it as something that makes you feel good, something that makes you keep moving forward and to keep trying to help the guys to improve and get better as a team. You feel like that is a big honor, that people think that way of you.”

As good as he feels to be held in such esteem, Abreu didn’t set out to be one of this team’s leaders when he came to the United States. And to be honest, he might not be in his current position if it weren’t for the team’s rebuilding effort. Abreu is one of the few veterans on this team.

“That was something that happened. I didn’t look for it,” Abreu said. “I was always trying to help people and trying to give advice to help people to improve. But I never tried to be a leader. If people say that because of what I do, that’s good, but that’s not something that I’m trying to force or something that I say, ‘I want to be a leader.’ No, that’s not who I am. I am just the kind of person who likes to help people, who likes to give advice.”

Abreu is seemingly the definition of what the White Sox want their next winning roster to be full of. And whether it’s the special relationship he has with fellow Cuban Yoan Moncada or the role-model status he holds in the eyes of his other teammates, both current and future, he’s helping the White Sox develop those kinds of players.

Oh, and he’s generally — though this season has seen an extended slump and atypical numbers — one of the most consistently productive hitters in the game.

Who wouldn’t want all that as the face of the franchise?

“It’s all a blessing. I can’t ask for anything else,” Abreu said. “I’m a true believer that if you work hard, good things are going to happen. That’s why I work hard every day, I try to do my best, I try to improve every day and just to be a better person. Not just a better player, but a better person.”