It remains difficult, if not impossible, to predict what’s going to happen in this most bizarre of baseball seasons.
Major League Baseball has been off for three months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a money fight that wouldn’t end — and quite honestly never did end. Now, the 2020 season is finally a go, though it will feature just 60 regular-season games in a sprint to the postseason.
There’s a list of unknowns a mile long, but there are certain attributes about certain players that could point to them thriving in such a format. The White Sox have some such players.
He’s done it before. Just last year, as a matter of fact.
In 2019, Keuchel had to wait until June for a job, his free agency saddled with draft-pick compensation that kept teams away until after the draft. He ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves and performed well, with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts. He made two starts in the playoffs, allowing four runs in eight innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.
So while Keuchel won’t be pitching for a job this time around after signing a three-year deal with the White Sox over the winter, he’s one of the few players with experience when it comes to sitting around and trying to stay in shape while waiting into the summer for his season to begin.
With all the changes that could be coming to how teams handle pitchers this season — especially veteran arms with more mileage on them — perhaps Keuchel's 2019 experience will translate. While everyone else is trying to navigate uncharted territory, in some way it could be more like business as usual for him.
The player set to benefit from the unknown condition of pitching is the player who takes his walks.
The biggest mystery heading into the season seems to be how pitchers will fare, if they’ll be in good enough shape to be their typically effective selves. Well, if they aren’t, or even if just some aren’t, they could struggle with their command. And the guy who ranked fourth in baseball in walks last season could reap the benefits.
Grandal brings something that the White Sox have lacked, and that’s someone who gets on base via the free pass. They ranked dead last in that category last season, with 378 walks, while Grandal walked a career-high 109 times all by himself. He was expected to improve the lineup in that category even when the season was supposed to be 162 games long.
Now that pitchers could potentially be missing all over the place, someone with a patient eye at the plate and willing to take a free base could get on base, get into scoring position and give his team a chance to score more runs.
Grandal can be expected to have a good season for a number of reasons. Additionally, his pitch-framing skills behind the plate could help any White Sox pitchers going through any command issues due to the layoff.
But his on-base skills could benefit him and the White Sox even more in an unpredictable campaign.
Will Kopech be allowed to let it loose?
Caution was the name of the game when it came to how the White Sox were planning on handling Kopech back in the spring. He threw all of one Cactus League inning, and the plan was to start him in the minor leagues to strengthen his arm after his more than yearlong layoff while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Was that how the White Sox were going to limit his innings, through limited use in the minors? Or were there further in-season precautions they were going to take to keep him available for meaningful games come August, September and even October? We never got to find that out.
We don’t know exactly how strong his arm will be three months removed from spring training's abrupt end, but he’s three more months removed from the surgery, too, which should have him as healthy as he’s been.
So with only a small amount of innings needed from all their pitchers, will the White Sox let Kopech crank it up to full go?
That one inning he threw back in spring training was an electric one, featuring numerous triple-digit readings on the radar gun. While the White Sox obviously see him as a starter in the long term, how might they utilize Kopech in this most unusual of seasons? We’re not sure what to expect in that department from any member of this pitching staff.
But Kopech figures to be an elite weapon, and if there’s no innings limit to worry about, perhaps we’ll see him at top form, mowing down hitters all over the place.
Giolito would be a safe bet to thrive in a season of any length following his All-Star campaign from a year ago. But here’s a reason he might be especially well suited to help the White Sox in 2020: the Kansas City Royals.
The White Sox will play one-sixth of their season against a team that Giolito absolutely dominates. In his career, he’s got a 2.75 ERA in 12 starts against the division rivals. Seventy one of his career 398 strikeouts have come against the Royals. That’s more than 17 percent.
Now, obviously, the White Sox always get to play a lot of games against the Royals. In a typical season, they play them 19 times. This year, it will be 10, but those games account for a much larger percentage of the schedule, meaning every game has more meaning.
We still don’t know exactly how those 10 games will be divvied up into series — two five-game series would be smart, to limit travel — but the White Sox should try to get Giolito as many starts as possible in those 10 games. And depending on how Rick Renteria uses his pitching staff in these very odd circumstances, maybe a starter throwing twice in five days — especially if they’re not throwing their usual amount of innings — isn’t as crazy as it’s been in the past.
With one-sixth of the schedule coming against the Royals, Giolito could feast.
Encarnacion has been described as a slow starter over the course of his career, and certainly the numbers back that up. Here’s his career OPS by month:
— April: .752
— May: .827
— June: .932
— July: .879
— August: .881
— September: .850
Now, there are multiple ways to look at this: Is the typical slow start a factor of Encarnacion getting into the swing of the season, or is it related to the cold weather in April and May that rarely favors hitters?
Cold weather often slows down even the game’s best hitters, which Encarnacion has been, with at least 30 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. He won’t have to worry about that this season, with Opening Day coming in late July.
With Encarnacion stepping right into the hitter-friendly hotness of summer, perhaps he fast forwards right to that June number and starts slugging from the jump.
Much like Kopech, Rodon is a guy who was thought of in the spring as a mid- or late-season addition.
But the layoff that paused baseball didn’t pause Rodon’s recovery from Tommy John surgery, and it’s possible the White Sox will be able to utilize him for a greater percentage of their season than they initially hoped.
Much like with Kopech and Gio Gonzalez and any number of pitchers across the major leagues, we don’t know how managers will manage their staffs and utilize certain guys during these odd times. If starting pitchers are only going three or four innings per game, what happens? The White Sox, because of the returning health of Kopech, Rodon and even Dane Dunning, could be uniquely positioned to benefit from a glut of starting-pitching options, deploying more than one of them to eat up chunks of innings on a regular basis.
Or, maybe Rodon becomes a late-inning option for Renteria. The South Side skipper has been vocally opposed to the idea of an opener, like they use down in Tampa Bay, but maybe in this weird season he allows for a change in his stance. Rodon could factor into that kind of strategy, too.
The point being that Rodon is going to do something for the White Sox in 2020, and with a potentially targeted use of pitchers coming up, Rodon could be deployed in really effective ways.