White Sox

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

The rumors are true: Madison Bumgarner has thrown a lot of innings.

But let’s not pretend the only 30-year-old Bumgarner is some sort of withered husk of his former self. Mostly because he’s only six months older than me, and I’m not ready to be a withered husk yet.

Figuring out how much gas the longtime San Francisco Giant has left in the tank is certainly going to be top of mind for the White Sox after they missed out on Zack Wheeler, who took less money than the South Siders were offering to go play for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re now forced to look elsewhere in their quest to upgrade the starting rotation, and Bumgarner leads a pack of free agents still on the market, a group behind elite arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg that also includes Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

There are legitimate concerns over what kind of effect 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have on a pitcher who will get a multi-year contract. Bumgarner wasn’t the same pitcher in the last three seasons as the one he was from 2013 to 2016, when he finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four years in a row. But there were some promising developments in 2019 to suggest there’s plenty of life left in his arm.

Bumgarner made just 38 starts in 2017 and 2018, shelved with freak injuries: He injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident in 2017 and was hit in the hand with a line drive in 2018. Then he turned around and made 34 starts in 2019, the most in baseball. Those specific injuries shouldn’t ring any alarm bells when it comes to long-term health concerns.

Then there are the numbers, some of which ticked up significantly in 2019. Yes, his 3.90 ERA was a career high, but it was still lower than the 3.96 ERA Wheeler delivered. But Bumgarner finished the season with an 8.8 K/9, his highest since 2016, and a 1.9 BB/9, a dramatic drop from the 3.0 BB/9 he posted the year prior. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best of his 11-year big league career.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pointed out, Bumgarner’s fastball in 2019 was as fast as it had been since 2015, and the increase in his fastball’s spin rate — for all you spin rate fans out there — from 2018 to 2019 was the biggest jump in the game.

Of course, not everything was sunshine and lollipops. In 2019, Bumgarner finished with the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, with 43.8 percent of the batted balls he gave up hit hard. His 35.8-percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career. And while 207.2 innings — the most he threw in a season since 2016 — had a lot to do with certain stats looking large, he did give up a career-high 30 home runs and a career-high 90 earned runs.

Who knows whether Bumgarner will receive the same five-year deal that Wheeler did. Wheeler might be of similar age, just eight months younger than Bumgarner, but has a significantly less taxed throwing arm after he missed two seasons due to injury. But speculation abounds that Bumgarner will receive a similarly expensive deal, one richer than $100 million after Wheeler agreed to a $118 million pact with the Phillies — and turned down a contract offer worth more than $120 million from the White Sox.

Bumgarner, though, brings plenty Wheeler never could. He’s a three-time World Series champ and arguably the best pitcher in World Series history, with a 0.25 ERA in five Fall Classic games. That kind of winning experience would be invaluable to a team like the White Sox, whose veteran leader, while incredibly deserving of his status in the clubhouse, has played for sub-.500 teams in all six of his major league seasons.

In that regard, because their resumes are so similar, Bumgarner can be a Jon Lester of sorts for this Chicago rebuilding effort. Lester was the first big-name player to sign up with the then-rebuilding Cubs, inking a gigantic free-agent contract after a 2014 season in which the Cubs — who had yet to even call up Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber — lost 89 games. With Lester (and those youngsters) aboard, the Cubs went to the NLCS in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016.

Coincidentally, the 2019 White Sox also lost 89 games. Coincidentally, Lester was also 30 years old and had World Series rings on more than one finger when he signed his big deal. (For what it’s worth, Lester had logged a combined 1,680 regular-season and postseason innings when he joined the Cubs.) Bumgarner buying into the vision on the South Side would be oh so reminiscent of Lester doing so on the North Side.

Lester was more than just a symbol for those Cubs teams, pitching as well as — if not better than — any pitcher they’ve had (save maybe Jake Arrieta) since he signed. Bumgarner would have to do the same to have the same kind of impact, obviously. But the jumps in those statistics just in 2019 signal he could be capable of doing just that.

This isn’t to say the White Sox “lucked out” in missing out on Wheeler or that Bumgarner is guaranteed to be a slam-dunk success for whichever team he signs with. But there are still some very good options on the free-agent market, even past Cole and Strasburg — who, it should be noted, the White Sox haven’t been tied to much at all, with MLB Network’s Jon Heyman going as far to say there’s “no belief” the White Sox would be in on either.

And the White Sox, if they’re indeed pursuing Bumgarner already, are likely to face steep competition, just like they did in the Wheeler sweepstakes. The Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to the lefty, too.

There are reasons to question the pursuit of any player, Bumgarner included. But he can provide so much for a young rotation and a young team. Plus, he’s still a damn good pitcher. We’ll see if the White Sox willingness to spend the biggest bucks on Wheeler applies to their next target, too.

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After two busy years with Joe Maddon, 'beautiful man' Steve Cishek ready for more with White Sox

After two busy years with Joe Maddon, 'beautiful man' Steve Cishek ready for more with White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joe Maddon called on Steve Cishek an awful lot during the right-handed reliever’s two years on the North Side.

Cishek wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“You get paid a lot of money to play this game, I want to make sure that I’m keeping up my value,” Cishek said Wednesday at Camelback Ranch. “You get paid to go out there and pitch and perform. I take a lot of pride in that, I want to make sure I’m going out there and giving everything I possibly have. Hopefully my teammates and organization reap the benefits of that.

“That’s always been my approach. I always try to make myself available. I prepare every day and take care of my body to the best of my ability using the staff that we have to hopefully give the manager the option to use me during the game.”

Cishek’s pitching on the South Side now, one of the many veterans Rick Hahn’s front office brought in to complement the young core and build realistic postseason expectations for the 2020 campaign. During his two years with the Cubs, Maddon called on Cishek a combined 150 times. In 2018, only one pitcher in baseball, Brad Ziegler, made more appearances. In 2019, Cishek again ranked in the top 25.

That’s a lot, but it never seemed to make Cishek any less effective: In those two seasons, he had a combined 2.55 ERA.

While plenty have suggested that Maddon's use of Cishek had some sort of detrimental effect on the pitcher, as Cishek's words illuminate, he’s always game to head to the mound. That attitude is what made Maddon use Cishek so much. It’s what made Maddon love the guy.

“'Shek is one of the finest teammates you’re ever going to find,” Maddon, now managing the Los Angeles Angels, said Tuesday during Cactus League Media Day. “I love him because he’s so durable, but he’ll tell you when he needs a day, which is important. He’s fearless.

“This guy, you’ve got to be careful because he’ll keep wanting to go out. This guy wants to play all the time. So you have to have a conversation to know when he needs a day.

“But he’s a beautiful man, and I’m going to miss him.”

It’s hard to find many better compliments than that. When told about what his former skipper said, Cishek laughed and said: “Thanks, Joe.”

But even though Cishek is no longer playing for Maddon and the Cubs, he’s ready to continue the same kind of thing he was doing up north. Rick Renteria can expect to have at his disposal a pitcher who’s ready to go every day.

“That’s what the offseason’s for. I don’t really mess around much. I prepare and try to get my body to endure a long season,” Cishek said. “I do everything that I’m able to do because I don’t want to go out there and not be able to perform or be hurt, not able to help the team win. So that’s what I focus on when I prepare for these games.”

Cishek figures to be a big factor at the back end of the White Sox bullpen in 2020, someone who can provide durability and reliability to a unit, regardless of team, that could always use more of that.

The White Sox bullpen was pretty good in 2019 and returns many of the arms that made it that way: Aaron Bummer, Alex Colome, Jimmy Cordero and Evan Marshall. But as Hahn will tell you, there’s a good deal of volatility with relief pitching. So bringing in someone with Cishek’s track record of not just pitching a lot but pitching a lot and pitching well figures to be a successful addition.

“You always anticipate a good result when he pitches,” Maddon said. “Always.”

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The story of Luis Robert's mammoth home run over the bull in Durham

The story of Luis Robert's mammoth home run over the bull in Durham

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Home runs simply don’t sound like this.

“We were all in awe.”

Those who were there say they’ve never seen one hit like this, either.

“It just disappeared into the night. The ball just kept on truckin’.”

Last August, White Sox prized outfield prospect Luis Robert grabbed a brand new bat in the Charlotte Knights dugout. From the on-deck circle, he joked to his teammates he was going to hit a home run.

“Because when I get a new bat I usually hit homers,” Robert said.

What happened next on this memorable night in Durham, N.C., only adds to the legend of Robert. He is still in the infancy of his young baseball career, but is already telling a special, even mythical story that will soon be adding many chapters when he makes his major league debut this spring in Chicago.

Those who witnessed Robert completely obliterate this one helpless baseball say they will never forget what they saw. They’re still talking about it six months later.

“I think everyone just looked at each other like, did that really just happen?” said Nick Madrigal, who was standing on first base.

Robert’s towering home run went so far into the darkness, nobody has any idea where it actually landed, which is even more perplexing considering what stands in left field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Triple-A stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

First, there’s a 32-foot high fence they call the Blue Monster, named after the famous Green Monster at Fenway Park. Beyond that, there’s a concourse and concession area. And even beyond that, stands a massive 25-foot high snorting bull, made famous in the 1988 movie, "Bull Durham."

Durham Bulls players win a free steak whenever they hit the bull with a home run.

Robert’s homer sailed high over everything: the fence, the concession stand, even the enormous bull. Nothing but gravity could stop it.

“That was honestly the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. He should have gotten a steak for hitting it over the bull,” catcher Zack Collins said.

Robert believes it was the hardest contact he made on a baseball last year. Watching as the ball left the stadium (and possibly the city of Durham) in a heartbeat, his teammates aren’t going to disagree with him.

“One thing that stands out about that home run is how fast it got out. It got out in what felt like a matter of seconds,” Madrigal said. “It was still going by the time it got over the bull. That was one of the hardest hit home runs I’ve ever seen.”

Everyone in the ballpark watched in awe as the ball rocketed into infinity, everyone except Robert, of all people.

“When I hit that ball, I didn’t follow it. I didn’t know how far the ball went,” Robert explained through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Then my teammates told me how far it went and then I saw the video and I was impressed with myself. I saw in the news that they didn’t know if the ball has landed yet.”

Maybe it still hasn’t.

“The pitcher knew it immediately,” said Danny Mendick, who was playing shortstop that night. “And everyone (on the Bulls) just put their head down and was like, ‘Let’s just pretend this didn’t happen.’”

Robert began to realize the sheer enormity of his home run as soon as he trotted to first base.

“I remember I was running the bases and the first baseman said, ‘Damn bro,’” Robert said. “And the Latinos from the other team were saying, ‘You are an abusador.’”

That’s Spanish for the word “beast.”

“What I remember about that game was that homer. He hit the ball really high and it was over the bull,” said Yoan Moncada, who happened to be on a rehab assignment and batted in front of Robert that night. “It was impressive. When I played in Triple-A, I didn’t see anybody hit a homer like that.”

Which begs the question: has anyone ever hit a ball that far at that ballpark?

Scott Strickland is the assistant general manager of operations for the Durham Bulls. He’s worked there for 16 years. Is Robert’s home run the farthest ball he’s ever seen hit there?

“Yes. I would agree with that. I would absolutely agree with that,” Strickland said. “The way it disappeared, everyone was in shock. It was very quiet in the ballpark because it was so shockingly well struck.”

How far did it actually travel? No one will ever know, but what about an estimate?

“That ball more than likely landed on the street that’s behind the office building,” Strickland said.

So for the record, that would mean Robert hit the baseball over the fence, over the concession stand, over the 25-foot bull and now over an office building.

“I would estimate that he hit it north of 450, but probably between 450 and 475," Strickland said. "The hard part there is, that ball was still going up. It’s not like it was coming down as it was going over the bull’s head. It was still going up.”

That sounds more like over 500 to me.

And here’s the crazy part. Robert doesn’t think this was the longest home run he hit last season.

“The farthest I think was the one I hit in Birmingham. It was over the scoreboard,” Robert said.

If you’re wondering whatever happened to the bat Robert used to launch this majestic home run, it didn’t have much of a shelf life.

He says it eventually broke.

Robert played 47 games for Charlotte last season, slashing .297/.341/.634. The rest of the International League likely rejoiced when he signed that big extension with the White Sox this offseason, basically punching his ticket for the major leagues on Opening Day.

“He had played so well against us. The question was already going around, ‘What in the world is he doing down here?’ And then he hit that one,” Strickland said of Robert’s home run. “If there was a debate at all of whether or not this kid is a future star or a future big leaguer, then that question was 100 percent answered in that one swing.”

Somewhere somebody probably has the baseball from that one swing.

That is, unless it’s still going.

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