When faced with a roster with limited talent and a miniscule chance of competing for a playoff birth, roster experimentation is met with little risk. After a 2013 campaign in which they finished 63-99, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn decided to run a trial with his bullpen construction. He traded closer Addison Reed and let set-up man Jesse Crain walk in free agency. Later in the off-season, they picked up relievers Ronald Belisario, Zach Putnam, Scott Downs, and Mitchell Boggs on short term deals. As many around the league began to notice, it seemed as if Rick Hahn had picked his bullpen candidates solely on the merits of their skill in induce ground balls.
The strategy had good rationale behind it; the park that the White Sox play at has the third highest park factor and second in terms of home runs according to Fangraphs' park factors. In short, it's a fly ball pitcher's worst nightmare. So the Sox built a bullpen saturated with ground ball pitchers, hoping to counter their park's built-in disadvantage.
As we check back in on the Sox bullpen at the All-Star break, it looks quite grim on the South Side. Of course, they own the best ground ball percentage in the league at 54.4% and a respectable HR/FB rate at 8.1%. However they are in front of only the Twins in terms of K/9, with an abysmal 6.95 rate. Their FIP is also the second worst in the majors, at 4.19. While they have seemingly succeeded at inducing a ton of ground balls, their FIP has risen by nearly half of a run since last year. Scott Downs posted a 149 ERA- before being designated for assignment and subsequently cut. Mitchell Boggs has posted a 9.50 ERA in AAA Charlotte and doesn't appear to be anywhere close to getting a big league look. Ronald Belisario has an ERA- of 126 although his 92 FIP- makes him seem serviceable. Even Matt Lindstrom, projected to be closer going in has a 118 FIP-. Zach Putnam, Jake Petricka, and Ronald Belisario are the only players to have been above league average in terms of FIP-.
It seems quite apparent that Hahn's experiment has failed. However, this is not the type of experiment that will cost a general manager his job. In fact, putting myself in the shoes of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, I'd consider Hahn's trial as even commendable. As of Sunday, July 13th, the White Sox are 10.5 games back in their division, going nowhere fast. The construction of a cheap bullpen built on ground ball pitchers was Hahn's attempt at arbitrage. It was a low-risk gamble financially, with the potential upside in that he finds a collection of pitchers that are of paramount fit in U.S Cellular.
Hahn has already cut ties on Downs and many other relievers are likely to walk after this season. He has yet to show the propensity to spend significant money on relievers and will likely look again for bargains on the free agent market. However this time, it may not be the group of pitchers with high ground ball and low strikeout rates.
All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs. Transactions come from MLB.com.
Daniel Schoenfeld is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He will be a freshman at Colby College this fall. He's had Tommy John and will testify that it isn't very fun. He can be found on Twitter at @DanielSchoe.