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Listening to White Sox broadcasts and reading what the beat writers have to say, Don Cooper, who's been the White Sox pitching coach since 2002, is well-respected and very successful. He has been instrumental in developing talented pitchers such as Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and others. Perhaps his shining moment came in the 2005 World Series when starting pitchers Jose Contreras and Freddy Garcia joined Buehrle and Garland to stifle the Houston Astros on their way to the four-game sweep.
When talking about Sox pitching successes during Cooper's tenure, quality starts are frequently mentioned. In half of Cooper's 16 seasons coming into this year, the Sox ranked in the top 10 among the 30 teams when it comes to starting pitchers who lasted a minimum of six innings on a yield of no more than three runs. Guys like Sale and Quintana were masters of the craft.
Keeping the opposition in check for a game's first six innings should produce a winning ballclub, providing that the bullpen can protect a lead, helping the starter to pick up a victory.
However, like so many other statistics today, quality starts don't necessarily lead to winning baseball, although they did for Sale. He started 148 games for the Sox over seven seasons and got decisions in 124 while posting a sparkling 74-50 record.
Quintana, as we all remember, was the opposite, being the king of no decisions. In 169 starts over six seasons, Quintana had a very respectable 3.51 ERA, yet 65 of his starts resulted in no decisions. Because of a lack of offensive support and relief pitchers who couldn't hold a lead, Quintana was a mediocre 50-54 in his years on the South Side.
It's interesting to note that in parts of three seasons with the Cubs, Quintana's ERA has spiked to 3.99, yet he's 21-15. Just 12 of his 48 starts have ended without a decision. Furthermore, as recently as 2015, Sox pitchers accounted for 98 quality starts - only two teams had more - yet the ballclub finished 76-86. There must be better numbers for evaluating the efficiency of a pitching staff.
Let's try ERA.
The Sox finished over .500 for 17 consecutive seasons from 1951 to 1967 when pitching coach Ray Berres was on the scene. He arrived in 1949 and handled the pitchers through the 1966 season. In 11 of his 18 years with the Sox, Berres' pitchers ranked in the top two in ERA in the American League. In only three of those seasons was the staff ERA over four runs per game, while four times Sox hurlers posted an ERA of less than 3.00.
Of course, the game was very different then - fewer home runs, strikeouts, many more balls in play compared to the game today. In addition, Berres' pitchers worked in a very friendly ballpark. Comiskey's foul poles were 352 feet from home plate with the alleys at 375. For most of Berres' tenure, the centerfield fence stood 415 feet away from the hitters. The Sox always had a speedy center fielder, so it was a lovely place to pitch. Without free agency, a guy like Billy Pierce worked 13 seasons on the South Side and won 186 games.
Predictably, Sox pitchers had a higher ERA on the road, usually by about a half-run per game, but they were still good enough to average more than 88 wins over those 17 seasons. Pitching always was the cornerstone of their success.
Berres was adept at recognizing potential in other teams' pitchers, and often encouraged the front office to bring in guys whom he thought could win. Juan Pizarro won 23 games for the Braves in four seasons before coming to the Sox in 1961. In the next four under Berres' tutelage, Pizarro won 61.
Ray Herbert was a sub-.500 pitcher before coming to the Sox the same year as Pizarro. He wound up winning 20 games in 1962. A season later, lefthander Gary Peters, a home-grown White Sox product, arrived and won 19 games as Rookie of the Year. The next season he won 20 and went on to pitch for the Sox for a total of 11 seasons.
Berres was a journeyman catcher in his playing days. In parts of 11 seasons, all in the National League, he hit .216. In those days, teams often carried three catchers because pitching staffs frequently consisted of just four starters and a like number of relievers. Berres was able to hang on because of his handling of pitchers and his defensive ability. He threw out 45 percent of would-be base stealers in his career. That would have led the National League last year.
Berres, who was born in Kenosha, preferred to reside in the bullpen during games. He claimed that he could see things from there that he couldn't from the dugout. He also liked to be around his pitchers warming up to make suggestions and get a sense of how prepared they were to enter a game. There were no bullpen coaches communicating with the manager then. The old coach lived out his life in Kenosha County, dying in 2007 at the age of 99.
Looking at the present situation, the development of young pitchers in the Sox organization appears key to the team's attempt to become a competitive group year after year. Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada have received loads of attention, but young pitchers like Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito are equally as important if this rebuild is destined to bear fruit.
Lopez showed flashes of brilliance last season, but the 25-year-old is off to a miserable this year in his first three starts. Giolito's ERA is north of six runs a game in his three starts after being one of the most ineffective starters in baseball last year.
Carson Fulmer, the Sox top draft choice of 2015, is trying to figure things out at Charlotte, while we need to wait until 2020 for Michael Kopech to recover from surgery. The same goes for Dane Dunning, another prospect who has shined in the minor leagues. Maybe Dylan Cease, who's been outstanding in the Sox system since they got him from the Cubs in the Quintana deal, will show up later this summer to provide what we hope is a bright glimpse of the future.
Of course, there's always a chance that some outlier will burst onto the scene similar to Buehrle, a 38th-round draft choice.
For right now, we have three young starting pitchers in Lopez, Giolito and Carlos Rodon, who registered one of those quality starts Sunday in Yankee Stadium, limiting New York to two runs over six innings. The bullpen stepped up to blank the Yanks over the last three innings, and the Sox rode Tim Anderson's fourth-inning grand slam for an impressive 5-2 victory.
Then there are veterans Ervin Santana - he'll face Kansas City at The Grate on Monday night in the opener of a three-game set - and Ivan Nova, who had an excellent outing in New York on Saturday despite a 4-0 Sox loss.
Cooper and the Sox don't possess much success in the past with pitchers who have tried to resurrect their careers on the South Side. Jake Peavy, Jeff Samardzija and James Shields come to mind. They tried with Francisco Liriano in 2012 but cut him loose only to see him win 16 games for the Pirates the next season.
Is it my imagination that batting coaches are far more prone to criticism than coaches who handle the pitchers? The calls for firing Greg Walker, who left in 2011 along with Ozzie Guillen, ring familiar. That also was the time that Don Cooper received an extension from the front office.
Present hitting coach Todd Steverson, who's in his sixth season, has been the focus of concern in the past. Perhaps it's time to take a close look now at how the pitchers are handled and how they perform.
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