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White Sox fans didn’t need to put Kendall Graveman on a milk carton.
But they were treating a three-game stretch without an appearance like a missing persons case.
I get it, the White Sox found themselves in a few close games, the perfect situation to deploy their setup man, right? That Monday’s game was blown in spectacular fashion on a horrific night for the bullpen, and without Graveman taking the mound, didn’t help.
But as Tony La Russa says so frequently, these players are “men, not machines.” And once you understand that, and just how sky high the White Sox’ goals for the 2022 season are, then you can understand why Graveman was unavailable for a brief stretch in early May. It points to a plan the White Sox are implementing to not just win in May but to win in October.
“At some point,” Graveman said Tuesday, “I think it’s very improbable to throw 93 innings in a season as a reliever.”
Improbable, indeed. No one did it in 2021. One guy did it in 2019, the previous 162-game season. Three guys did it in 2018.
But that’s where Graveman was when he looked up in recent days, on track to log a ridiculous amount of innings out of the bullpen. Last year, in his first full season as a relief arm, he threw just 56 before 11 more in the postseason. So you know, half as many as he was on pace to throw in 2022, the first of a multi-year contract he signed with the White Sox in the offseason.
It’s a lot of innings. Some might say it’s too much.
On the heels of a shortened spring training that left starting pitchers well behind in reaching their normal in-season workloads, bullpens were heavily relied upon across the game in April. The White Sox’ relief corps came into Wednesday’s game with 120 innings under its collective belt, nowhere near the most in the majors; Rays relievers had logged 30 more.
Throw in the fact that the White Sox’ offense has been somewhat slow to get off the ground, too, and you’ve got a lot of low-scoring games in which high leverage guys like Graveman and Liam Hendriks have been called upon to pitch stressful innings.
With an eye on having these guys pitch and pitch a lot during what the White Sox hope is a lengthy postseason run – remember that bullpens tend to take center stage in October – the team is insisting they don’t get run into the ground.
“It’s a good workload, I’m glad I was able to have that workload, but there are normal ebbs and flows throughout a season that we just really haven’t hit,” Graveman said. “Hey, we want to pitch in September and ultimately have the privilege to maybe pitch in October, and sometimes you have to be smart on the front end.
“We had a three-week build-up this spring training, and we came out guns blazing. Nobody felt worse the last couple days, because I wanted to be in those games, trust me. But sometimes it’s hard to look in the telescope and look at the big picture and not always (be) looking in a microscope at one game. Sometimes you have to.”
The vast majority of baseball fans are going to bristle at the idea of “workload management,” and even La Russa recently voiced his displeasure for the word “workload.” Whether you have an old-school mentality that players should suck it up and play or think more along the video-game lines of always plugging in the best players regardless of any other factors, you might find this all a little ridiculous.
But there’s a lot that happens beyond the pitch-count totals in the outings you can look up on Baseball Reference.
“We’re humans, we’re not robots,” Graveman said. “Just because we didn’t get in a game and pitch doesn’t mean that we didn’t work in the bullpen to get ready in case. … All that stuff factors in. Night games followed by day games, very early day games, all that stuff matters.
“You want to be ready for October, if we’re able to get there. These games matter as much as those, but at the end of the day, you want to pitch into September, too.”
This is not a new topic of conversation with the White Sox this year.
We expected it to be a season-long storyline when it came to Michael Kopech’s usage, and it will be one. All along, the intent has been the same, not just to cap Kopech’s innings but to manage them in a way that allows him to be a weapon for this team late in the regular season and in the postseason, as well.
The same seems true for Yasmani Grandal, who has been a regular lineup fixture but has not caught as frequently as you’d expect from a team’s No. 1 catcher. The White Sox have stated their intent to keep Grandal fresh for the long haul, to play through the end of October, and Rick Hahn described the approach to using him behind the plate as “judicious” Monday.
Well, the same strategy seems to apply to the team’s top bullpen arms, too. Not only did Graveman not get used in a string of three straight games, but after closing out five straight wins and pitching in another Monday, there was no Hendriks for a save situation Tuesday, the ninth inning going to Graveman in his first appearance since Friday.
Joe Kelly, too, will be used in a certain way after missing the season’s first month while recovering from a nerve issue. Not only was that recovery a methodical one that he described as long Tuesday, but La Russa will stay away from using Kelly on back-to-back days as he sees his first action in a White Sox uniform.
While some might see the lack of availability from top arms as an overwhelming negative, Graveman pointed out a silver lining, one that’s played out in real time for White Sox fans to see.
As fill-ins have sporadically been needed, other guys past the few big arms at the back end of the ‘pen have proven themselves as reliable options for La Russa & Co. to turn to in high leverage situations. Matt Foster, José Ruiz and Bennett Sousa have come up big of late, showing that there could be a deeper bullpen than initially thought on the South Side, one that could help power the kind of deep October run the team is dreaming about.
“If we want to get as good as we want to get, if we want to get to the postseason and be as good as we can, it’s ultimately going to fall on other guys, too,” Graveman said. “And I’m thankful that Foster’s stepped up and is doing a great job and Sousa stepped up the other day and Ruiz is throwing the ball great.
“As far as being a great team, it can’t just be three guys out of the bullpen. It needs to be everybody, a collective effort and a group. When guys are down and when guys aren’t pitching that day, then other guys are still going to step up and help us win games.
“That’s one thing that I think has come out of this, and I try to preach to those guys, ‘Just pick each other up when we need days.’”
So there you have it. You might not agree with it, but at least you now know why the White Sox are doing what they’re doing with some of their most integral pieces.
It’s a long season. And the White Sox want their guys to play through the whole thing. Ideally, through the part where they’re lifting a trophy.
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