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How Pedro Grifol helped Reynaldo López, White Sox’ bullpen rebound — and why he’s not starting Jake Burger every day

Vinnie Duber Avatar
June 7, 2023

As White Sox fans across the Twitterverse are already hammering the imaginary reset button on what some have rushed to deem a dead-end rebuild, few have directed much ire toward first-year manager Pedro Grifol after the team’s woeful start to the 2023 campaign has it eight games below .500.

That makes sense, of course. Grifol did nothing but accept his years-in-the-making opportunity to lead a big league squad. He didn’t put this roster together, even if he showed up to an interview with a ringing endorsement for old Royals charge Andrew Benintendi. At the same time, he shouldn’t be entirely free from blame, either, as it was he and his new coaching staff tasked with returning this collection of players to their former glory after it stumbled to a .500 finish last season. That supposed “return to form” hasn’t materialized for most of the guys on the roster.

There are those who consider a major league manager to do little to affect the outcome of a game on a nightly basis, choosing to zero in on the guys actually swinging the bats and throwing the pitches. Plenty, too, place an overemphasis on what the manager does to determine each evening’s outcome, launching into social-media tirades with the release of each game’s starting lineup. More on that in a bit.

If the truth lies somewhere in the middle, what is Grifol doing to help dig these White Sox out of the hole? Well, to focus on one example, he’s had a behind-the-scenes impact on perhaps the team’s most dramatic turnaround.

The White Sox’ bullpen was baseball’s worst at the close of April, its 6.86 ERA the largest in the game. Since, it’s had one of the best, starting this week with a 2.96 mark since May 1. Tough starts by a host of relievers — Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Reynaldo López among the most notable — have segued to dominant stretches. Graveman earned consideration for AL Reliever of the Month after his scoreless May. Kelly had a stellar month, as well, that featured a 10-appearance scoreless streak. And López went from an April punching bag — in his first 15 outings, he had an 8.78 ERA and gave up six home runs — to a May star, with a 1.42 ERA over his last 13 games.

What’s all that have to do with Grifol? Well, according to López, the manager played a big part in righting his mindset on the mound.

“Sometimes he came to me and was like, ‘Just focus on how good you are.’ This helped me out a lot, just thinking about that on the mound. It’s working,” López told CHGO last weekend. “He’s talking to other relievers, too, and I think he’s saying the same thing he said to me. ‘Hey, just think that you are the best on the mound, instead of doubting yourself and what happened.’

“With that, he changed my mind a little bit. Every time I go out there, it’s, ‘I’m going to be the best, the best out there.’ That’s helped me a lot.”

López is right. This is a bullpen-wide thing.

“Pedro’s done a good job with all of us, just pumping confidence (into us),” Graveman told CHGO last weekend. “Even when we’ve had some bad outings, Pedro’s been there for us to talk to us individually and to say, ‘Hey, we still have confidence in you,’ and point out how good we have been in the past, individually. And I think that’s something that’s valuable to any pitcher.

“Any player in the big leagues can lose confidence at any moment, and to have a manager that’s fighting for you and pumping confidence in you and continuing to believe in you goes a long way. And he’s done a good job of that.”

That’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that fans never see a manager do, something they don’t know about that can’t help but play no part in their evaluation of their team’s manager.

But it’s big for the players.

“You pick your spots to let these guys know how good they are and how good they’ve been, that that’s why they’re here and that’s why they’ve had success here, and these are just bumps in the road that everybody goes through,” Grifol said last weekend. “It doesn’t matter who you are, this game’s going to humble you at some point, as in life. … This game, at the level at (which) this game is played, with the amount of good players that are up here, you’re going to get humbled here.

“You need to never forget why you’re here, how you got here and how you’ve had success here and you’re going to get back to that.”

The White Sox have undoubtedly bought into Grifol’s one-day-at-at-time approach, many parroting the same stuff Grifol tells us media types on a daily basis. Many of them agree with Grifol, that such an attitude is the only way they can pull themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves at the beginning of the season, when they went 7-21 in their first 28 games.

It’s worked to some degree, with the White Sox 20-14 since. From a season-low of nine and a half games out of first place, they’ve risen to four and a half out after a weekend sweep of the Tigers and a win over the Yankees in the first of a three-game set in The Bronx.

A long way to go, sure. But better.

“I don’t think you look at the big picture now, you just kind of look at (things) daily. Just win today,” Graveman said. “You can’t get too far down the road, you can’t look back at what happened. Stay in the present moment and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re faced with today.’

“Just try to win today, and that’s it. And hopefully in a couple months, we look up and see that we’re in a better spot.”

Of course, the players’ acceptance of Grifol’s message is not tempering the furor of the Twitter masses, who would moan about lineup construction if Abraham Lincoln was managing this team, and plenty — no matter how realistically — see this type of thing as working against that White Sox improvement.

There are the calls for Tim Anderson to be dropped from his spot atop the White Sox’ lineup, as well as the shouts for Benintendi to no longer be featured near the top. Both players are struggling, and Grifol, albeit in a small sample size, has not shown a habit of making changes as a result of struggles by players with any sort of major league track record. Both Anderson and Benintendi have All-Star track records.

More angering to certain fans, perhaps, is Grifol’s recent handling of Jake Burger, who has starred as one of the team’s best hitters this season. He’s fresh off a hero moment Sunday, when he belted a walk-off grand slam to complete the aforementioned sweep of the Tigers. Burger’s got the team lead in OPS by a big margin, his .923 mark well above Luis Robert Jr.’s .819 number.

And yet Burger has only sporadically been part of the team’s starting lineup since Eloy Jiménez returned from the injured list May 28. Including that day’s game, Burger’s made just three starts, while still making appearances in seven of the eight games total.

For all the spark he’s provided, not to mention a ridiculous stat line in games played on the South Side, Burger’s been far from perfect, and he owns just a .209 batting average over his last 43 at-bats across 14 games. In that span, he struck out 15 times and walked just once. This is not terribly unexpected, as Burger has shown himself a free swinger with a ton of power. Of the nine hits that came during this same stretch, three went for extra bases and two went over the wall for home runs.

But Grifol has made it known since the spring that he plays the matchups. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that his reasoning for excluding Burger from his starting nine Tuesday in New York was based on those matchups.

That likely won’t please any of the complainants. But it’s in line with how Grifol has operated to this point. With the White Sox needing wins to keep their season alive, the guy who has been one of the few consistent sources of offensive production makes a strong case to be in the lineup as often as possible.

This is the result of that much discussed “good problem” that stems from Burger and Gavin Sheets hitting well at the same time Yoán Moncada and Jiménez returned to full health. A spurt of solid play from Romy Gonzalez has forced a similar issue at second base, a position the White Sox have allowed Burger to test on a limited basis, as well.

Grifol doesn’t have it easy in putting this puzzle together every night with all the different pieces demanding attention. But it’s necessary that he gets it right if the offense is going to do what he believes it will do: get hot enough to carry the White Sox out of the hole they dug in April.

Even if this isn’t a document dump of every shred of data Grifol considers when putting his lineup together each night, it’s a small explanation of what’s going on behind the curtain. Combine it with the tales of his meaningful conversations with bullpen pitchers, and you get a glimpse of what the South Side skipper is doing to try to turn this ship around.

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