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Building the Best White Sox Rotation Over the Past 20 Years

by Adam Kaplan

Recently, we asked the following question to our fans:

This is how I responded to the post at the time:

There are so many pitchers throughout the history of the Sox franchise that I could have picked, but I will admit, my knowledge of Sox history is extremely limited. I’ve been a casual fan of the Sox for almost all of my life, but I didn’t start really getting into the team until I went to college. Two main reasons for this switch: 1) I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and 2) My freshman year of college happened to coincide with the Pale Hose winning the World Series. As such, I have a narrow view of who pitched well throughout the decades.

There are writers with a greater knowledge of Sox history than I who could break down which pitchers throughout the entire history of the franchise deserve to be named. In fact, listen here to Jordan Lazowski discuss this exact topic during his appearance filling in for Chris Lanuti on a recent Sox In The Basement podcast.

But still, I kept thinking about the original tweet. An idea I kept coming back to was not which pitchers throughout the franchise deserved to make the rotation, but which particular season of said pitcher deserved to make the list. This was an idea more interesting to me than just listing great pitchers who played on the South Side.

Below is my rotation based upon a pitcher’s individual season. But first, I set up a couple of parameters for myself:

  • The rotation must include 5 different pitchers. There are pitchers who has multiple excellent seasons for the Sox, but only their best season made the list.
  • I only selected seasons from the past 20 years; 2001-2021. There are plenty of pitchers who threw great for the Sox prior to 2001, but I’m not terribly familiar with their work. I would be doing a disservice to you and myself if I dedicated multiple words to writing about a subject I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about.

So without further ado, here is my White Sox rotation of the best single-season performances of the past 20 years:

Mark Buehrle (2005)

5.9 fWAR, 16-8, 3.12 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 5.67 K/9, 1.52 BB/9, 236.2 IP, All-Star, 5th in AL Cy Young voting

If you are making a list of great White Sox pitchers, Mark Buehrle needs to be on that list somewhere. Buehrle spent his career being Mr. Consistent, but not coincidentally, his best season occurred the year the Chicago White Sox won the World Series. His 3.12 ERA in 2005 was the lowest of his career. The quick-working Southpaw didn’t have a no-hitter or Perfect Game in 2005, but this year he did throw a complete game against the Angels in the ALCS while giving up only one run and saved Game 3 of the World Series against Houston.

Chris Sale (2015)

5.6 fWAR, 13-11, 3.41 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 11.82 K/9, 1.81 BB/9, 208.2 IP, All-Star, 4th in AL Cy Young voting

I don’t think it should surprise anyone that Chris Sale made this list. In fact, Sale is the reason I had to limit this exercise to one pitcher per year. Sale is the only White Sox pitcher in the past 20 years to record multiple seasons of 5+ fWAR. 2015 is the best season Sale had while wearing a White Sox uniform (and one that he didn’t cut to pieces).

On Monday, June 8, 2015, three of my friends and I spent the night at Sox Park. The night started off horribly. It was raining and there was at least an hour delay to start the game. We were pretty miserable and we all had work in the morning, but we stuck it out. And thank goodness we did, because my friends and I witnessed one of the greatest pitching performances we had ever seen in person. Chris Sale was on the mound for the Pale Hose, and that night he mowed down 14 Houston Astros over 8 innings (this game’s highlights actually start at 0:40 in the video above).

At the time, this was the 4th consecutive game started by Sale where he struck out 10 or more batters. Sale would end up pitching another four games after this one where he struck out 10 or more batters, only to see his streak broken against the Blue Jays on July 6th where he only struck out six batters in a Complete Game.

Chris Sale would end up losing yet another AL Cy Young in 2015 because voters care too much about ERA and the Sox defense allowed Sale to have a higher ERA than he should have. Still, this season was the greatest season Chris Sale had for the White Sox, and I’m glad I was able to witness greatness in person.

José Contreras (2005-06)

Second Half 2005: 2.8 fWAR, 11-2, 2.96 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 7.95 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 103.1 IP
First Half 2006: 2.5 fWAR, 9-0, 3.38 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 7.06 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, 109.1 IP, All-Star

OK, yes, this is a bit of a cheat. But it still evens out to a full season, and this is MY list Gosh Darn It! Plus, do you remember how much fun you had watching Contreras pitch during this time?

Despite Mark Buehrle having the best season of his career in 2005, it was José Contreras that ended up being the Sox de facto Ace come playoff time. As Buehrle ended up finishing the 2005 season with an ERA close to 4.00 during his second half, Contreras was the one pitching out of his mind- finishing the second half of the 2005 season with an ERA under 3.00. As you can see from the numbers above, Contreras’s numbers slightly worsened as the 2006 season began, yet still, he could not lose a game to save his life. His 5.3 fWAR over this period only solidifies his place on this list.

Carlos Rodón (2021)

4.9 fWAR, 13-5, 2.37 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 12.55 K/9, 2.44 BB/9, 132.2 IP, All-Star, 5th in AL Cy Young voting

I am saving the best for last, so ostensibly, this is the “final” spot. It was a decision between Rodón and Lucas Giolito‘s 2019 campaign. While Rodón’s season will be the only season with an fWAR under 5.0 on this list (Giolito’s fWAR in 2019 was 5.2), the Sox Southpaw accomplished his feats in only 132.2 innings. Meanwhile, Giolito put up his numbers in 176.2 innings. Rodón had 0.3 less fWAR but with 44 less innings under his belt. What Carlos Rodón was able to accomplish last season with as little innings as he did it in was absolutely incredible.

Back in September, I wrote an article for Sox On 35th breaking down the season that many Sox pitchers had and speculating if it was good enough to win the AL Cy Young. You can check out the full article here. In the piece, I argued why Carlos Rodón deserved to win the AL Cy Young. Ultimately, his low inning count was too much for AL Cy Young voters to overcome, but still, when he was on the mound, he was the best pitcher in the American League. When you compare Rodón to the eventual AL Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, I’m still baffled at how the Pale Hose lefty lost the award. Despite the lack of innings, Rodón posted a higher fWAR than Ray (4.9 to 3.9), better K/9 than Ray (12.55 to 11.54), better ERA than Ray (2.37 to 2.84), and a better FIP than Ray (2.65 to 3.69).

Unfortunately, Carlos Rodón didn’t have enough miles on his arm and he was treated with kid’s gloves down the stretch and into the playoffs, but when Los was “on” he was one of the best pitchers from the past 20 years for the Chicago White Sox.

Esteban Loaiza (2003)

6.9 fWAR, 21-9, 2.90 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 8.23 K/9, 2.23 BB/9, 226.1 IP, All-Star, 2nd in AL Cy Young voting

This is the very first White Sox bobblehead I had ever received. Doesn’t matter that it was a giveaway in 2004 after the White Sox had already traded Esteban Loaiza to the New York Yankees. You always remember your first.

Even though Esteban Loaiza was only on the South Side for a season and a half, his 2003 campaign was the single best season a White Sox pitcher has had in the past 20 years. Among qualified pitchers in 2003 in the AL, Loaiza had the 2nd best K/9, 3rd best fWAR, 3rd best ERA, and 2nd best FIP. To put how good Estaban Loaiza’s 2003 season was into perspective, for as good as Mark Buehrle was on the White Sox, his best season was still worth a full Win Above Replacement (per Fangraphs) less than Loaiza.

I don’t imagine Esteban Loaiza’s name came up a whole lot when the Sox On 35th Twitter account first asked for everyone’s rotation, but Loiaza’s 2003 season was so good, it closes out my list.

Final Rotation

  1. Esteban Loiaza (2003)
  2. Mark Buehrle (2005)
  3. José Contreras (2005-06)
  4. Chris Sale (2015)
  5. Carlos Rodón (2021)

Other Seasons That Just Missed The Cut

Lucas Giolito (2019)

5.2 fWAR, 14-9, 3.41 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 11.62 K/9, 2.90 BB/9, 176.2 IP, AS, 6th in AL Cy Young voting

José Quintana (2014)

4.9 fWAR, 9-11, 3.32 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 8.00 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 200.1 IP, AS, 10th in AL Cy Young voting

John Danks (2008)

4.9 fWAR, 12-9, 3.32 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 7.34 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 195.0 IP

Javier Vázquez (2007)

4.8 fWAR, 15-8, 3.75 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 8.85 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 216.2 IP

Bartolo Colón (2003)

4.7 fWAR, 15-13, 3.87 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 6.43 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 242.0 IP

Featured Photo: White Sox (@whitesox) / Twitter

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Jj Hantsch

My rotation:
Lucas Giolito, Tommy John, Billy Pierce, Ed Walsh, Claude “Lefty” Williams

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