Injuries have been at the forefront of far too many baseball headlines in 2021. The White Sox, at one point, were playing without six of their nine projected opening day starters. Despite the catastrophic position player injuries the White Sox have had to endure, the team has had fairly good luck with respect to pitcher injuries. While many relievers have missed time, the entire starting rotation has stayed healthy for the majority of the year, with only Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon missing just a few starts each.
It is no secret that the uptick in injuries in 2021 is, in part, a result of the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. Pitchers threw significantly fewer innings in 2020 than they would in a normal year, and without a regular innings load on their arms in 2021, many have battled injuries, dead arms, and/or fatigue. As the White Sox have been led by their tremendous starting rotation, it is imperative that the starters’ collective good health does not falter as the team approaches the playoffs. Every pitcher is different, and as such, I have some thoughts on how the White Sox could manage the workloads of several of their prominent pitchers.
In an injury-shortened 2019 season, Carlos Rodon threw 34.2 innings. In a 2020 season that was both injury-shortened and pandemic-shortened, Rodon threw 7.2 innings. In 2021, Rodon has thrown 100.2 innings.
While Rodon will need to pitch regularly in order to stay in a groove for the postseason, he should still be handled very carefully in order to avoid an injury given his already massive uptick in innings this year. According to CBS Sports, White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz suggested during Spring Training that he would manage pitcher workloads in 2021 on an individual level based on how the pitchers feel, but maintained that 200 innings is the goal for each starter. I truly hope that Katz’s view has evolved since March, given the extremely high probability of the White Sox making the playoffs and the league-wide increase in pitcher injuries.
Even if Rodon claims to feel healthy, it does not make any sense for the White Sox to push him toward an arbitrary innings threshold given his injury history and his immense importance to the team’s playoff goals. The White Sox, thankfully, can afford to rely on Rodon just a bit less than they have so far, and a large part of that reasoning currently resides in their bullpen.
Michael Kopech, too, is experiencing a significant innings increase in 2021. After throwing 0 professional innings in 2019 and 2020, Kopech has logged 40.1 innings so far in 2021. His circumstances, however, are different from those of Rodon; the White Sox have been open about their expectations for Kopech to be a starting pitcher long-term, and in order for that to be possible, he will have to ramp up his workload in the short-term. If he does not do so, then he will be at significant risk of injury himself in 2022 since he would be asked to be a regular starter despite only having 40-to-65 innings’ worth of work on his arm from the preceding season (essentially, Rodon’s conundrum, but a year later).
The White Sox, then, are fortunate to have a dominant multi-inning reliever in Michael Kopech who needs to pick up additional innings over August and September, as he can take some of the stress away from Rodon and other starters. Of course, the team will have to carefully manage Kopech so that he is not overworked himself, but whether they decide to utilize a six-man rotation for some time, or if they limit an occasional starter to 3-to-4 innings so that Kopech can get extended work, the White Sox will need to feature Michael Kopech extensively over the rest of the 2021 season if he is to join the rotation next year.
Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, & Lance Lynn
Much of what I wrote about Carlos Rodon can also be applied to Dylan Cease, who has not yet pitched a full MLB season and should be managed accordingly as the season continues. However, the rest of the White Sox rotation includes veterans who, aside from 2020, are more acclimated to throwing a full season’s worth of innings. While some extra rest down the stretch would still benefit Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, and Dallas Keuchel, it is not as risky to allow them to continue with full workloads as it would be to ask the same of Rodon and, to an extent, Cease.
The debate concerning the usage of Liam Hendriks has persisted throughout the season, and his availability for the playoffs will be vital for the White Sox. Yet, Hendriks is at his best when he pitches regularly, so it is likely not a good idea to provide him with extended rest (such as this week, when he went five days between outings) too frequently so that he does not rust away. Hendriks is on pace for 73.2 innings in 2021, and, for reference, he threw 85 innings in 2019. I do not think that he should necessarily take on a significantly different role for the rest of the year, as I would advocate for Kopech and Rodon, but given his importance to the bullpen and his preference for high usage, the White Sox should at least listen to Hendriks very closely throughout the summer to avoid both an injury and excessive rust.
Managing pitchers’ workloads is not a science, and even if a prominent White Sox pitcher sustains an injury prior to the end of the 2021 regular season, it will be impossible to fully assess whether overuse and/or the shortened 2020 season are major explanatory factors. Nevertheless, the White Sox are essentially playoff locks, and they should strive to reach those playoffs as healthy as possible. Michael Kopech’s need for additional short-term innings coalesces perfectly with the general need to keep the starting rotation healthy, so one way or another, the team should find a way to manage workloads accordingly and avoid any unnecessary injury risks during the remainder of the regular season.
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