The Chicago White Sox are appearing in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. Read that again. In franchise HISTORY. The White Sox have been around for 120 years! It truly is a treat to enjoy the fruits of this rebuild after enduring losing season after losing season, especially in the 2010s. The White Sox were one of seven franchises across the four major American sports to not appear in the postseason during the last decade. This organization and fan base is HUNGRY for a winner. We witnessed the breakout last year in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a 35-25 record, but the Southsiders ultimately fell victim to the Oakland Athletics in the first round.
Today, the Sox will match up with Lance McCullers Jr. and the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the ALDS at 3:07 PM CST. McCullers Jr. was excellent this regular season, posting a 13-5 record with a career-best 3.16 ERA to go along with 185 strikeouts in 162.1 innings (10.26 K/9). He ranked 2nd in the AL among qualified starters in ERA. According to Statcast, hitters had only a 5.3% barrel rate against him. Lance had an under-the-radar awesome season for Houston. With all the Gerrit Cole, Robbie Ray, and Lance Lynn Cy Young discussion, it seems as if nobody mentions McCullers Jr. as one of the AL’s best. He may not be in the top 3 or top 5 discussion, but he’s up there.
I’d like to take a closer look at Lance and how the Sox match up with him.
Splits: vs RHB and vs LHB
This year, righties hit to the poor tune of .188/.270/.300 with a pedestrian .570 OPS. Lefties hit a little better against McCullers Jr., but not much better at .223/.340/.350 with a .690 OPS. I fully expect Andrew Vaughn and Adam Engel to be on the bench to start the game against McCullers Jr. Vaughn has looked noticeably overmatched against righties in his rookie season (.610 OPS vs .938 OPS vs lefties), and Engel has struggled versus righties throughout his career (.622 OPS) and hasn’t appeared in many games this year due to a multitude of injuries. Not only is McCullers Jr. devastating to hit against as a righty, but the Sox have lefty options to roll out in Sheets and Garcia. Keep an eye out for Vaughn and Engel to appear later in the game when LaRussa sees a matchup he likes.
Part of the reason McCullers Jr. is so effective in neutralizing righties is that he features a devastating slider. According to Baseball Savant, the average spin rate on his slider is 2,793 RPMs, making it one of the sharpest breaking offspeed pitches around. Take a look below.
This year, opposing hitters are only batting .150 against his slider. 115 swings and misses on that pitch, versus a mere 24 hits. From a Sox fan perspective, look for McCullers Jr. to try to wipe out the likes of Robert, Anderson, Abreu, Jimenez with his nasty slider late in the counts.
I fully expect Sheets (DH), Garcia (RF), and Hernandez (2B) to be in the lineup alongside Grandal (C) and Moncada (3B). That gives the Sox a well-balanced lineup featuring five lefty bats to pair with the aforementioned Abreu, Anderson, Jimenez, and Robert. I would expect the righties to attack McCullers Jr. early in the count. If you see a fastball over the plate early in the count (or a hanging breaking ball, attack). In terms of approach from the left side, I would expect Moncada and Grandal to see a lot of pitches (per usual) their first time at the dish, and hopefully, be able to drive something late in their first AB or in their second plate appearance. Fingers crossed Sheets and Garcia can keep their bats hot versus McCullers Jr. while hitting from the bottom third of the lineup.
Splits: Home vs Away
There isn’t much to uncover when taking a deeper look at how McCullers pitches at home in Minute Maid Park versus on the road. The numbers are pretty similar. This year, he’s been comfortable whenever he takes the mound. Opposing hitters are posting the below slash lines against him:
Home: .208/.307/.345 with a .653 OPS
Away: .200/.301/.296 with a .597 OPS
Home: 6-3 record with a 3.51 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 9.4 K/9
Away: 7-2 record with a 2.70 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 11.4 K/9
Looking at the numbers, if anything, hitters fare better against him at Minute Maid Park than in other ballparks, like our own.
On July 16th, McCullers was simply nasty against our Sox, going 7 strong innings with 10 Ks, only giving up 2 hits and 2 walks. However, that lineup included Brian Goodwin, Danny Mendick, Yermin Mercedes, and Jake Lamb. Three of those guys won’t see the field for the Sox in the playoffs and if Goodwin plays at all, it would be sparingly. I expect much more competitive at-bats today with a higher quality Sox lineup than this summer, when Robert, Jimenez, and Grandal all missed significant amounts of time with injuries.
McCullers Jr. is not an easy matchup for anyone though, even this revamped and recharged White Sox team that was 5th in the majors in batting average, 3rd in OBP, and 7th in OPS in the regular season. It’s not going to be easy, but all we can do is believe in the quality of our star hitters and hope they shine on the big stage.
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Featured image via Houston Astros (@astros) / Twitter