Left-handers could make history for White Sox

April 15th, 2016

Having been left-handed his entire life, Chris Sale doesn't see why the White Sox rotation is unusual.

It has four left-handed starters, sure, but to Sale this is no big deal. It's really what he has known throughout his career, as Mark Buehrle and John Danks were among the teammates to welcome him to Chicago.

When Carlos Rodon joined him, Jose Quintana and Danks in the mix last season, Sale asked why having four lefties is any different than having four right-handers?

Sale might have a point if the lefties are run-of-the-mill starters, but historically it has been a beautiful thing when a team can put two highly functioning left-handed starting pitchers together in the same rotation. It doesn't happen as often as you'd think, either, and especially not for an extended period of time.

Going back more than 100 years, combinations like Eddie Plank/Rube Waddell and Dutch Leonard/Babe Ruth showed the potential value of making opponents regularly face lefty starters. But the relative scarcity of quality lefties has kept teams from building rotations that lean left.

The Phillies imported Cliff Lee to work alongside Cole Hamels not that long ago, and two-thirds of the Athletics' great rotation of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder came at hitters from the left side. The Dodgers had Jerry Reuss on the same staff as Fernando Valenzuela and the Yankees put David Wells and Andy Pettitte together early in their run of championships under Joe Torre.

But rarely have we seen a rotation like the one that has helped the White Sox to a 7-2 record, their best start since 1982.

Sale and Quintana -- also known as "The King of No-Decisions" -- have quietly been a lefty-lefty tandem of significance the past three seasons, with each of them delivering at least 3.3 WAR each year. They were at their analytics best in 2013, with Sale at 6.9 WAR and Quintana at 5.4, even though the latter had 17 no-decisions during his 9-7 season.

Sale and Quintana respectively averaged 5.6 and 4.3 WAR from 2013-15. That's a ton from the left side of the rotation.

It's time to welcome Rodon to the party.

The third overall pick in the 2014 Draft, the former ace from North Carolina State has made 25 career starts in the Major Leagues and generated 2.2 WAR. He's been doing this while learning on the job, as he threw only 34 1/3 innings in the Minors.

Given the quality of Rodon's swing-and-miss slider -- opponents hit only .160 off it in his rookie season -- and seemingly improved command, it doesn't take a lot of projection to see Rodon as being capable of joining Sale and Quintana as 4.0 WAR starters.

Through two trips around the rotation, Sale, Quintana and Rodon are 4-1 with a combined 2.56 ERA. They have 38 strikeouts and 12 walks (including five by Rodon on Wednesday in Minnesota) in 38 2/3 innings.

If all three stay healthy and effective throughout the season, each generating 4.0 WAR, the White Sox will become only the third team to ever have such a trio of left-handers.

It has happened in only one other year. Both the Braves (Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and Charlie Leibrandt) and Angels (Jim Abbott, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston) had three lefty starters with 4-plus WARs in 1991.

The Angels were only a .500 team but that was the season when the Braves became a powerhouse, rolling to Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the Twins. The White Sox would love to tap into a stream of success like that.

Should Sale, Quintana and Rodon all deliver 3-plus WAR seasons, they'd give the White Sox only the sixth trio of lefties to do that on the same team. It had never been done until 1983 and hasn't been done since 1997.

In addition to the '91 Braves and Angels, the '83 Yankees (Ron Guidry, Shane Rawley and Dave Righetti), '84 Pirates (John Candelaria, Larry McWilliams and John Tudor) and '97 Mariners (Randy Johnson, Jeff Fassero and Jamie Moyer) all got big seasons from three lefty starters.

However, you can't say this is a recipe for success, at least not by itself. The five teams that got big years from their lefty trios averaged only 86 wins.

The White Sox got 116 starts from left-handers last season. If Danks (22-41, 4.77 ERA since shoulder surgery in 2012) is able to maintain his grasp on the fifth starter's job, they could challenge the record of 127, set by that 1983 Yankees staff, which also included Bob Shirley and Ray Fontenot, who combined to make 32 starts working behind Guidry, Righetti and Rawley.

But it's not just the quantity of lefty starts that could make what the White Sox do special. It's the quality they can expect.