Got Gas? Call the White Sox

Late Monday afternoon, the White Sox signed Brian Bruney to a minor league deal, and most of baseball yawned, scratched themselves, and turned the page. To be fair, Bruney has had an FIP over five for the past two years, and even his career number (4.73) is not terribly interesting. He walked 20 batters in fewer than 18 innings last year. He’s walked 43 batters in his last 46 2/3 major league innings. With his career 6.51 BB/9, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be a useful part of a bullpen again.

So what does he bring? Well, obviously his career 8.81 K/9 is above-average. His career 93.5 MPH fastball velocity is also useful- even including his reduced gas last year, that number is above the 91/92 MPH average for fastballs around baseball. In 2009, he dialed it up to 94.6 MPH on average, and that could even be described as “fast.”

The thing is, even his velocity is decidedly below average for the team he hopes to join in 2011. The White Sox love fastball velocity, it seems. On the leaderboard for fastball velocity among relievers in 2010, you’ll find White Sox ranked 11th, 14th, 18th and 20th. Only the Giants and Cardinals even had two in the top twenty. Among qualified relievers, the White Sox had players ranked 5th, 9th, and 22nd, and only the Giants, Pirates, Tigers and Cardinals had multiple entrants that high on the list (and none had three).

The White Sox had the highest bullpen fastball velocity last year (94.7 MPH) – by a full mile per hour over the second place team (Giants, 93.6 MPH). Since 2007, their fastballs have been incendiary as well- they’ve lead the league over that time period with a 93.2 MPH average. Their FIP over that time period has been seventh-best, but last year it was fourth-best (3.57). Most teams would be happy with those results, given how much bullpen performance oscillates. Plenty of research has tied velocity to strikeouts, and so it has gone for the White Sox. They were fourth in bullpen K/9 last year (9.05) and fifth over the last four years.

Going for gas has gone well for the White Sox. Will signing Bruney work similarly? Consider the case of Matt Thornton, who came to the Sox from the Mariners fresh off two consecutive seasons in which he’d averaged about 93 MPH on his fastball and walked more than six and a half batters per game. Now he’s firing 96 MPH bullets and showing the best fastball in the game, even if it is predictable. In 2006, Thornton was 30. Bruney will be 29 next season.

It’s not that simple. Bruney has a longer track record of futility, but also one year on his resume better than any Thornton turned in before he arrived in Chicago. They throw with different hands. They had different career paths. But they’ve both looked nice on the red-and-black of a radar gun, and maybe they’ll both look good in the black-and-white of a Chicago White Sox uniform.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here or at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

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Eriq Jaffe
Eriq Jaffe

It’s true that the Sox love heat. But for every Matt Thornton, there’s an Andy Sisco. And a Mike MacDougal.