Since coming back from his second Tommy John surgery in 2017, White Sox left-handed reliever Jace Fry was never supposed to get fans excited.
He’s not Eloy Jimenez or Michael Kopech or any of the dozen or so other prospects who appear to have some semblance of star potential. He’s not the guy you’ll see on the side of the building when the franchise is eyeing the postseason (and much more) in 2020.
However, in a lot of ways, he’s every bit as important.
Watching the White Sox in 2018 has been bad. We knew that this would be the case, but the severity was beyond comprehension. Team success was never going to matter in the middle of such a clear rebuild, but individual successes have been harder to come by than hoped as well.
Yoan Moncada has dazzled at times and Jose Abreu has been his usual steady self. Matt Davidson and Tim Anderson have a newfound patience that should serve them well should they continue to be part of the organization’s long-term plans while Reynaldo Lopez has surprisingly been the most reliable part of the rotation.
But that’s all been overshadowed by the misery. Lucas Giolito hasn’t been consistent, Carson Fulmer had to be sent down and Avisail Garcia has seen his trade value evaporate thanks to a hamstring injury that will hold him out until nearly July and the fact that he didn’t look the same as he had in 2017 even before the injury.
Yet, there might not be anything more exhausting than the White Sox bullpen. Again, we knew that it’d be a source of frustration, but the anguish eclipsed anything most might imagine.
The only silver lining had been that we know what the White Sox have planned. They’ve loaded the farm system with power arms and they’re going to throw them all against the starter’s wall and see what sticks, then hope that whatever doesn’t lands conveniently in the relievers pile.
It’s not a horrible plan — it can stock your bullpen with a handful of guys who can overpower opposing hitters — but it does take time. The good news is that Fry is ahead of schedule.
A third-round pick in the 2014 MLB Amateur Entry Draft from Oregon State, Fry was starting at High-A Winston-Salem in 2015 and showing pretty well (3.63 ERA) when his elbow gave out for a second time. Since then he’s plotted a course as a worthy relief option thanks to a unique variety of offerings.
Fry throws a fastball with sink in the low-90s, a cutter/slider he can work in on right-handed hitters in the high-80s and a big, looping curveball that is hell on lefties because he can start it at their head and still catch a piece of the plate. Normally, that curveball alone would lead to Fry being labeled a specialist, but his ability to work the ball in both directions with his hard stuff gives him more overall value.
And he appears to have resolved the only thing that gave him trouble in 2017 at Double-A Birmingham and later in the majors. Because he’s walked just two hitters in 15 innings this season and only 3 in 23 innings dating back to the Arizona Fall League.
But Fry isn’t just pounding the strike zone to pitch to contact. He’s missing bats frequently, with 12 strikeouts in his 8.1 innings at the big league level in 2018.
That’s largely because of his unpredictability. Take a look at this chart from Brooks Baseball that shows when he utilizes each of his five pitches (did we mention that he also throws a four-seamer and a changeup he breaks out exclusively for righties?) and in what count.
Outside of the changeup, which is for right-handers and is primarily thrown when Fry is ahead in the count, he’ll throw anything at any time. And where as such a large number of offerings can gum up the works of other relievers, he’s devoted himself to film study to know when to throw what to which hitter.
“I carried the momentum over from Triple-A. Getting ahead of hitters, throwing strikes,” Fry said to James Fegan of The Athletic late last week. “Kind of the same game plan, just a little bit better scouting report going into the game. We watch an unlimited amount of film on them. You get to see how other left-handed pitchers similar to me, I can watch on film and see how they’re getting batters out. Using that intel is important.”
Eventually this White Sox bullpen will be brimming with fireballers who routinely touch triple-digits. It may even include names like Dylan Cease or Alec Hansen if things don’t work out for those prized prospects as starters and that will still be okay even if it isn’t the preference at the moment.
However, don’t expect to see Jace Fry phased out. The 24-year-old belongs and has proven in just a couple weeks that he is the first answer (hopefully of many) to the White Sox’s struggles in the pen.