I thought the White Sox bullpen was going to be the best in baseball in 2021. Through two months of the season, the bullpen as a whole has been underwhelming if we are being honest. There is a ton of talent with this group, but every member of the pen (minus Michael Kopech in his flex role) has had issues at some point. Codi Heuer is no exception to this. Heuer burst onto the scene last year as a rookie and looked as if he was going to cement his position as a high leverage reliever, and even potentially a future closer. His struggles so far in 2021 have caused some to question his place going forward on a team that has serious championship aspirations.
What's Going Wrong?
It's a relatively simple question, that if you want to answer simplistically, you can. Codi Heuer is simply getting hammered in the early part of this season. Heuer is striking out hitters more frequently and walking them less than a season ago, but when opposing hitters are making contact, it's been problematic to say the least. Heuer is giving up a .376 wOBA against, which ranks in the bottom 25% of the entire league. A year ago, hitters had a .203 wOBA against the righty, which was in the top 1% of the entire league!
This is quite a precipitous fall for a reliever who looked like he would be a bullpen cornerstone for many years to come. Looking at some data, I have to wonder if there is simply a problem with Heuer's pitch mix. His sinker heavy approach is, well, not working in 2021. He's giving up a .516 wOBA against with the offering so far, and that is more than double what the number was during his rookie campaign. His Whiff rate on the pitch is down to 15.9% from 24.1% a year ago. His secondary offerings, slider and change-up, have still been plus pitches and it may be time to see him feature these more.
For the season, his slider has a .249 wOBA against and the change-up has a sparkling .107 wOBA against. Given the success with these offerings and the struggles with the sinker, one has to wonder if Ethan Katz and Heuer will devise a plan to begin pitching backwards and utilizing the offerings that have been most successful to this point.
Another issue facing the young righty so far is hitters in the left-handed batter's box. Lefties are clobbering Heuer to the tune of a .482 wOBA. For context, that's just a tick below the offensive output of Babe Ruth during his peak. To me, as a Sox fan, that seems a little problematic. We are probably getting to a point where Tony La Russa and Ethan Katz need to recognize this and put Heuer in better positions for success, and that will include minimizing his exposure to left-handed hitters. Right-handed hitters are producing a .310 wOBA against Heuer, which is right around league average, so this appears to be what we call a platoon-based reliever.
This is a particularly fascinating development, because a year ago lefties produced a .196 wOBA against the righty. Is it simply a matter of the league adjusting to a young pitcher with more data at their disposal? Perhaps. Or, is it emblematic of a pitcher needing to adjust his approach at the highest level? One thing is for sure though, something needs to change with Codi Heuer and it needs to change quickly.
Time is of the essence for Codi Heuer. Early in the season, Tony La Russa trusted Heuer in increasingly higher leverage situations and one could've argued that he was a bit overused. But, we are at the point where he can no longer be trusted to get high leverage outs. His struggles have put the bullpen in flux, relatively speaking, and it's getting to the point where the organization may need to make some hard decisions.
Does a trip to Charlotte to work out whatever kinks he may have in his delivery or with his pitch mix profile make sense? I don't think it can be easily dismissed at this juncture. The 2021 White Sox have a division title in their sights and ultimately even greater aspirations, and they simply can't afford to roster a reliever that can't be trusted. Heuer has options available, so this is something I believe the organization needs to seriously consider.
Codi Heuer is still a very young pitcher that has tremendous talent, but the White Sox are not in position to continue trotting him out there if he can't get the job done, regardless of leverage situations. Something has to change with Codi Heuer and it needs to change quickly, because he is putting the team in some troubling predicaments. He absolutely has the ability to turn it around, but it needs to happen and there is no time to waste for a bullpen that could really use some stability from the group in front of Liam Hendriks.