Observations on Andre Rienzo

Sunday was the first chance I had to actually watch Andre Rienzo pitch.  I was keeping tabs on his first start earlier in the week, but was unable to watch it, so I was excited to get the chance to see him pitch in person, or from behind my pitchfx monitor.

Here are some of my thoughts and observations on Rienzo after his second career big league start.

First off, it is encouraging that Rienzo was able to come up and pitch well on the road against two of the hottest teams in the majors.  His start at Cleveland was pretty good, despite the unearned runs, and the fact that he was able to stay in the game and pitch two more solid innings after the troublesome fifth inning shows that he can mentally recover from a rough inning.

His start on Sunday in Detroit was interesting because after the first two batters in the second inning reached on singles, Rienzo retired 15 of the next 16 batters he faced, getting through six innings in just 70 pitches.  Then, out of nowhere, he lost his command to start the seventh inning, walked the first two batters and fell behind Avila who doubled in the tying run and chased Rienzo from the game.  His final line would read: six IP, four hits, two ERs, three BBs, three Ks.  Through his first two starts, Rienzo has a 1.38 ERA and a 1.154 WHIP with a 1.5 K/BB ratio.

Those are pretty good numbers, especially considering the competition. Can he keep them up?  That is yet to be seen. 

First the things I liked:

-Rienzo works quickly, something the White Sox organization likes to drill into their pitchers.  It’s a good plan, most of the time.  A quick pace keeps your fielders alert behind you, keeps you in a groove as a pitcher, and it helps you to repeat your throwing motion every single time.  Finding a rhythm as a pitcher can be very important, and Rienzo certainly found one today when he retired 14 straight Tigers hitters. 

-He has some good movement on his pitches.  Both his cutter and two seam fastball were moving around on the Tigers hitters and allowed him to pile up a bunch of easy outs without having to throw a ton of pitches.  Rienzo’s curveball is also a decent looking pitch, and he should be able to throw it for a called strike when needed. However, it can also be a swing and miss pitch, as you saw when he struck out Prince Fielder to end the sixth inning with a runner on.  The movement on his pitches allowed him to be successful despite the fact that he did not throw a first pitch strike to the majority of batters he faced.

Now for some possible trouble spots:

-Command is something that worries me with Rienzo going forward.  Walks undid him in the seventh inning today when suddenly he couldn’t throw a strike to save his life.  Walks also got him into trouble in the fifth inning against the Indians earlier in the week.  Despite the error by Ramirez, the inning started with a leadoff walk, and Rienzo walked in a run on four pitches later in the inning.  All three of the walks Rienzo issued were in that fifth inning, and two of his three walks on Sunday were in the same inning as well.  I also mentioned that Rienzo was not very efficient at first pitch strikes.  He was able to pitch around it, but falling behind the majority of hitters is not a recipe for success.  Rienzo averaged 3.6 walks per nine innings in the minors, so that is something that has been an issue and could continue to be one. 

-Besides just the walks, I am not sure that with all the movement, Rienzo can just reach back and grab a strike on the corner when he needs one.  When things started to unravel for him in the seventh, he seemed like he just could not throw a strike without grooving it over the plate, which is exactly what happened on the Avila double.  If he is going to pitch from behind and can’t hit the corner for a strike when he needs it, he could get hit around very hard.

-Another area that worries me with Rienzo is that I am not sure he has enough in his arsenal to be a starting pitcher.  While the cutter/2-seam/4-seam fastball assortment can be effective, you have to be able to mix in some other pitches to keep the hitter honest. His curveball is a decent enough pitch, as I mentioned before, but without the ability to reach back and hit 95 with the fastball, I think he needs something else.  If he can develop an effective change-up, I think he can stick as a starting pitcher in the big leagues.  While his fastball velocity isn’t great, he can get up to 92 mph with the 4-seamer and the movement on the cutter and 2-seamer make up for the velocity being in the upper-80’s to low 90’s.  If he can mix in a change-up from the same arm angle, it will really give hitters something else to look at.  Otherwise, they will be able to identify the spin on the breaking ball, and then he will have to rely solely on the movement of the pitches to fool the batter. 

These areas of concern are why many scouts have said that they believe Rienzo translates more as a relief pitcher than a starter.  You can be a very effective relief pitcher with a variety of fastballs and a curveball (look at Jesse Crain).  It is much harder to go through a lineup three or four times with only two pitches. I am not saying that he can’t make it as a starter, but I understand where some of the scouting reports are coming from.

Ultimately it has been only two starts, and it is hard to draw any real conclusions about Andre Rienzo and his future role with the White Sox organization.  The one thing I will say is that I do believe he has a role with the White Sox. Whether it is as a starter is yet to be determined, but this kid has enough to be an effective member of the Sox pitching staff moving forward.