Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz breaks down AL's best rotation


Chicago White Sox fans will finally get to meet the 2021 edition of their favorite team, en masse, Friday, when Guaranteed Rate Field moves to full capacity for the first time since 2019.So allow the White Sox to reintroduce themselves.Of course, folks have been watching this first-place team for nearly three months now, and despite an avalanche of significant injuries, this group is a true World Series contender.Why? Well, the No. 1 reason is the starting rotation, which has undoubtedly carried the load. White Sox starting pitchers, even after an ugly weekend in Houston, own a 3.16 ERA that's the best mark in the American League and the fourth best in baseball.Thing is, the quintet of Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón has been so good, the White Sox might have a brewing problem on their hands: trying to figure out who starts Game 1 of a playoff series."It would be really tough," White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz told NBC Sports Chicago last weekend. "Everybody is worthy. The starting staff has been very good. They've shown they're some of the best in baseball. I just hope that at the end of the season, we are in that situation and we do have a tough choice to make because that means they're healthy and they've been consistent for a long time."Katz is in his first year on the job, and his impact has been immediate. A longtime friend and coach of Giolito, he helped turn the ace's career around a couple years ago. Now he's attempting to work similar magic on Rodón and Cease, with positive results through two and a half months of regular-season action.So who better to talk about just how great this starting staff has been, and what it's been like to work with them, than Katz?"They all take a lot of pride. Everybody wants to compete against one another, a friendly competition," he said. "If Carlos does well, Lance is going to want to do well. If Lance does well, then Lucas is going to want to do well. Everyone wants to step up and drive this and help this team go."

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There's been perhaps no better, no more pleasantly surprising story on the South Side this season than Rodón, who after one significant injury after another was non-tendered by the White Sox in December and brought back on a one-year deal for a shot at the final spot in the rotation.

All he's done with that shot is put up one of the best pitching seasons in the game to this point. He's got a 1.83 ERA that ranks as one of the best in baseball. And he threw a no-hitter.

Most impressively, perhaps, he's made no-hit watch a regular thing, showing the dominance of that April evening against the Cleveland Indians was no one-off.

"His stuff is some of the best in the league," Katz said. "Legitimately, when he goes out there, it does feel like he's got a chance to do something special every night.

"A no-hitter's not realistic (every time out), but the last three outings, he makes you think about it a little bit by how the game starts and how he goes about it. It's unbelievable. He's only getting better and better, so it's really fun to watch."

Rodón has been in prove-it mode for a couple years now, driven to show that he can get past his unlucky injury history and live up the the hype of his No. 3 overall draft position.

Next up on the prove-it docket, in addition to staying healthy for the entire season, is showing that the excellence he's turned in during the first half of the season is no fluke and that he can be counted on during a pennant race and into the postseason.

"If he stays healthy, you look at baseball, there's not too many left-handed starting pitchers with his velocity. And there's nobody with his slider. It's very sustainable," Katz said. "He'll continue to be this good as long as he keeps getting proper rest and he's feeling good and healthy. It could be a really special year for him."


Right behind Rodón on baseball's ERA leaderboard is Lynn, who has been a much needed addition to the White Sox roster.

In pursuit of a championship, Rick Hahn dealt away the promising future of Dane Dunning for one year of the accomplished Lynn, who flew under the radar as one of baseball's best pitchers the last two seasons in Texas.

Now pitching for a contender, he's showing that he can carry a team when he steps on the mound. He's brought a reliability, an edge, a barrel of jokes — "I've always been an a--h---" — and a hefty dose of leadership to the South Side.

"It's just his leadership. He commands the room with the guys," Katz said. "The younger guys really respect him, want to hear what he has to say. He's been through a lot. So it's nice to have that kind of leadership and someone that guys can fall back on if they have any questions or thoughts. 'What did you do at this point of your career? How'd you get through it?'

"He cares about the younger guys. He wants to help. It's an all-around great personality to have in the clubhouse."

While the White Sox might have a tough time picking someone to start Game 1 of a playoff series — and Lynn is as good a contender as anyone — they won't run into the same problem they did last fall, when they had nobody to start a do-or-die Game 3 against the Oakland Athletics. Lynn has added a dependability, a peace of mind and a confidence to the White Sox starting staff that should allow them to matchup with anyone come October.


All the veteran knowhow Lynn has brought to the South Side this year arrived in part last year in the form of Keuchel, who not only has a World Series ring on his finger, like Lynn, but a Cy Young Award on the mantle and a closet full of Gold Gloves.

Keuchel hasn't been the dominant 1.99 ERA force he was in his first season with the White Sox, but he recently delivered his best performance of the campaign with seven innings of shutout ball against the Tampa Bay Rays last week, proving he can be just as menacing to opposing lineups as anyone in this loaded rotation.

Keuchel's return trip to Houston last weekend didn't go so well, from a results standpoint, but his former Astros teammates shed light on just the kind of guy the White Sox have in their clubhouse right now, calling him the leader of a pitching staff that won the whole thing.

Katz sees Keuchel having a similar effect nowadays, joining Lynn to form an insightful pair of veterans.

"Both of them together, it's a great combination," Katz said. "Because we do have some younger guys. We've got some guys in the bullpen who, they pitched last year in the big leagues but before that they were in A-ball. There's a lot of growth that needs to happen for them, and there's a lot of experience. Obviously, everyone talking through certain situations and what they experienced when they were young really just helps.

"It helps build everybody, and you learn a lot from other veteran guys who have done it, especially Dallas and especially Lance."


Katz knows no one better than he knows Giolito. The duo's history dates back to Giolito's high school days, when Katz was the pitching coach at Harvard-Westlake School in Southern California.

Fast forward through Giolito's rise to first-round draft pick and the top pitching prospect in baseball, and it was Katz who aided the righty in turning his career around after a woeful 2018 campaign, Giolito reaching All-Star status a year later.

Now Giolito is the ace of the South Side staff, and he showed why he deserves all future consideration for a Game 1 nod with a dazzling playoff debut last fall, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in Oakland.

Giolito will be the first to tell you that his 2021 campaign is not going quite the way he wants it to, though despite the 3.80 ERA, he's still turning in ace-like performances on a fairly regular basis.

Whatever's not 100-percent clicking for Giolito, though, he can have confidence that the best way to turn things around is now sitting in his dugout, with his longtime buddy Katz now working with him on a daily basis.

"I've seen him from (when he was) a young kid who was trying to figure things out to where he is now as a high-level frontline starter. And it's amazing to watch. It's a lot of fun," Katz said. "There's been a lot of stuff even with our time this year where we're trying to make adjustments, stuff we need to fix.

"It doesn't stop, even though we've known each other forever, the adjustments that need to happen in the big leagues and for him to continue to grow and get better.

"It's a lot of fun now that we're doing it on a daily basis and not just during an offseason or in a random phone call during the season."


Though Rodón has stepped up and perhaps stolen Cease's crown as the White Sox biggest X-factor in 2021, there's still a massive difference Cease can make for this team if things suddenly click.

They're getting there. After a troublesome 2020 campaign, Cease has been much better much more often in 2021. An attitude adjustment served him well early on, and his quest to keep things simple has won the frequent praise of manager Tony La Russa.

Three wins against the Detroit Tigers, who Cease dominates every time he sees them, have helped buoy a solid, if not spectacular season, one that has had those same flashes of brilliance and moments of continuing education.

But as that search for consistency continues, so too, Katz said, will the unlocking of Cease's potential as a possibly devastating major league arm.

"With Dylan, for me, there's still a lot of growth (to come)," Katz said. "He's had a great year. I don't want to take away anything he's done. But I'm really excited about what's still ahead of him.

"Every outing, we'll talk through and dissect and go over certain situations that I thought that he handled really well, some stuff where there's areas for growth. I still see so much growth that still needs to happen that it's really exciting. He's still young, but obviously we want to see the consistency on a daily basis every time he goes out there."

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