HOUSTON — Such are the times the White Sox live in when first place and one of the best records in the majors are theirs.
According to FanGraphs, the Sox’ bullpen is ranked third in the majors but isn’t performing at the level that was expected. The starters, not the relievers, are the strength of the team.
‘‘[The bullpen] hasn’t lived up to our own expectations,’’ closer Liam Hendriks said. ‘‘We put very high expectations on ourselves.’’
The Sox have the best starting pitching in the majors, according to FanGraphs. The pen, based on numbers from previous seasons, has some ground to make up, Hendriks said.
But Hendriks, who signed a four-year, $54 million contract during the offseason, takes solace in knowing the pen has ‘‘underlying numbers that tell a whole different story than the ones the public sees.’’ He cited its strikeout (10.77 per nine innings) and walk (3.15) rates, which rank third and fifth, respectively, in the majors.
‘‘But we’re still not performing to our standards,’’ Hendriks said. ‘‘We have to rein some things in and tighten some loose screws. We go through stretches where we do really well and then stretches where we’re struggling. We have a pen that hasn’t hit its form, and yet we’ve been doing pretty well with it.’’
Now comes a test. With 71 games played after the Sox squared off Saturday against the Astros, the 60-game mark of the abbreviated schedule of 2020 has long passed. So young pitchers such as Garrett Crochet, Codi Heuer and Matt Foster are entering uncharted territory.
‘‘A lot of these guys haven’t experienced a full 162-game season,’’ Hendriks said. ‘‘We’re at that point [where] everyone starts to drag just a little bit, myself included. It’s an abnormal feeling from what we did last year. . . . You make sure the younger guys know this is what we’re going through and make sure if you need a day, you need a day. If we have enough guys that day, take a day [off]. Because games right now don’t mean as much as October, and that’s what we’re trying to get to. If you need a day here and there to be ready for October, let’s do it.’’
Michael Kopech, who has made multi-inning relief appearances and made three spot starts, hasn’t pitched since May 26 because of a strained hamstring. Manager Tony La Russa likes to acknowledge ‘‘the baseball gods,’’ and perhaps it’s their way of doing the Sox a favor by limiting the 2021 workload on a pitcher going through his first full season in the majors after opting out of 2020.
‘‘We always said we have to deal with that and what [Kopech’s] role will be going forward,’’ assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler said. ‘‘Now he’s not piling up those innings, so there might be a silver lining. The goal is to have the bullpen clicking in August, September and October, and that would be the way with Kopech, having him be ready for whatever role the organization needs him in then.’’
By that time, a reinforcement or two likely will have been made before the trade deadline July 31 as general manager Rick Hahn looks to improve a roster building toward the postseason.
The bullpen always can be deepened, even with a 3.62 ERA that ranked seventh and a 3.15 fielding-independent pitching mark that ranked third entering Saturday. (FIP emphasizes events a pitcher has the most control over: strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs allowed.)
The Sox also need to get more consistent performances from Evan Marshall (5.19 ERA), Heuer (5.86) and Foster (6.41).
‘‘Guys like Foster and Heuer, now they’re dealing with the second year and teams are making adjustments,’’ Hasler said. ‘‘The expectations were very high coming from a short season last year. But they’re working, and reaching those high expectations is achievable.’’