White Sox's lefty-heavy rotation a baseball rarity

CHICAGO -- While roughly 10 percent of the world's population is left-handed, a healthy 80 percent of the Chicago White Sox's starting rotation operates from the port side these days, enabling them to buck a trend in more ways than one.

The makeup of the rotation not only swims upstream against census numbers but also is a rarity in baseball circles, where a heavy left-handed presence tends to yield panic, as opposed to a pack of right-handed starters that hardly raise an eyebrow.

Headed by Chris Sale and his three-quarter angle, high-tension catapult of a left arm, the White Sox are settling into a comfort zone with their unique rotation foursome, even if the team's overall record doesn't show it.

Up-and-down in the early going this season, the rotation has actually become a team strength, which sounds like a misnomer for a team that headed into this past weekend a season-high 10 games under .500.

The rotation turnaround seems to coincide with the arrival of rookie Carlos Rodon, even if the 22-year-old is still dealing with command issues that have prompted an uneven start to his career, with some flashes of brilliance in between. Crafty veteran John Danks is improving (he faces the Twins on Monday, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), while hard-luck Jose Quintana continues to give max effort even if he rarely gets run support.

Since Rodon entered the fold on May 9, the White Sox's left-handed starters have a combined 3.17 ERA (through Friday's games), making their 11-11 record deceiving. Sale alone is 4-2 since then with a 1.32 ERA, while the rookie Rodon is 2-1 with a 4.03 mark.

"Each guy is relatively different and each guy has his different strengths," said veteran pitching coach Don Cooper. "It doesn't seem to be a problem right now for Sale or Quintana. They are pretty much pitching like they have always pitched for us. With Sale, he's even been a higher level his last five starts.

"Danks is coming back from injury; we're trying to refine him and do different stuff. I don't think him being a left-hander is the reason for his inconsistency, and I know it's not for Carlos Rodon. Carlos Rodon as a rookie has his own stuff that he needs to work on, needs to refine and needs to get better at. And that's what we're doing, and enjoying every moment of it, as a matter of fact."

If anything is off with Cooper's analysis, it's a memory lapse. Cooper said he can't remember ever having four left-handed starters, but the White Sox did go that route as recently as 2013 with Sale, Quintana, Danks and Hector Santiago.

In fact, the 2013 White Sox rotation was just one of two in baseball history to have four left-handed starters each make 20 appearances in a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other was the 1954 Washington Senators, who used Mickey McDermott, Johnny Schmitz, Chuck Stobbs and Dean Stone for much of the year.

Shorter stretches of four-man lefty combinations are slightly more common, and White Sox reliever Zach Duke recalled being part of a rotation in Pittsburgh in 2008 that briefly had four lefties.

"It didn't last long, but we did have four," said Duke, who is now the White Sox's left-handed setup man. "If everybody is effective and everybody is a little different, it can work out. If you have five quality starters, it really doesn't matter if it's right-handed or left-handed."

Duke's lefty-loaded rotation in Pittsburgh wasn't so successful, as the entire rotation had the worst ERA in the National League that year. Another lefty-heavy group, the 2004 Royals (with Darrell May, Brian Anderson and Jimmy Gobble), finished last in ERA in the American League. And in 1975, the White Sox's rotation (which included lefties Jim Kaat, Wilber Wood and Claude Osteen) finished fourth-worst in the AL.

There have been some good lefty-heavy rotations, though. The 1991 Braves (Tom Glavine, Charlie Leibrandt and Steve Avery) won the NL West and advanced to the World Series. The 1980 Yankees (Ron Guidry, Tommy John and Tom Underwood) led a team that won 103 games.

And the 1965 Dodgers (Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen and Johnny Podres) had the best ERA in baseball and won the World Series. This is the only rotation in baseball history to have left-handers make at least 100 starts on a team that won the title.

But those were three-lefty staffs. This White Sox rotation figures to fall somewhere between the best and worst lefty-loaded starting staffs. They aren't expected to reach the World Series or even win the division, but they aren't expected to lag behind in the ERA race either. Their uniqueness is that they are doing it with different looks from all four left-handers.

Sale is the flamethrower with the sweeping slider. Rodon is a hard thrower with a deceiving late-breaking slider from a traditional arm slot. Danks is a location specialist who changes speeds. Quintana is a breaking ball, changeup, fastball-to-both-sides-of-the-plate guy.

When the White Sox broke up their four-lefty setup after the 2013 season by trading Santiago to the Los Angeles Angels, the thought was that his arsenal was too similar to Danks'. By replacing Santiago with Rodon two years later, that similarity concern no longer exists.

"None of us look really similar and we all have a different arsenal," Sale said. "Yeah, how is it any different than having four righties in a rotation? Everybody makes a big deal about left-handed pitching, and then you have too much of it and they freak out. I don't put too much emphasis on it. It's no different than lining up four righties with one left-hander in the rotation."

That is easier said primarily because of Sale's dominance. There really is nothing like him in baseball right now, so it's not as if teams are apt to use the strategy they had for Sale in the following game.

Interestingly enough, though, Rodon has been following Sale in the rotation lately and has actually employed some of Sale's strategies for retiring hitters from one day to the next. When Rodon didn't have a chance to follow Sale vs. the same team (he opened a series Monday at Pittsburgh, while Sale pitched the day before at Tampa Bay), the rookie was crushed for seven runs on nine hits in just 3 2/3 innings.

"I couldn't tell you if it would have been different or not," Rodon said about seeing Sale face a different team. "It was just one of those days where they hit the ball."

This week, that scenario unfolds again as Sale is scheduled to pitch in the series finale at Minnesota on Wednesday, while Rodon opens a series at Detroit on Thursday. This time around, Rodon might be more apt to see how Sale sets up batters from at-bat to at-bat and learn from him that way.

"I can take some things from him, like when to throw a changeup, when to throw a slider, fastballs in," Rodon said. "Sale and I are kind of similar but we're not the same pitcher. He has a different arm slot and throws a little harder, has a better changeup. His slider is not as hard as mine. There are a couple of things that are different, but I can take things from him. I can see what he does, how he sets up guys, and I can go about it the same way."

When it comes to the White Sox this year, everything is left-leaning. Maybe it's only fitting that the team's furry lemon-lime colored mascot is named Southpaw.

Lefties are known for being quirky and a little offbeat. They are free spirits, with a way of handling situations in their own unique way. As the White Sox do things their own way this year, perhaps they are breaking down the stigma that too many left-handers can be a hindrance.

"Everybody should be left-handed, honestly," Duke said.

Lee Singer from ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this piece.