Advertisement
mlb

False Stars: The Red Sox Pitching Problem, And What They Can Do About It

The Red Sox have one of baseball's best offenses, but the back half of their rotation is a disaster. That is going to have to change, but it won't fix itself.

by Matthew Kory
Jul 4 2016, 4:35pm

Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Suppose, dear reader, you found yourself at work on a Monday morning. Maybe it is even a holiday! Either way, you'd rather be someplace else, your coffee is in your hand, and you don't feel like digging into that spreadsheet before it's done. So you pull up your favorite baseball website and you start clicking around, landing eventually at a list of the best and worst pitching staffs over the last month. You gape at the hideousness of the Twins' strikeout rate, a still-life of (ineffective) times gone by, and you stare agog at the brutality of the Phillies pitching staff, all twisted metal and home runs allowed along a rural highway. What you don't notice is, down the page, hidden from easy view, are the Red Sox. They haven't been great, sure, but they haven't been horrendous either. Boston isn't even in the top five worst pitching staffs. Moving on!

But wait! That is not the whole story of Boston Red Sox pitching as June turned to July. And that truth is this: it stinks. On ice. Stinks on dry ice, the kind that is really supposed to prevent stink. That type of ice doesn't work here. It should be noted at this time that, despite a putrid June that saw them go 10-16 and fall out of the divisional lead, the Red Sox are still well within range of the AL Wild Card. And yet they entered June with a three game lead over the Orioles and left it five games behind them.

Read More: Watching The Boston Red Sox, While They're Still Weird

The problem isn't the pitching staff proper. Nobody pitched well in June, but not everyone was haunt-your-dreams bad. June saw the Red Sox use seven starting pitchers, of which three posted respectable ERAs. The other four: 6.10, 10.03, 15.75, and 27.00. That's a tough month, but stranger still is that it's not too far from how things have been all year. Pull back a bit on the season's numbers and you'll see that the Red Sox have used nine starters, just one of whom has an ERA below three. Only two pitchers have ERAs below four, and three have ERAs below five. That leaves six with ERAs above five; five of those have ERAs over six. Even for a team that scores like the Red Sox do, those are going to be hard games to win.

Cutting to the chase, the Red Sox' biggest problem has been their fourth and fifth starter spots. David Price has been reliably mediocre to date, as has Rick Porcello, while knuckleballer Steven Wright has been shockingly good, although the number of unearned runs he's allowed makes his ERA look somewhat better than he has actually pitched. After that, we get to the fourth slot. That's where Clay Buchholz was supposed to reside, but he pitched himself out the rotation by posting a 6.35 ERA in his first 10 starts, was sent to the bullpen, then called back and has a 6.14 ERA since. If they yank him back and forth 30 more times he might approach an acceptably effective starter.

The fifth spot was supposed to go to phenom Eduardo Rodriguez, but he hurt his knee in spring training. When he came back in late May, his velocity was down, and though it did tick back up after a few starts, his command has yet to show up. Rodriguez was unceremoniously sent back to Triple-A after giving up nine runs in 2.2 innings to a team in the midst of an 11-game losing streak. That incident sent Rodriguez's ERA to 8.59.

This is Sean O'Sullivan. He is a Major League starter sometimes. Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Normally that wouldn't be a massive problem. Young pitchers have trouble sometimes, which is why good teams have depth. Except the Red Sox depth had also imploded, albeit in smaller minor league ballparks. Young pitchers Henry Owens and Brian Johnson aren't options, what with Owens having walked the ballpark repeatedly in Triple-A and Johnson experiencing some personal issues that rendered him unable to pitch. No matter, the Red Sox had acquired Roenis Elias from Seattle for just this reason. Then Elias gave up seven runs in four innings to a reeling Mariners team. The team had previously experimented with journeyman Sean O'Sullivan, which is kind of like experimenting with those synthetic marijuana packets, and O'Sullivan gave up 10 runs in 10 innings to Oakland and Houston. Joe Kelly pitched like Joe Kelly, then got hurt like Joe Kelly, and hasn't pitched since June 1, when he allowed seven runs in two-and-a-third innings against a limping Tampa offense. So there's your depth.

None of that is ideal, obviously, but with the team still near playoff position as the Rangers come to town on July 4, what's the issue? Well, the Red Sox don't really have anyone to pitch, I suppose is the problem. Time to make a trade, right?

The Red Sox have a lot of minor league talent and Dave Dombrowski loves to make trades, but this is not quite as simple as that, which is why the Red Sox haven't made any moves yet. The team is in a strange place in terms of their minor league talent. It's not a bad place, exactly: the Sox have four top 50 talents in hitters Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and pitcher Anderson Espinoza, none of which are going to be dealt for a stopgap, and what's on the market at the moment is mostly a collection of Bud Norrises, though the literal actual Bud Norris was traded just last week. The Braves might consider trading Julio Teheran, but Teheran's peripheral numbers indicate he's just not as good as his stats. Buying high on Teheran and moving him into the AL East doesn't seem like a great idea, but it's definitely a better option in a vacuum than tossing Buchholz out there again.

And yet that deal, and any deal, doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in a world in which the Braves ask for potential All-Stars like Moncada and Devers in a trade, and the Red Sox have no choice but to pay that price. It's not just that the organization has already spent heavily on the team and wants to give David Ortiz a deserving send-off, although there is all that. It's more that, as presently constituted, the team has three starting pitchers and nobody in the system who can fill the two spots in the rotation. It's not a problem that can be fixed without a trade, some trade, please God any trade.

But while the right trade really would fix this problem, it's not going to be painless. The Red Sox are a rich team with lots of prospects; the market is a soft one, and sparse. The few teams with pitchers available—think Atlanta with Teheran and Oakland with Sonny Gray—can, should, and absolutely will name their price, secure in the knowledge that, if the Red Sox don't like it, they will spend the next three months watching Clay Buchholz circle the drain like a dead goldfish. Ultimately Dombrowski will have to pay up, and he's probably going to have to do it sooner rather than later. The alternative...well, we know the alternative. Seems like it's time to get moving.