Is the Boston Red Sox rotation rounding into form? Any team that wants to win needs good pitching, and for much of the first half of the season, the Red Sox have not had it. However, Rick Rowand points to an unexpected ace, an impressive rookie and a dependable southpaw as reasons for optimism.
Since being swept at Fenway in the Toronto series June 13-15, the Boston Red Sox have gone 13-8 and have averaged 5.29 runs per game. They are now 5 games back of the division-leading New York Yankees with four games remaining before the All-Star break – one against the Miami Marlins and three against the Yankees. They are much more fun to watch and have kept each game close until the end, even in their losses. Those are two things that could not have been said with a straight face earlier in the season.
They are still in last in the division, and not only have they pulled within 5 games of first place, but they are five games back in the loss column behind the Baltimore Orioles, four games back of the Tampa Bay Rays and three behind the Toronto Blue Jays. They have 13 games left with the Yankees, ten with the Rays and six each with the Orioles and Jays. With 78 games left, is the light at the end of the tunnel the same old oncoming train, the spotlight of the postseason, or a .500 record?
Is there reason for optimism? Let’s look at the starting pitching and see.
At the start of the season, the five starters jokingly wore He’s The Ace shirts on the days they were not pitching. It was amusing at first, but soon Sox fans became tired of the inconsistency on the mound and have been waiting all season for someone – anyone – to emerge as the ace of the staff. Well, it looks like they have one now and it is, gulp, Clay Buchholz. Yes, that Buchholz. The same Buchholz who has shown flashes of domination followed by starts where you just threw your hands up in the air and shouted, “WTF is going on?”
For parts of this season he has been the picture of inconsistency with Good Clay followed by Bad Clay and vice versa. Good Clay has been showing up on a more consistent basis lately, which coincides with his new-old changeup grip.
In his last four starts, he has given up a total of five runs with three of them earned. He lasted 7, 7, 8 and 9 innings pitched, respectively, giving the overtaxed pen a rest. This sequence comes on top of a similar run of Good Clay in May and early June. Again, he had four starts where he went deep into games, two where he went 7.1IP and two where he went 8 IP. In this stretch, he gave up a total of six runs, five earned. In between were two games of Bad Clay, where he went 4.2 IP and 6 IP and gave up four earned runs in each game. Naturally, we all want him to be much more consistent, but personally, I’ll take eight games of Good Clay out of ten almost anytime. Before these two four-game stretches he had started seven games, only three with an ERA of 3 or less.
Two games were unmitigated disasters. One was the game against the Yankees where he lasted 3 1/3 innings and gave up nine earned runs. The other was his 2 2/3 inning performance where he gave up four earned runs. The other two starts were middling performances of 6 1/3 IP. He has lowered his ERA from 7.86 after the second game to 3.27. While he is certainly not on the same level as a Max Scherzer, we will take it.
At this point in the season this hard throwing lefty is averaging 93.5-mph on his FB and has reached speeds of 97.6 at times, emerging as the #2 man in the rotation. He has started eight games and pitched very well in all but two of them. In the game against the Orioles, he was tipping his pitches from the stretch and was shelled in the fourth inning when he allowed men on base for the first time in the game. He left with just two outs in the fourth, having given up six earned runs. The other bad outing was against the Blue Jays where he surrendered nine earned runs in just four 2/3 innings. He faced the Jays two weeks later and gave up just one earned run in 6 innings.
For those keeping score at home, he has given up zero earned runs in two starts, one earned run in four starts and nine and six runs in his other two starts. He currently has an ERA of 3.69 with a FIP of 3.12. Not too shabby for a 22-year old getting his first taste of pitching in the majors.
Right now Rodriguez is getting by on two plus pitches, his fastball and change. He also throws a slider, but it is much more hittable than his other two pitches, especially his changeup. A big test for him will be when he starts facing the same teams again and must adapt to their approach to him.
No one will ever describe Wade Miley as an innings eater since coming to Boston. In 16 starts this season, he has only gone seven or more innings four times. If nothing else, Miley is consistent. In his two disastrous games, he went exactly 2 1/3 innings and gave up six and seven earned runs. In each of his two other really bad starts, he lasted four innings and gave up five runs.
In ten of his 16 starts he has had an ERA of 3.86 or under, including three games where he gave up zero earned runs. Right now Miley has an ERA of 4.53 with a FIP of 4.10 and a xFIP of 4.47, so do not expect too much improvement. But at least he has done much better than these guys…
What can you say about three of your starters who have ERAs of 6.08, 5.67 and 6.14, respectively? Masterson was put on the DL for shoulder tendinitis and pitched very well in his first start back giving up just one unearned run in five innings. His next start against the Rays was another outing we have come to expect from Masterson – five earned runs in less than four innings.
Joe Kelly is currently pitching for the PawSox after being sent down in late June. What is frustrating about Kelly is that he has fantastic stuff, but he has not learned how to control it yet. If he is not able to on a consistent basis, he will probably go to the bullpen, where his velocity and movement should be very effective in short outings.
Rick Porcello is the most disappointing pitcher the Sox have on the current roster. Signed in April to a four-year, $82.5 million extension, he has not come close to delivering upon the expectations of the team or the fans. On the plus side, his FIP and xFIP are 1.5 to two runs better than his ERA, but his BABIP is .328, so bad luck is not much of an excuse. There is a little bit of that, but it is mainly bad location. He is not close to the same pitcher the Sox were expecting to see every five starts. If he is unable to fix his command and control, the Red Sox have very little chance this season.
Unless the Sox acquire a starter through a trade, at least two of these guys will need to step up. A winning season is very unlikely with the starters performing at this level, even if the offense continues to average 5+ runs a game. Kelly could be a huge addition to the ‘pen, which has been a weak spot all season. Given Masterson’s loss of velocity, there seems little chance that he regains the form he had before he was injured last season. So that leaves it up to Porcello and a pitcher to be named later to right the good ship Red Sox.
Rick Rowand has written about Mike Napoli’s struggles, John Farrell’s disappointing season,Brock Holt’s cycle, and a series about Bogaerts, Betts and Swihart.
Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.