Boston's rotation showing signs of hope
Stats suggest starters not as lackluster as perceived, as Red Sox look for ways to improve
The Red Sox have already changed pitching coaches. The next natural step would be to change pitchers, and manager John Farrell acknowledged to reporters earlier this week that Boston's much-maligned rotation is "always up for review."
So let's review it. The surface-level results for this rotation have been awful. Following Rick Porcello's inefficient-but-effective outing in a win over Oakland on Monday night, Red Sox starters are now 9-13 with a 5.63 ERA outweighed only by the Coors Field-aided 5.66 mark of the Rockies' rotation.
But while the prevailing opinion is that Boston's starting staff stinks on ice, some advanced data suggests otherwise.
Red Sox starters ...
• Are fifth in the American League in strikeout percentage (20.2).
• Are sixth in xFIP (4.04), which judges pitchers on elements they actually. control (strikeouts, walks and homers allowed) and strips away defense and luck.
• Are sixth in SIERA (4.04), which is based on walk, strikeout and ground-ball rates and eliminates the effects of park, defense and luck.
• Have the sixth-lowest homers-per-nine-innings rate (0.96).
• Have surrendered the third-highest batting average on balls in play (.323), which suggests they've been a bit unlucky with the way the ball bounces.
So that's a very nerdy way of suggesting that while Boston isn't rolling out a series of AL Cy Young Award candidates, it is fielding your basic middle-of-the-pack rotation. Not a total biohazard.
The Sox's starters are far from perfect, as you've no doubt noticed. Their greatest sin, en masse, has been a penchant for walks (their 8.8 percent walk rate is the third highest in the AL) and for misfortune.
Take Clay Buchholz. Yes, his results have been erratic. And it's doubtful the new haircut that Buchholz debuted in a much-needed win over Toronto over the weekend qualifies as a cure-all. But no pitcher in baseball has a greater discrepancy between his ERA (5.73) and his FIP (3.10), per FanGraphs.
How does that happen? Buchholz is striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings, the best rate of his career. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3.31, also the best of his career. Buchholz is getting ground balls 50.9 percent of the time, which is his best such mark in six years. But nearly 40 percent of the balls put in play against him have fallen for hits, a ridiculous total that is bound -- and due -- to come down.
Porcello, by his own admission, had to battle with less-than-satisfying stuff Monday night. But Boston has now won each of his past four starts. Porcello has been the Sox's most consistent starter.
It's the next three guys that you wonder about, and command is going to be key going forward.
Miley's walk rate (3.8 per nine) has spiked, while his strikeout rate (6.60) has sunk, and he's given up 13 earned runs over his past 15 1/3 innings.
Masterson's "fastball" is averaging 88 mph, he's been a burden on the bullpen (accruing just 33 innings in six starts) and he's also been particularly walk prone, with 4.9 per nine.
Walks are what have prevented Joe Kelly from making the most of his well-regarded repertoire. He has a Buchholz-like gap between his ERA (6.35) and his FIP (4.48) marks, and he's been bitten multiple times by the big inning this season, precipitated by the four walks per nine he's serving up.
This is not a world-beating rotation, by any stretch of the imagination, and Juan Nieves was the unfortunate -- dare I say undeserving -- early fall guy for the rotation's less-than-dazzling numbers. Yet he was replaced by Carl Willis, who played no small part in the back-to-back AL Cy Young Award-winning seasons of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in Cleveland in 2007-08, and he was deserving of another Major League opportunity. It says here he'll help on the command front.
Understand, though, that Willis doesn't need to throw on a lab coat, eye protection and double gloves. This rotation isn't as radioactive as the ERA makes it appear.
There are certainly personnel changes to consider, and Farrell hinted that a closer inspection might be made in the next week or so. Masterson, who is on a one-year contract, and Kelly, who has Minor League options, are the most vulnerable members of this starting five. Knuckleballer Steven Wright and right-hander Matt Barnes are two bullpen arms capable of being stretched out, and Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez are just a phone call away at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Then, of course, there is the trade market, which might be beginning to open up with middle-to-back-end pieces like Aaron Harang or Kyle Lohse, or a more high-end option like Scott Kazmir potentially there for the taking. It's not Cole Hamels or nothing.
So the Red Sox, rich in trade chips and rich in general, are not totally stuck with their in-house options. That flexibility is the No. 1 reason not to get too hot and bothered here.
But the current rotation alignment, contrary to popular opinion, has not been a total disaster. It's merely been middling.
Bottom line? If this team hits like it's capable of (another issue entirely, as Boston's bats have averaged a Major League-worst 2.7 runs per game this month), merely middling is sufficient for success.