Red Sox Face Tough Decisions With Starting Rotation

Unlike in 2011, the Red Sox have a pretty deep rotation. And if Clay Buchholz returns from his nearly yearly midseason injury siesta, the Olde Towne Team will have six pitchers for five rotation spots. That could make for some awkward moments in September, but if the Sox reach October with all six pitchers healthy and ready to go, it’s going to get really awkward. It’s likely that the Sox will only need four starters, and they might only need three.

Figuring out who should take a backseat isn’t exactly easy. As I noted earlier this week, Ryan Dempster is an easy choice for the first cut based on his results this year. Pick your metric — Dempster has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the game this season. He hasn’t a scoreless start all season, and his strikeout rate has dropped in the second half. You can build a decent argument if you go back a couple of years, but he has been bad enough this year that it’s not worth considering at this time.

Still, we’ll include Dempster in the picture as we run through some stats, just for the sake of completeness. First, let’s take a look at this current season. Numbers are updated through last night’s game.

2013 GS IP K% BB% HR/FB ERA ERA- RA9-WAR FIP FIP- WAR Avg GmSc Hunter Wins Hunter Wins/GS
Lester 29 185.1 19.6% 7.9% 8.9% 3.88 92 3.1 3.71 88 3.5 53 15.0 0.52
Doubront 25 145.0 20.8% 9.4% 7.6% 3.66 87 2.6 3.55 85 3.1 53 13.2 0.53
Lackey 25 162.1 20.9% 5.1% 12.7% 3.22 77 3.9 3.73 89 3.1 56 13.8 0.55
Buchholz 12 84.1 24.9% 8.9% 3.2% 1.71 41 4.2 2.45 59 2.9 66 8.5 0.71
Peavy 20 125.2 20.6% 5.1% 10.4% 4.01 96 2.0 3.89 93 2.3 55 10.4 0.52
Dempster 27 157.2 20.7% 9.9% 14.2% 4.79 114 0.5 4.68 111 1.3 49 12.2 0.45

Trying to provide a good picture without getting bogged down in every stat imaginable, we can see that things come out out pretty even. From a rate perspective, it’s essentially Clay Buchholz out front, then a tightly-grouped pack of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy (with Peavy at the back of that pack) and then Dempster pulling up the rear. Doubront finds himself in the top three most frequently, but Lackey is right behind him, and Buchholz only misses out in bulk categories. He dominates the rate-based stats.

In seeing how close things were, I wanted to add in something that looked at things on a game-by-game basis. Average Game Score is nice, but I really enjoyed Matt Hunter’s look at pitcher inconsistency a couple of weeks back, and wanted to incorporate that. In Matt’s piece, he used stats from 1984-2012, but for my purposes here we wanted to approximate the current run environment as best as possible, so Matt was gracious enough to update his grid for me with 2010-2012 as the sample. He’s a nice guy like that. The sample sizes obviously decrease, but it’s an acceptable trade-off in my book. We use his values in the last two columns, which for lack of a better acronym I just called Hunter Wins and Hunter Wins per game started.

Unfortunately, they do little to separate out the pack. If anything, they bring Peavy closer to the pack. While he has been worth at least a full win less than the Doubront, Lackey, Lester trio by both WAR and RA9-WAR, Peavy has a better Avg GSc than the trio, and is essentially dead even in Hunter Wins.

So, what happens if we back this up to 2011-present? After all, we don’t want to judge guys too harshly on a single season.

Name GS IP K% BB% HR/FB ERA ERA- RA9-WAR FIP FIP- WAR Avg GmSc Hunter Wins Hunter Wins/GS
Lester 93 582.1 20.4% 8.3% 11.3% 4.08 96 9.3 3.89 91 10.3 53 46.5 0.50
Peavy 70 456.1 21.2% 5.3% 9.5% 3.92 93 8.3 3.65 86 9.8 55 36.3 0.52
Dempster 89 533.0 21.3% 8.9% 11.8% 4.34 106 5.5 4.06 99 6.9 51 44.2 0.50
Buchholz 55 356.1 18.2% 8.4% 10.5% 3.64 85 7.9 4.06 95 5.6 54 29.1 0.53
Doubront 54 306.0 22.3% 9.7% 11.8% 4.29 101 3.5 3.98 93 5.0 51 26.4 0.49
Lackey 53 322.1 17.5% 6.4% 11.1% 4.80 113 2.6 4.21 100 4.8 51 24.0 0.45

Here, we see Peavy closes the gap even more. This is why they traded one of the best defensive wizards in baseball to get Peavy. Lester is in the top three in all but two categories in this three-year look, but Peavy is unanimously in the top three in every category here. The thing that sticks out here is Peavy’s control. Lackey has matched him in walk rate this year, but Peavy has been honing his efficiency for a little bit now, and it shows up in the three-year numbers. Overall, Lackey takes a hit here, but that isn’t necessarily fair, as he pitched part (or all) of 2011 hurt.

And really, while taking a step back can be instructive, will that really influence the decision-making process come October? You hear talk of “he’s been there before,” when citing veteran presents, but managers rarely go out of their way to cite three-year old statistics. So what about the second half? Here, it’s just a five-pitcher group, as Buchholz hasn’t yet thrown during the second half.

Name GS IP K% BB% HR/FB ERA ERA- RA9-WAR FIP FIP- WAR Avg GmSc Hunter Wins Hunter Wins/GS
Lester 9 59.2 20.6% 6.1% 3.9% 2.41 57 2.0 2.79 66 1.9 59 5.7 0.63
Lackey 9 62.0 18.2% 4.4% 9.5% 3.92 93 1.2 3.60 86 1.4 53 4.9 0.54
Doubront 9 51.1 18.4% 7.8% 5.5% 3.86 92 0.8 3.35 80 1.2 51 4.7 0.52
Peavy 9 58.2 16.3% 4.7% 9.1% 3.68 88 1.1 4.08 98 1.0 55 4.7 0.53
Dempster 8 47.1 19.0% 9.0% 10.0% 6.08 145 -0.4 4.05 96 0.7 44 3.2 0.40

Here, we see once again that Peavy doesn’t necessarily match up on a cumulative level, but his penchant for being lights out keeps him in the conversation and essentially even with Doubront and Lackey. Lester however, has pulled away from the pack. Lester’s velocity has been back in the second half, and he is pushing over 95 mph more regularly than he did in 2011 and 2012. He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last six starts, and his woeful June — when he posted a 7.62 ERA and 6.78 FIP — seems like a thing of the past. Even more comforting is that he has found a new level of efficiency against right-handed hitters:

Year BB% vs. RHB
2006 12.9%
2007 10.6%
2008 8.5%
2009 8.2%
2010 9.8%
2011 9.6%
2012 8.4%
2013 7.8%

After backsliding in 2010 and ’11, Lester rebounded last season and this season he has been at his best. It hasn’t necessarily helped him fare better against righties overall, but the fact that he’s walking fewer of them bodes well for Lester to work deep into games, which will be critical if Boston’s bullpens continues to melt down like it did last night in the Bronx.

Getting back to the question at hand, we see that after running through the stats, it is clear that Dempster can go. It’s also clear that if he’s healthy and himself, Buchholz needs to be in the mix. And given how dominant Lester has been lately, combined with his above-average work as a whole that he is a no-brainer as well. That leaves one-to-two spots to choose from amongst Doubront, Lackey and Peavy. It would stand to reason that the two vets would get the nod with Doubront moving to the ‘pen, as the team seemingly needs all the help it can get thanks to the misadventures of Craig Breslow and Matt Thornton (and also especially since the Sox probably didn’t acquire Peavy to ride the bench in the postseason). But that’s not necessarily fair to Doubront, who has been solid all year and by at least one measure (FIP-) has been the team’s second-best starter since the All-Star break. At the end, the Doubront-Lackey-Peavy trio is even enough that things like health, matchups and manager’s intuition take on even more importance than they would normally.

Having pitching depth is of the utmost importance throughout the major league season, but come October, some hard decisions need to be made. If in fact the Red Sox do reach the postseason, they will have a number of hard decisions to make up and down the roster, but the toughest will clearly be who takes the ball in the starting rotation. Buchholz’s first half and Lester’s second half present pretty strong evidence, but after that it’s pick your favorite statistic when making the case for which of the Doubront, Lackey and Peavy group should pitch, if in fact statistics are what should be used to make the final decision.



Print This Post



Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
KyleL
Guest
KyleL
2 years 11 months ago

For me it’s Doubront who gets left out. He’s been great on the whole this year, but he’s shown lately that he’s still prone to inefficiency, and the occasional blow up, and he’s only about 10 innings from his career high, so he’ll be in uncharted territory come October.

my jays are red
Guest
my jays are red
2 years 11 months ago

for a pitcher that’s turning 26 in a month and a half, workload should not be too much of an issue. also, he’s been incredibly consistent for the past few months. there is literally zero argument that he’s been less valuable than Dempster. you don’t keep a pitcher with a 3.5 FIP off a starting rotation.

IT Department
Guest
IT Department
2 years 11 months ago

Doubront’s HR/FB% is quite low this year (7.4%) compared to his career norms (11.4%) and he has has an ERA .42 higher than his FIP for his career in 346.2 IP. I’m not sure when that would stabilize, but there are signs he isn’t really a pitcher who can produce a 3.5 ERA.

KyleL
Guest
KyleL
2 years 11 months ago

Well, two pitchers are going to have to be left out of the playoff rotation, and I was working under the assumption that Dempster was the obvious first choice (as was the article), and with Lester and Buchholz presumed locks, it’s between Lackey, Peavy, and Doubront; I wouldn’t mind at all having any of them in my playoff rotation, but one of them has to be left off, and Doubront makes the most sense in my opinion for the reasons I stated.

Henry
Guest
Henry
2 years 11 months ago

Enjoyed the article, even if the eventual conclusion was “yep, it’s basically as close as it looks.” Definitely a good problem to have.

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
2 years 11 months ago

I’m not sure the Red Sox have this problem quite yet. I’m actually kind of excited for Dempster to go to the Pen. It’s been awhile but he has been effective there before. Boston has 20 games left so Buchholz only has 4 starts to put this together for the postseason. He’s proven himself fragile in the past and has not produced in two rehab starts, going no more than the 3-2/3 last night at Pawtucket. That’s the bigger problem here to me. Does Buchholz come back with top of the rotation stuff? Can he be counted on for innings and production in game 1 or 2 of a series. That’s the question I’m more concerned about. Once he proves fit we can revisit your question here. As it stands now I think Lester, Lackey and Peavy are locks. Barring the unforeseen it comes down to Buchholz or Doubront. Especially given the righthanded hitting of the Rays, Rangers and Tigers.

Steve
Guest
Steve
2 years 11 months ago

I’d be kind of excited to not have a terrible pitcher pitch more innings for my team, too.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
2 years 11 months ago

As one who remembers the Sox starting Lonborg on two days rest in 1967, I think this is all good.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
2 years 11 months ago

#RedSoxGraphs

Malgikansch
Guest
Malgikansch
2 years 11 months ago

I see posts like this on literally every story that mentions the Red Sox.

Hank
Guest
Hank
2 years 11 months ago

Pretty sure the word literally does not mean what you think it means.

(sorry, a pet peeve of mine)

KyleL
Guest
KyleL
2 years 11 months ago

Google search “literally definition”

“used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.”

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 11 months ago

Well if the Google says it, it must be true!

(Much like Wikipedia!)

ed
Guest
ed
2 years 11 months ago

#WhinyCommenterGraphs

eric woodman
Guest
eric woodman
2 years 11 months ago

Det, TB, Oak and Tex are the top teams in the AL (By OPS) against LHP and all but Det have big drop offs V RHP. Easy choice who goes with that in mind (Doubront).

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
2 years 11 months ago

I agree completely. I’d rather have Doubront than Dempster but so long as Buchholz is good to go they can strengthen the bullpen.

FeslenR
Guest
FeslenR
2 years 11 months ago

Dempster SHOULD get the boot, but because he has “Veterans status”, he probably will remain in the rotation.

Eric Feczko
Guest
Eric Feczko
2 years 11 months ago

No. He’ll get the boot. Four spots are available for six pitchers in october. One veteran will be dropped.

eric woodman
Guest
eric woodman
2 years 11 months ago

Dempster is a given to be gone (barring injuries elsewhere). The question is who else is out of the postseason rotation. I see no scenario under which the sox use 3 starters. That would require a dominant bull of an ace and a weak #4. While Bucholtz could be the clear #1 if he is back to where he was in April/May, he is the last guy you would start on short rest to keep a solid option like Dubront or Peavy out.

Mike G
Guest
Mike G
2 years 11 months ago

It’s already been announced that Dempster is being moved to the bullpen and Buchholz is taking his turn on Tuesday. I agree that leaves Doubront as the other guy left out, but solely as a match-ups consideration. If the Red Sox were to have to face a more lefty dominate lineup, I’d say replace Peavy with Doubront.

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
2 years 11 months ago

Anyone who is considering Buchholz a lock at this point is not taking into consideration what we have seen from him prior to this year. He’s not a lock to step on the mound till he is on it. He can be an excellent picture but he is the very definition of fragile. This is the second time in three years that a “minor injury” has kept him out for three months or more. This is not Chris Carpenter.

Ian R.
Guest
Ian R.
2 years 11 months ago

I was with you until that last sentence. If your whole point is that Buchholz is injury-prone, why would you use Chris Carpenter, a guy who has repeatedly been on the DL for months (or years) at a time, as your counter-example?

eric woodman
Guest
eric woodman
2 years 11 months ago

My guess is he was implying that Carpenter is dominant when he’s not injured. BUt I think you can say the same for Bucholtz. And if he appears to be not right, they will simply move him to the setup role or leave him off the roster entirely. They will have 4 or 5 starts to find out. Should be obvious by the time they need to decide whether he’s back and ready to contribute.

Don’t read too much into that start yesterday. His wife gave birth the night before. I doubt he was all there. The big thing is he’s pain free, apparently.

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
2 years 11 months ago

I was implying that Carpenter when not injured WAS extremely durable, and in particular I was referring to a couple years ago when Carpenter came back on gut and guile to win some big games down the stretch and in the playoffs in the Cards 2011 World Series Victory. Probably not the best comp but I think their is some comparison to be made between the two (on separate ends of a very narrow spectrum).

Joe
Guest
Joe
2 years 11 months ago

I’d go Buchholz, Lester, Lackey, Peavy. Doubront in the pen. UNLESS maybe they faced a lineup that can’t hit lefties or something. Are there any potential playoff teams that struggle against lefties?

Joe
Guest
Joe
2 years 11 months ago

Also, Doubront is the one guy that hasn’t started a playoff game. I wouldn’t necessarily ignore that with the options being so close in their level of production.

Steve
Guest
Steve
2 years 11 months ago

Right, because baseball is a totally different game with totally different rules after the last regular season game?

ed
Guest
ed
2 years 11 months ago

Well, all other things being equal, it’s not the craziest idea in the world. Not saying it’s necessarily true, but lots of guys who have played a lot of baseball put some credence to it. Maybe if they stated their opinion in the form of a sarcastic question it would appeal more to your sensibilities?

Ian R.
Guest
Ian R.
2 years 11 months ago

Doubront has made 57 major league starts in his career, and will most assuredly make a few more before the playoffs begin.

Doubront’s teammate, John Lackey, had started just 18 regular-season games when he fired seven shutout innings in his first career postseason start in the 2002 ALCS.

I don’t doubt that postseason experience is a factor, but there are plenty of rookies who’ve gone into the playoffs with no prior experience and pitched well. Doubront isn’t even a rookie.

eric woodman
Guest
eric woodman
2 years 11 months ago

Peavy had had 2 post season starts, lasted 9.2 innings, gave up 19 hits, 3 HR and 13 runs. And that was when he was a 4.6-5 WAR player. So he should get points for that?

Matt Gray
Guest
Matt Gray
2 years 11 months ago

It’s the last month of the season, I will start by saying that we will use 6 guys for 5 spots. For the first 2-3 weeks of September bump guys back a day, giving them 6 days rest instead of 5. After the 2-3 weeks period Dempster, Buchholz, or Doubront should be sent to the bullpen. Doubront as he has struggled with consistency lately, he is also nearing his innings total from last year, and we want him to be effective in Oct/Nov. Dempster because of his inconsistencies all season, and previous experience in the bullpen. Buchholz has looked good in rehab, so maybe he is better off not trying to regain starter arm strength and let him assume the Tim Linecum “fireman” role (ala 2012) and bridge the gap from starters to Koji/Tazawa/Breslow.
Either way when we can the playoffs my starters are Lackey, Lester, Peavy in that order. I mention that order because of arm slots, handedness and repertoires .

Matt Gray
Guest
Matt Gray
2 years 11 months ago

*Buchholz hasn’t looked good in his rehab starts.

wily mo
Member
2 years 11 months ago

this is actually really simple. lester, lackey and peavy are locked in. if buchholz comes back looking solid and on point in september, he’s the fourth. if not, go with doubront. the other one goes to the pen, can be brought back as events warrant. dempster -> pen, and stays there no matter what. that’s it

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
2 years 11 months ago

BINGO. END OF DISCUSION.

Cus
Guest
Cus
2 years 11 months ago

I would say that if you ask every team who they would rather face in the play-offs, Peavy or Lackey, every single team would say Lackey. For the lefties I think it is match-up dependent based on opponent.

Cus
Guest
Cus
2 years 11 months ago

As opposed to match-up dependent based on grilled cheese.

Cus
Guest
Cus
2 years 11 months ago

As opposed to match-up independent sample t-test (alpha = .05).

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 11 months ago

Its a nice problem to have. Sometimes these things have a way of working themselves out.

Dempster is certainly out. How Doubront, Buchholz and Peavy pitch the remainder probably decides which one of them get the boot.

MrKnowNothing
Guest
MrKnowNothing
2 years 11 months ago

Rather than figure out which may be the best starter, perhaps go backwards: figure out which of the interchangeable group you’d think would best adapt to the bullpen.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 11 months ago

It doesn’t much matter what Doubrant has put up this year, he’s gassed. Again. The fastball left the park several starts back, and the location is now following it out. This is vintage Doubrant, who just ain’t that into the game. God knows the team is vexed every time he shows up in Florida looking like a pile of dough, and he swears again that he’s going to turn over a new leaf. It also doesn’t inspire confidence that he appears to be expending the effort of a guy pitching horseshoes.

The curious expectations placed on Buchholz are not from anything he’s done lately. Last spring might as well be last year. He could really stink. Nobody knows. Doubrant and Dempster we do know will stink. Lester, Lackey, and Peavy will be decent to good for the playoffs, but teams are not going to lose sleep over facing them. Everything is up for grabs this year, so they have as good a chance as anyone.

CFIC
Guest
2 years 11 months ago

aren’t the Cardinals questions about their rotation tougher?

wpDiscuz