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.



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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.


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