Why Boston won’t implode in 2013

On Sept. 1, 2011, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. On Sept. 1, 2013, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League. But for Boston, which moved up three spots to third in the ESPN Power Rankings this week, the starting rotation’s poor work that caused the disastrous 2011 implosion is a thing of the past. This year’s rotation is not only just as talented but also deeper.

The depth is the key here. In September 2011, the Red Sox’s rotation was running on fumes. Its starting five had pitched well in July and August, but things crashed and burned in September. Like this year, the Red Sox lost Clay Buchholz in June 2011. But unlike this year, Buchholz never pitched again. (Buchholz is expected back later this month and has already made one rehab start.) That forced the team to first hand the ball to Andrew Miller, who quickly proved that he should never be trusted as a starter again — in his 40 1/3 innings in the rotation in June and July, he struck out 25 and walked 25 and posted a 5.36 ERA.

After Miller, the team turned to trade deadline acquisition Erik Bedard. Bedard pitched better, but he wasn’t durable. An injured lat and knee forced him from the rotation on Sept. 3, and when he returned to the rotation on Sept. 20, he was a disaster — he allowed seven baserunners in a start that lasted just 2 2/3 innings. He gave it one more go seven days later in the penultimate game of the season and struck out six in a better effort, but still went only 3 1/3 innings.

When Bedard couldn’t take the ball in early September 2011, the team was forced to turn back to Miller, and the results were predictable. He tossed just 6 1/3 innings in his two September starts, allowed 11 runs and walked more hitters than he struck out. The Sox lost both games, and he was pushed back into the bullpen, where he has remained — and thrived — ever since.

Bedard’s injury on Sept. 3 left the team thin, and the situation only got worse two days later when Josh Beckettrolled his ankle at the Rogers Centre. Beckett would need to skip his next start, and in stepped Kyle Weiland. A third-round pick in 2008, Weiland had been a nonentity until ’11, when he punched out 23.5 percent of the hitters he faced in Triple-A Pawtucket. Still, he wasn’t ready for prime time. He got two spot starts in July and bombed the audition — he allowed nine runs in 10 innings and struck out four against five walks. But Boston had nowhere else to turn in mid-September, and Weiland got the ball once again. In his three September starts, he never escaped the fifth inning, and the Sox lost all three games. In his final outing on Sept. 19, he coughed up three homers to the Orioles in 4 2/3 innings. Of the 456 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings in the majors that season, only eight posted a worse FIP than Weiland’s 6.55 mark.

When Beckett was able to take the ball again on Sept. 16, it was with great relief. The team had lost six of its past seven and had allowed 60 runs in those seven games (for an abhorrent 7.5 runs per game). And for that one night, Beckett was fine — he tossed a quality start and struck out seven against one walk, and the Sox rolled. But working on regular rest his next two times out, it was clear that he was gassed. On Sept. 21, he struck out eight and walked just one, but he also allowed six runs as the then-lowly Orioles roasted the Red Sox for 13 runs total. Still, eight strikeouts … not bad, right? There was hope. But in his final start, Beckett’s average fastball velocity would dip under 93 mph for the first time in 11 starts, and the Orioles let him have it again. The next year, his average fastball would fall to 91.2 mph, and now after a May injury this year, his days as a quality pitcher seem long behind him.

Heading into this season, that is also how things looked for John Lackey. Demonized along with Beckett in the beer-and-fried-chicken fallout following the 2011 season, Lackey was chugging on the fumes of his fumes that September. He allowed at least four runs in all five of his starts that month and didn’t go past six innings in any of them. His 9.13 ERA that September was easily the worst full-month mark of his career, and after it he needed Tommy John surgery. When he came back this year, little was expected of him, even when he showed up to Sarasota, Fla., looking fit and trim. And for a minute, it looked like he would deliver little, as he left his first start with arm trouble and missed most of April. But since his return, he has been both a revelation and a rock in the rotation. He hasn’t quite been vintage Lackey, but he has been as good as he was in 2009 and 2010, and that isjust fine and dandy like sour candy.

 

Boston’s 2013 Rotation

Pitcher K/BB FIP- fWAR
Felix Doubront 2.22 85 3.1
Jon Lester 2.42 91 3.1
Clay Buchholz 2.79 59 2.9
John Lackey 4.06 91 2.8
Jake Peavy 4.35 94 2.1
Ryan Dempster 2.04 112 1.2

 

Lackey is part of a rotation that already runs five-deep with dependable starters, and if Buchholz is as good as he was in the first half when and if he returns later this month, the Sox will suddenly have more starters than they can pitch. The logical cut would be Ryan Dempster, who has easily been the worst of the bunch this season (see chart at right). But while Dempster hasn’t performed as expected this year, having him as a sixth starter is a lot more comforting than having to turn to Miller, Weiland or Alfredo Aceves, as the Red Sox did in 2011. And if for some reason they need more than these six guys — which is unlikely, considering the active quintet has made 40 of the team’s 43 second-half starts — they can turn to Brandon Workman. A prospect who graduated in midseason, Workman was touted by Baseball America as having the best curveball and the best control in the farm system this year, and he has delivered as advertised — he has struck out 37 hitters and walked just 12 in his 34 innings in Boston thus far.

Looking at the seasons month by month, the 2011 starting rotation never posted a FIP under 4.00. This season, the starting rotation has had three such months, including the past two. The normal five members of the rotation have made every start since Aug. 6, when Steven Wright got a spot start. Entering Sunday, Boston starters had tossed 11 straight starts with a Game Score of 50 or better.

The Red Sox are as equally well-positioned in the standings this September as they were back in 2011, but in 2011 the floor was crumbling beneath them, and they didn’t have enough quality reinforcements to help them find their footing. This season, the Red Sox may not have a true ace, but if Buchholz comes back soon, they have as many as seven quality options in the rotation from which to choose. This puts them on much more stable ground than September of ’11, when no member of the rotation posted an ERA under 5.00. Boston still has to go out and win it and has a tougher September schedule than do the Tampa Bay Rays, but don’t be fooled — this season’s starting rotation is nothing like 2011′s, and the rotation’s quality and depth should help Boston cruise to its first division title since 2007.




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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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