Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Red Sox Pitching First Half Review

After Red Sox starting pitchers posted a franchise worst 5.19 ERA last year, they have a engineered a massive turnaround under new manager/former pitching coach John Farrell. Their 3.81 ERA is nearly a run and a half better than it was last season, when the club lost 93 games after falling behind early and often. Though Boston's pitching staff is merely average, ranking near the middle of the pack in most categories, it performs well enough to keep the team in games and allow the team's elite offense to carry the day. Just as abysmal starting pitching was behind Boston's historic 2011 collapse and terrible 2012, healthy, effective starters combined with solid relief work have gone a long way towards restoring the team's winning ways.

SP Jon Lester (8-6, 4.58 ERA)
It's been a rough first half for Lester, who's pitched almost as poorly as he did during his pedestrian 2012. What's even more frustrating is that he got off to such a great start, seemingly "fixed" by Farrell. Over the past two months, however, he's been maddeningly inconsistent and ineffective.
Therough May 15th (9 starts): 6-0, 2.72 ERA, 3.33 K/BB, 4 HR, .576 OPS, 64 strike %
Since May 15th (11 starts): 2-6, 6.27 ERA, 1.77 K/BB, 11 HR, .883 OPS, 62 strike %
Since his velocity is fine and he's been healthy, the only possible explanation is that Lester hasn't located his pitches well recently. He's throwing fewer strikes, and the strikes he does throw catch too much of the plate. In fact, he's been so hittable that the average opponent transforms into Edwin Encarnacion when he digs in against Lester. By leaving his pitches up in the zone, Lester's inducing fewer fewer grounders and is allowing hitters to elevate the ball, which explains why he's surrendering more long balls. On the whole, Lester (4.02 xFIP) hasn't been quite as bad as his ERA would suggest, but it's not like he's been particularly unfortunate. Bad luck has also played a part in his recent struggles, yes, but he experienced good luck during the season's first six weeks so his luck has more or less evened out. On the bright side, his performance improved considerably during the season's final two months last year, so the hope is that he can turn it around in the second half and help pitch Boston back into the postseason.

SP Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA)
The uber-talented but ever-fragile Buchholz was nothing short of magnificent before a neck injury forced him to the Disabled List in June. Until then he was the frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award. The Red Sox went 11-1 in his 12 starts, probably because he allowed more than two earned runs just once. Incredibly, he allowed just two home runs during those dozen gems. Unfortunately, the All-Star probably won't take the field again until September, the kind of absence that leaves a big hole in the rotation and may ultimately prevent Boston from reaching the postseason.

SP Ryan Dempster (5-8, 4.28 ERA)
Boston's big free agent pitching acquisition has fulfilled his role as a solid midrotation stabilizer. He was great in the early going but has since settled into a steady, reliable innings eater, allowing three earned runs or fewer in nine of his past ten starts. His propensity for allowing too many baserunners (1.45 WHIP) and home runs (1.6/9--the highest of his career) limit him from pitching deep into games (he's averaging less than six innings per start) while keeping his ERA+ at a perfectly average 100. That said, he's held his own against his AL East competition and should continue to provide decent results going forward. Hopefully he can avoid a repeat of his disastrous second half from last season after the Cubs traded him to Texas.

SP John Lackey (7-7, 2.95 ERA)
After bombing in 2011 and missing all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Lackey came into 2013 with zero expectations. Certainly nobody was expecting the 34 year-old to pitch the best baseball of his career, but after a rocky start that's exactly what he's done. Lackey's returned to form by keeping the ball down (thus inducing lots of ground balls) and commanding the strike zone. His walk rate has never been lower while his strikeout rate is the highest it's been since 2005. What's more, he's improved his velocity and has gotten stronger as the season's gone on. After completing seven innings just twice in April and May combined, he's finished seven frames six times in the past six weeks. A bit of regression is probably in order--his 80.3 LOB% is well above league average and likely to come down--but his stellar peripherals prove that his turnaround his legit. For instance, his 3.17 xFIP essentially matches his ERA.

SP Felix Doubront (7-3, 3.76 ERA)
Pegged as a breakout candidate after a promising but uneven 2012--his first full season--the hard-throwing southpaw has improved considerably thus far in 2013. Though he's striking out fewer batters than he did last year (diminished velocity is to blame for that), Doubront's been more economical with his pitches and could cross the 200 inning threshold for the first time in his career. Aside from back-to-back six-run outings to open May, he's held opponents to three runs or less in the rest of his starts (16 of 18) this year. He's been especially good at limiting the long ball, serving up just eight dingers on the year. With a 2.59 ERA in his past dozen starts, the 25 year-old appears to be coming into his own as he realizes his exciting potential.

The 'pen (3.97 ERA)
Gone are the days of Jonathan Papelbon, when Boston could count on a shutdown closer to mow down opponents and preserve wins. Joel Hanrahan, a two-time All-Star, was supposed to be that guy, but he pitched poorly and was lost for the season in early May. His setup man Andrew Bailey didn't do much better (and is now done for the year), forcing Farrell to turn to Koji Uehara, who began the season with 14 saves to his name. That lack of closer experience hasn't stopped Uehara from flourishing, and he looks like the solution to Boston's ninth inning problems despite depleting the middle relief corps. Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa have been excellent, as was Andrew Miller before he got hurt, but there aren't too many options beyond them. Ben Cherington needs to trade for another reliever or two to shore up the bullpen, but as long as he brings in some help the bullpen should continue to be fine.

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