Thursday, July 17, 2014

Red Sox Pitching First Half Review 2014

It's really too bad the Red Sox haven't been able to hit a lick this year, because even if they were an average offensive team they'd probably be leading the AL East right now thanks to their stellar pitching.

This is the rarest of Red Sox teams in that their pitching's been pretty good, but their lineup has stunk to high heaven (reflected in the fact that both their All-Stars were hurlers). The staff as a whole has the fourth-best ERA in the American League--not too shabby for a team playing half its games at Fenway--and the circuit's fifth-most strikeouts. Jon Lester and John Lackey have formed a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, Jake Peavy hsn't been nearly as bad as his 1-8 record suggests, and Clay Buchholz seems to be rounding into form. For the most part the bullpen has been fantastic, none better than a certain Japanese closer pictured above.

Here's my take on some of the key Red Sox pitchers this year along with their first half grades in parentheses:

SP Jon Lester (A+)
Lester's postseason success seems to have carried over into the regular season, which is shaping up to be the best of his career (in a contract year, no less). His 2.65 ERA is a full run lower than his career 3.66 mark and his 2.61 FIP means it's no fluke. The 30 year-old has reversed four straight years of declining strikeout rates by fanning more than a batter per inning for the first time since 2010. With 134 K's he's already more than three quarters of the way to last year's total of 177. He's showed better command of the strike zone as well, slashing his walk rate to a career-low 2.0 BB/9, which in concert with his improved K rate has resulted in a 4.62 K/BB ratio (it was 2.56 from 2010 through 2013). Lester's also limited his mistakes and thus the long ball, posting the lowest home run rate of his career. Mix it all together and Lester's been one of the ten best pitchers in the American League this year, a worthy All-Star and Cy Young candidate with an ERA 35 percent better than the average pitcher after adjustments for league and park. Lester's going to get paid this offseason, but will the Red Sox be the ones footing the bill?

SP John Lackey (B+)
Lackey's strong first half proved that last year's unexpected return to form was no fluke. The 35 year-old has been terrific in his fifth season with the Sox, compiling a 3.79 ERA, 3.53 FIP and 3.89 K/BB ratio in his 123 and a-third innings. He didn't miss a start, which could explain why he faded at the end of the first half. His ERA ballooned from 2.96 on June 22nd to 3.79 by the break as he got beaten around by the Mariners, Yankees in Orioles in three successive starts. Though he earned the win, Lackey labored through his final start of the half against a weak Astros lineup, walking five and needing 117 pitches to get through six innings. Hopefully the break will help him recharge and get back on track.

SP Clay Buchholz (D-)
The ace of Boston's staff last year has been their least effective starter this year. True to form, Buchholz landed on the Disabled List in late May with a hyperextended left knee and missed a full month. At the time he had a 7.02 ERA, much like how he had an equally disgusting 7.19 ERA at the end of May in 2012. Buchholz pitched much better over the final four months of that season, trimming his ERA to 4.22 by the end of September before the Yankees shelled him in his final start of the year. A similar turnaround appears to be underway this year, with his four starts since coming off the DL producing much better results. His pre-and post-DL splits couldn't be more night and day:

Through May 26th: 7.02 ERA 1.98 WHIP .339/.403/.502 .384 BABiP 63% strikes 7% swinging strikes
Since May 26th: 2.73 ERA 0.71 WHIP .197/.215/.356  .197 BABiP 67% strikes 12% swinging strikes

Buchholz has returned to form since returning from the DL, striking out 23 against one lone walk in 29 and two-thirds innings of 2.73 ERA-ball. His most recent turn was easily his best of the season, a complete game three-hit shutout in Houston where he whiffed 12 Astros and walked none. Expect Buchholz to continue his run of success in the second half.

SP Jake Peavy (D+)
Poor Peavy. I really don't have anything else to add.

SP Felix Doubront (F)
Doubront was really struggling before going on the DL with a strained left (throwing) shoulder. Rather than continue to improve as he did last year, he appeared to be taking a major step back. In two of his ten starts he couldn't even make it out of the third inning, and in two others he failed to finish the fifth. After spending a month on the Disabled List he has been removed from the starting rotation, though his bullpen adventures have been just as difficult. His 5.06 ERA in three appearances out of the 'pen is only marginally better than his 5.19 ERA as a starter this season. What's even more frustrating is that Doubront showed for a long time last year that he could pitch well at the major league level. It's clear that he's broken, but can he be fixed? Hopefully once he adapts to his relief role he'll be able to regain his confidence.

SP Brandon Workman (D)
Workman was used primarily as a reliever last year, his first in the majors, but has since transitioned to a starter in his sophomore campaign. He made the Opening Day roster and pitched well in his three relief appearances early in the season, but was demoted to Pawtucket to gain more experience as a starting pitcher. Though he fared terribly with a 5.36 ERA in eight starts, the seasoning proved worthwhile when he was recalled in late May to replace Doubront in the rotation. The 25 year-old has been merely serviceable in that role with a 4.50 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 1.89 K/BB ratio in his eight starts this year. That's fine for a fifth starter stand-in.

SP Rubby De La Rosa (A-)
De La Rosa, who you might recall came over from the Dodgers in Boston's infamous roster purge two summers ago, pitched sparingly for the Sox last year, making 11 relief appearances and zero starts in the final two months of the season. He failed to distinguish himself in Triple-A (4.26 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) and during his cup of coffee, yielding 15 hits and seven earned runs in his 11 and a third innings of work.

This year has been a different story entirely for the 25 year-old. Though he began the season with Pawtucket, he was called up in late May when Buchholz made his annual trip to the Disabled List. His first start in a Red Sox uniform--versus the Rays at Fenway Park on May 31st--was a gem. De La Rosa twirled seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits (three of them singles) and no walks while striking out eight as Boston cruised to a 7-1 victory and sixth win in a row.

De La Rosa remained in the rotation until Buchholz returned in late June, delivering a pair of mediocre starts and a pair of great ones. He was demoted upon Buchholz's return, only to be summoned again a few weeks later with John Farrell needing a spot starter against the White Sox. De La Rosa didn't dazzle but pitched well enough (three earned runs in five innings) to keep Boston in the game, a game they eventually won. He takes a 2.89 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 4.13 K/BB ratio into the second half, albeit in the small sample size of 37 and a third innings. He's not this good, as his 3.75 FIP will tell you, but it's encouraging to see him performing so well as a starter, better than anyone could have possibly expected. Whether in the rotation or as a trade chip, De La Rosa should be provide some value going forward.

CL Koji Uehara (A+)
The Red Sox don't take leads late into games very often, but when they do they can be sure that those leads are safe in the hands of Uehara. As expected, Uehara has come back to earth a bit following his fantastic and historic 2013, but he's still been one of the best closers in the game hands-down. In addition to converting 18 of his 20 save chances, the first-time All-Star owns a 57/6 K/BB ratio, 1.65 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. He's ran into some hiccups over the past three weeks or so, with both his blown saves coming in that time as his ERA has jumped from a microscopic 0.57 on June 17th to 1.65 at the break. As much as it pains me to say it, the Red Sox must trade their 39 year-old star closer, a free agent at season's end. More on that to come.

Rest of the 'pen: Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa have all been outstanding. Free agent addition Edward Mujica has been the opposite of that, as has Craig Breslow. Chris Capuano, another free agent signing, also struggled mightily and was DFA'd because of it along with Grady Sizemore and A.J. Pierzynski.

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