Saturday, May 9, 2015

In Defense of Juan Nieves

Nieves was the first casualty of Boston's miserable start (Boston Herald)
It's not even Mother's Day, and heads are already starting to roll in Boston.

The Red Sox reacted to their slow start Thursday by firing pitching coach Juan Nieves, who had filled the role for the past two-plus seasons. Boston actually pitched pretty well under his watch until Ben Cherington tore up its rotation last summer.

This was the kind of knee-jerk reaction you see all the time from slumping ballclubs. It's a lot easier, after all, to remake a coaching staff than it is a roster. That Nieves was canned so early in the season hardly seems fair, especially since he was only given a month of games to break in four new starting pitchers.

Everyone can see that rotation is the problem, not Nieves. The Red Sox aren't struggling because Nieves wasn't doing his job: they're struggling because their rotation is just as bad as many feared it would be.

That much was evident last night and today, as the Blue Jays pounded the Sox for seven runs in each game. Granted, Toronto has a terrific lineup even without Jose Reyes at the top of it, but conventional wisdom holds that good pitching can take care of good hitting. Boston does not have a single good pitcher right now.

And who's fault is that? Certainly not Juan Nieves. No, the person really to blame here is Ben Cherington, who blew up what was actually a pretty good rotation last year (Boston's lineup was the problem) and assembled in its place the franchise's first ace-less rotation since 1997, the year after Roger Clemens and before Pedro Martinez. Since then the Sox have always had clear number ones; Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester--none of whom are walking through that clubhouse door.

Lester could and should still be here, had Cherington not failed to re-sign him, traded him, then failed to re-sign him again. It doesn't matter that Lester hasn't pitched well this year; he's still better than anyone currently in the Red Sox rotation. So are James Shields, Cole Hamels, and Max Scherzer, all of whom were readily available but none of whom Boston acquired.

So for the first time in almost 20 years Boston began the season without a clear-cut ace, and so far the results have been utterly disastrous. The Red Sox currently sport the worst rotation ERA in baseball, which if sustained would be their worst in franchise history as well. Sox starters are putting the team in early holes and failing to pitch deep into games, putting extra pressure on a scuffling offense and taxing the bullpen. What appeared to be a most-pedestrian staff on paper has been getting shellacked on a nightly basis, sinking the Sox to last-place in the AL East.

Contrary to what Cherington has said but hopefully doesn't actually believe, an aceless rotation comprised of back-end starters was never going to cut it in the AL East, especially not at Fenway. Boston's purported ace and Opening Day starter, Clay Buchholz, has been manhandled to the tune of a 6.03 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. Wade Miley's been even worse, seeing his ERA rise to 6.91 after getting lit up by Toronto last night. Justin Masterson has not bounced back as hoped. Today's victim, Joe Kelly, has made it abundantly clear that he's a relief pitcher forced into a starting role. Rick Porcello, recent recipient of a  (undeserved) four-year, $82.5 million extension, has been the best of the bunch with a 4.38 ERA. When your best pitcher has an ERA well over four, you're in big trouble.

Boston's woes are hardly surprising given each pitcher's suspect track record. Buchholz was terrible last year and has been erratic in the past. Masterson was also a mess last year. Miley's been getting steadily worse since he became a full-time starter, a trend that seems unlikely to reverse itself now that he's in the American League. Joe Kelly's never made 20 starts or pitched 125 innings in a major league season, and of Porcello's six full seasons as a starter, only one produced an ERA below 3.95. The best pitching coach in the world wouldn't be able to do much with that, and I wouldn't expect Nieves's replacement, Carl Willis, to do any better.

I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that Juan Nieves shouldn't be out of a job. If anyone, it should be the guy who put together that POS rotation.

1 comment:

  1. Hamels' FIP is over 5 and that idiot GM the Phils have is still asking for WAY too much. But absolutely agree they should've went after one of the other FAs not named Shields (FIP over 5 despite playing at Petco). All they had to do was eat half of each of the Buchholz and Victorino/Craig salaries and add that to the $9 MM they gave Masterson. That's more than enough to land Lester or Scherzer. They also could've gotten Samardzija for basically the same package they gave up for Miley.