Season Preview: Starting Rotation

The Boston Red Sox rotation has the potential to be one of best in the MLB. They share 418 wins, 2 Cy Young awards, and 8 top-5 finishes in Cy Young voting between the 6 contenders for the 5 starting spots. Potential is a very important word in this situation, though, as we in Red Sox Nation have seen many of these guys either underperform or battle injuries over the last couple years. So while they could be a top rotation, they could also falter and disappoint as well.

The Sox will most likely enter 2018 with Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright, both potential #5 starters, as well as the quietly valuable Drew Pomeranz, the 3rd or 4th starter, on the DL. Those spots will be left in the capable, although unproven, hands of Brian Johnson and Hector Velasquez, both of whom have performed very well in Spring Training. As a fully healthy unit, though, the rotation will likely look like this:

1-Chris Sale

2-David Price

3-Rick Porcello (or Drew Pomeranz)

4-Drew Pomeranz (or Rick Porcello)

5-Eduardo Rodriguez/Steven Wright (depending on who wins the job/who’s healthy)

On paper, that’s a very solid, if not stellar, staff.

Chris Sale is one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. The lanky left-hander has compiled a stellar career thus far, and had arguably his best year ever in 2017. He posted 17 wins, a 2.90 ERA and an incredible .970 WHIP, while also amassing 300 K’s for the first time of his career. He throws his mid-90’s fastball in roughly 50% of his pitches, and last year threw his devastating slider on almost 33% of his pitches. Add in a very good changeup that he throws situationally to great effect, and we can see why he’s finished in the top-6 of the Cy Young voting in each of the last 6 years. Furthermore, Alex Cora and co. have put a plan in place to combat his fatigue over the long season, something that has given him problems in August and September of years passed. The coaching staff started Sale on his Spring Training regimen later than usual this year, and are said to be weighing the idea of a limited pitch count early on. If there’s one “sure thing” in this rotation, he’s it, and we shouldn’t be surprised if he contends for the Cy Young (and maybe even wins it) yet again in 2018.

In my book, David Price is the biggest wild card of the bunch. When he’s on, he’s great, but when he’s off, he’s a liability. He still has that supremely talented arm that has allowed him to put together a very good career, but he’s lacked consistency of late, most likely due to nagging elbow issues in his throwing arm. He’s a power pitcher with all the stuff to be ace-caliber, including a hard, mid-90’s sinker and a sneaky changeup that he uses to keep hitters off-balance. When effective, that sinker sees a ground ball rate around the 93-94% mark. When he’s struggling, however, that number shrinks way down to around 80%, a death wish in hitter friendly Fenway Park. He won the Cy Young in 2012 and has finished top-6 on 3 other occasions, but has had a rough go of it since arriving in Boston in 2016, posting a 3.88 ERA in that time, over .60 points above his career average. He ended 2017 on a high note, though, making 11 almost dominant appearances out of the bullpen following a return from injury. He elected to forego surgery on that elbow this offseason, so he’s not out of the woods with it yet, but Spring Training has been encouraging up to this point, as he’s thrown 9 innings of 4-hit ball in limited work, so there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.

There’s a lot of people still high on Porcello despite his putrid 2017. He put together one of the better seasons in recent Sox history in 2016, posting 22 wins and a 3.15 ERA on his way to claiming the AL Cy Young. Many people were expecting a repeat in 2017, which he did not deliver (11-17, 4.65 ERA, 1.397 WHIP), and those same people are hoping for a return to form in 2018. I think that 2016 was an anomaly, though, and we should quell our expectations of Porcello, considering he’s been an average starter for the majority of his career. His 4.25 career ERA, 1.317 career WHIP, and 4.02 FIP wouldn’t warrant anything more than a back end starter spot in some of the more elite rotations around the league, and although he seems to have won at least the 4-spot for the Sox for the foreseeable future, beginning this new year in the same way that he had pitched in 2017 could force Alex Cora to make a change regarding his role with the club.

Drew Pomeranz has been one of the more reliable pitchers in the league over the last half-dozen years and is a somewhat underrated and under-appreciated asset for this squad. He boasts a respectable 3.67 career ERA, and performed above expectations in 2017, posting a team co-high 17 wins and a 3.32 ERA. More or less a two-pitch pitcher, he mostly throws a low-90’s fastball and a 12-6 curve, sprinkling in a changeup on less than 5% of his pitches, although the Sox coaching staff would presumably like to see him increase that changeup usage to be more unpredictable to hitters. He relies mostly on deception and has a surprisingly high strikeout rate (8.8 K/9 for his career) for a non-traditional power pitcher, and although he works his way out of jams really well, he does struggle a bit with control (3.7 BB/9 career), leading to a 1.300 career WHIP. Pomeranz’s outlook for 2018, in my opinion, is one of confidence. He’s proven himself to be a steady and reliable starter, and I think that we can expect more of the same consistent dependability from him, despite forearm tightness most likely sidelining him until early April (a repeat issue from last year’s Spring).

Rodriguez is a tough one to call. He has struggled with injuries for what seems like forever, but he’s one of the more gifted pitching talents within the Boston organization. He’s got nasty, albeit inconsistent, stuff if he can just stay healthy. He’s started just 65 games in his 3 years in Boston, winning just 19 of them and carrying a 4.23 ERA. His 8.6 career K/9 rate is indicative of how good his stuff can be, but just like Pomeranz, he struggles with control. His battle with repetitive knee injuries have certainly stunted his development, and even though he’s still only 24-years old, it’s possible that he’ll never grow into the pitcher we once hoped he would be. With that being said, though, it’s not crazy to hope for a solid mid-volume starter in his first year back from knee surgery. Something like 125 IP, 8-10 wins, and a sub-3.8 ERA (while not ideal for a starter) would be acceptable and encouraging enough from him.

Finally, Steven Wright could surprise some people once again. He’s a knuckle-baller, and like all knuckle-ballers, there’s an air of nervousness surrounding his appearances. But with a sub-4 career ERA and surprisingly consistent numbers game-to-game, he’s one of the more dependable members of his fraternity. Also, let’s not forget that he won an All-Star appearance in his last healthy year (2016), logging 13 wins and an admirable 3.33 ERA. The Red Sox don’t necessarily need a repeat of that (although they’d be ecstatic to get it), so a performance right on par with average 5th starter numbers would be just fine.

As mentioned, we’ll have 2 guys who we haven’t seen a whole lot of starting 2018 at the back end of the rotation due to the E-Rod, Pomeranz, and Wright injuries.

Brian Johnson is a bit of a mystery. He’s only made 6 career Major League appearances, but has performed very well this Spring with a 2.45 ERA and opponents’ BA of .200 in 11 IP. We also saw him toss a gem in 2017, throwing a 5-hit, complete game shutout vs. Seattle, so we know that he’s capable, but that’s about all there really is to analyze when it comes to his MLB career.

Hector Velasquez is a bit more established professionally. The 2016 pitcher of the year in Mexico made 8 appearances in 2017 (including 3 starts), and went 3-1 with a very impressive 2.92 ERA and 1.135 WHIP. He looks poised to be a surprising addition to an already good staff, perhaps even coming out and pushing someone out of the rotation if we see some struggles from anyone.

Expect both of those guys to hold their own to an extent until Pomeranz, Rodriguez, and Wright return. I’d also expect to see them pop up here and there throughout the season as spot starters if/when someone catches an injury. It’s also important to not overlook the important role of long reliever. Reality is that guys have bad outings sometimes, and when your starter is pulled in the 3rd you don’t want to have to go to 25-pitch guys out of the bullpen right away. You’d rather have someone you can trot out there who can throw 50+ pitches over 3-4 innings, effectively keeping the late inning/situational arms’ pitch, innings, and appearance counts under control over the course of the grueling 162-game season. Keeping someone like Johnson or Velasquez on the bullpen roster could be a smart move for Alex Cora in case a situation like that arises.

There’s also always the possibility that one or even both of them is lights out to start the year and pushes Rodriguez or Wright to the bullpen. The door is open for that if they can just take their chance and grab it.

All-in-all, this is a group to be confident, if not a little skeptical, about. They have the stuff, the pedigree, and the high-powered offense behind them needed to succeed. It’s just a matter of putting it all together and performing.

Very specific predictions:

MVP – Chris Sale: 32 starts, 18-5, 2.67 ERA, .969 WHIP, 298 K’s

Most Improved – David Price: 31 starts, 16-7, 3.13 ERA, 1.072 WHIP, 211 K’s

Biggest Surprise – Hector Velasquez: 10 games, 6 starts, 5-2, 3.36 ERA, 1.204 WHIP

Biggest Disappointment – Rick Porcello: 30 starts, 8-10, 4.29 ERA, 1.301 WHIP

All-Stars: Chris Sale, David Price

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