Looking at the names of the Red Sox starting rotation this preseason, one couldn’t help but think that that front five would be the main reason the Sox would contend in 2010. While there have been a couple of nice stories in Lester and Buchholz, the overall outcome was a big letdown.
What has gone right, what has gone wrong and what do we have to look forward to in 2011?
The ace: Jon Lester
Approaching 200 innings for the third straight season, Jon Lester has established himself as the clear ace of the Red Sox. Last season, Lester made a huge jump in his K/9 going from 6.5 to 9.7 while maintaining a very good walk rate. This season, Lester’s 9.85 K/9 ranks second in baseball to Brandon Morrow (minimum 100 IP). While he had some streaks where his command was off, Lester made a huge adjustment overall to work consistently down in the zone. That enabled him to fix his home runs allowed problem from last season as well as see his ground ball rate jump from about 47 percent over the last two seasons to about 54 percent this season. All signs point to another fantastic season in 2011.
The Dollar Signs on the DL: Josh Beckett
This has been a season to forget for Beckett other than the fact that he signed a four-year/$68M extension. Shortly after signing on the dotted line, Beckett hit the DL and spent almost half the season there. When he did pitch, he was inconsistent to say the least. Beckett has allowed 123 hits in 108 innings pitched while surrendering 14 home runs. As poor as Beckett’s numbers are, his peripheral stats suggest that the 2011 season could be much better. This season, Beckett has been hurt by a bit of bad luck. Opposing hitters have a .350 BABIP against Beckett, which is quite high and Beckett’s strand rate is at a low 62 percent, well below the league average. If those two rate stats simply regress toward Beckett’s career averages, his numbers would look a lot better. Improving the defense in 2011 will go a long way, but Beckett does enough on his own with high strikeout totals and low walk totals to see better results regardless.
The breakout: Clay Buchholz
Finally, the season Sox fans have been waiting for from Buchholz. Unfortunately, it came in the wrong year as the playoffs are out of reach. It’s also unfortunate because a repeat performance in 2011 is unlikely. Unlike Beckett, Buchholz has mediocre peripherals, including a below average 1.75 K/BB rate. However, Buchholz has been the beneficiary of a low .267 BABIP against while stranding over 78 percent of base runners, which is above league average. In all likelihood, both rates will regress in 2011 and beyond.
Lowering his home runs allowed has been a big factor as his HR/9 went from 1.27 last season to only 0.51 this year. His HR/FB rate against is very low (6.2 percent), but that number is also one likely to rise in 2011. This season has certainly not been all luck. Not by any stretch. Buchholz has held a ground ball rate of over 50 percent all season and held opposing batters to a line drive rate of around 17 percent.
The biggest concern with Buchholz is his lack of command and control at times. His 3.55 BB/9 is worse than the league average rate this season and would be a bigger issue if not for an inflated strand rate. He hasn’t been much above average in the strikeout category either, though I believe there is room for him to progress in that department going forward.
Bottom line: Buchholz is going to be a good pitcher for the next several seasons, but his ERA’s might be closer to 3.75-3.85 than anything below 3.00.
The new disappointment: John Lackey
Signed this offseason to a five-year/$82.5M contract, Lackey was supposed to be the best third starter in baseball or close to it. Instead, his season has been filled with regression and inconsistencies. Both his strikeout rate and walk rate regressed for the fourth straight season. There were moments in June and July where it seemed like he would start to turn things around, but it never stuck. While there is a chance that Lackey can improve his consistency and command next season, the reality is that he is indeed a number three/four starter getting paid like a one/two. Considering the Red Sox options at the top of the rotation, that isn’t really that bad of a reality, other than the overall length of his contract.
The let down, again: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Now in his fourth year with the Red Sox, Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be more of a source of frustration than anything else. There is one thing I think all baseball fans can’t stand when it comes to a pitcher: too many walks allowed. For three straight years now, Dice-K has been unable to keep his BB/9 rate under four. This season he has walked three or more in 13 of his 22 starts to date. Add on top of that a strikeout rate that has regressed every year he has been in the major leagues.
At this point, we know the type of pitcher Dice-K is. He’s got the stuff to put hitters away, but he’ll never be dominant, even with improved command. It is interesting to note, however, that his best pitch statistically it his cut fastball. He has used that pitch about 18 percent of the time this season as opposed to his four-seamer, which has been used the majority (41 percent) of the time. Not only has his cutter generated the most swings and misses and swings in general, but it has been valued as his best pitch according to advanced statistics (via Fan Graphs). One has to wonder if an increase in use of the cutter would result in more strikeouts and a better overall result.
This is your 2011 rotation: Lester, Beckett, Lackey, Buchholz and Dice-K. While 2010 has been a disappointment overall, there is still plenty of upside for next season. Lester should continue to pitch like an ace and while Buchholz is due for a regression, both Beckett and Lackey have a good chance to improve on their 2010 numbers. In my opinion, Dice-K should focus more on movement next season, specifically with the cutter. If he does that, he could end up being a great fifth starter. Injuries and the unexpected can and usually do pop up, but I think Sox fans should be more than happy with the starting five that, on paper, should help them content in 2011.