In case you missed it (and you probably didn’t), there was some pretty big news coming out of Fort Myers on Thursday. According to Terry Francona via Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston, the Red Sox have determined the order of their rotation to start the season. Here’s how the rotation will shake out to start the season.
Thursday morning, Francona announced the rest of his rotation behind Lester, who will pitch April 1 when the Red Sox open the season in Arlington, Texas, against the Texas Rangers.
Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka will be Nos. 2-5 at the outset, Francona said. That news did not come as a surprise to any of them. Francona said he has known for some time that this is how he wanted to line them up, but did not go public with it in the event someone got hurt.
Later in the article, Francona went into deeper detail as to how he came to his decision.
“Lackey has a way of matching up against whoever he’s pitching against,” Francona said, “whether it’s a No. 1 or No. 5, you look up in the seventh inning [and] you have a chance to win, which we really like.
“[Buchholz] did so good. I think we feel having Buck come out third just enhances our chance to win a little bit. Buck’s numbers would say he could pitch anywhere. I just think Lack’s a veteran, he’s done it, spacing [Buchholz] and Lester out, there’s something to be said for that, too.
“Lack showed up in great shape and looks ready to go. Ultimately, if they pitch like they should it’s not going to matter, and if they don’t pitch like they should, it’s not going to matter.”
Francona said the start Beckett missed after sustaining a concussion when he was struck by a batted ball in batting practice did not factor into his being slotted fourth after pitching the opener the past two seasons.
“I just think just watching the way last year unfolded we want to get him off to a good start,” he said. “We’ll pitch him in that game in Cleveland. I think that’s a good place for him to start.”
Aside from Francona’s incredibly confusing rationale, I don’t have too many problems with the order of the rotation.* To be perfectly honest, setting the order of the rotation at the onset of the season is largely symbolic. I know that the players, management, and some fans don’t think so, but it’s true. People make a big deal about it because, barring injuries or suspensions, this is the only time a manager is guaranteed an opportunity to set his rotation in the exact manner he chooses. Still, within a few weeks, the rotation will be pulled apart and reshuffled. The number one guy will match up against the number fours from other teams; the number three will match up against other teams number ones; and so on.
* How exactly does Buchholz help the Red Sox’s chances of winning while pitching out of the number three slot? I’m not being facetious. I’m dead serious. How does “spacing Buchholz and Lester out” with Lackey sandwiched in between make the Red Sox a better team? I consider myself to be a pretty smart and savvy baseball fan, and I can’t for the life of me understand what he’s talking about.
Still, I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that Francona decided to line up Lackey at the number two spot. Yes, I understand that Lackey is “a veteran” and “he’s done it,” but what does that really have to do with anything? Beckett’s also a “veteran” who’s “done it.” Furthermore, he’s made the last
three two opening day starts. Shouldn’t that count for something? At least in theory?
I know some of you will disagree with me, but I’m not terribly impressed with Lackey as a pitcher. Don’t get me wrong…I loved John Lackey circa 2005-2007. He missed bats, limited walks, induced a healthy number of ground balls, and avoided home runs. He truly was a 5-6 WAR ace. Then he suffered from a few injuries, and hasn’t been the same since. Much of that is due to the effectiveness of his fastball and curveball. Prior to his injuries, both pitches were “plus” pitches, at least statistically. Since then, those two pitches have been marginally effective, as evidenced by the table below.
* Data courtesy of Fangraphs pitch type value table.
Furthermore, when you look at his FIP, strikeout, contact, and whiff rates, the picture appears even less rosy going forward for Lackey.
Let me start out by saying that his 2008 FIP is an outlier caused by an unusually high 15.7% HR/FB rate, so we should probably ignore his FIP for that season. Outside of that data point, the chart shows a pretty interesting picture of Lackey. Since 2005, Lackey’s strikeout and whiff rate have steadily decreased, while his FIP and contact rates have steadily increased. While some, including my colleague Darryl Johnston, might see a pitcher that’s due for a rebound, I see one that’s in a steady state of decline. While Lackey’s by no means washed up, we’re much more likely to see him allow more contact, induce fewer strikeouts/whiffs, and produce a higher FIP in 2011 than 2010. Based on my projections, I’m figuring Lackey to be the team’s fourth best starting pitcher this season–not second.
Ultimately, Francona’s decision to order the rotation in the manner he did likely comes down to the team trying to set reasonable expectations for each pitcher. Considering Buchholz’s past mental roadblocks, I have a feeling that the team didn’t want to just hand him the role of number two starter at the onset of the season. Even though he performed as the Red Sox’s true number two starter last year, it appears as if they’d rather he slowly develop into the role of number two starter. In a way, it’s similar to how they developed Jon Lester into being the staff ace.
As for Beckett, I think it’s safe to say that his 2010 performance (albeit somewhat unlucky) put him into the predicament that he’s in now. Still, I’m surprised that they’ve dropped him down so far in the rotation. Clearly, he didn’t deserve another Opening Day start, but I think they’re putting far too much emphasis on his most recent rather than looking at the whole picture. By practically every measure, Beckett was a much better pitcher than his ERA made him appear to be. As a result, provided he can remain healthy, he should produce significantly better numbers going forward.
If I was Francona (and I’m not), I probably would’ve order the rotation like this: Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Lackey, and Matsuzaka. Despite my concerns regarding Lackey, I don’t have too many issues with the Francona’s order of the rotation. Like I said above, it’s largely symbolic anyway.