So much of the offseason has been spent awaiting the Red Sox moves to sure up the back of the rotation with so far only Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves being options to move out of the pen. It’s been assumed that Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz will be ready to go and as good as history suggests, but what should we expect in 2012?
While Beckett impressed with an ERA under 3 in 2011 he had some good luck and will surely see some natural regression in 2012. I would label Lester the number one pitcher on the Red Sox even with his small step back in 2011. His ERA was only slightly up at 3.41, but his K/9 dropped from 9.74 to 8.55. This led to a climb in his xFIP at 3.62, which is his highest since 2008.
His groundball rates held strong and his walks did not get worse, but could still improve to make him an even better pitcher. The one thing that stands out is the effectiveness of his curveball. For every 100 times he threw his curveball it cost the team 1.26 runs. Looking at his Pitch F/x data it looks like he had real trouble with that pitch in 2011. The vertical movement averaged -6.4*, but if you look at the game to game average his movement was all over the chart. His control on the curveball caused him to throw his other pitches more and he became slightly less effective.
*A negative number for vertical movement displays how much the pitched dropped compared to a ball that falls due to gravity alone. Meaning Lester’s curve dropped 6.4 inches more than a ball thrown without rotation or seams.
We all know Lester will be ok and if 2011 is his future level he is still a top of the rotation guy, but perhaps not the Cy Young candidate his 2008-2010 data would have suggested. As always I would expect a regression to the mean ( *get better) and perhaps a change of pitching coach might help.
Next up is Beckett who had a great season, but I think we can all agree that his .245 BABIP is unrepeatable. The question we all need answered is can he throw 190+ innings next season and can he continue to control his walks. In any season where Beckett maintains a BB/9 that is less than 3 his WAR is greater than 4 and he is a dominating pitcher. The problem is when he loses his control and throws a BB/9 above 3 his WAR drops to 3 or below except for one season when it was at 3.9 with the Marlins in 2003.
If you ignore ERA and look at K/BB and xFIP you can see that Beckett had a solid season and actually finished strong, which he is generally not known to do. His xFIP in that horrible September was 2.96 and his strikeouts were way up in the second half of the season. I don’t think we will ever see the elite Beckett from 2007-2009, but if he can get his walks down he could come pretty close.
Last up is the big question mark with Buchholz. He only totalled 82.2 innings in 2011 and with all the lack of acurate diagnosis it was quite discouraging all season. The only good news that came in 2011 was that he was available to pitch if needed during the last week, but given the rest he should be ready to go this spring. The team will still be cautious in 2012 and probably don’t want him to suddenly jump to 200 innings so counting on him for that could be overly optimistic.
I still have my concerns about Buchholz as his success so far has rested largely on his ability to maintain a lower BABIP through potentially some skill and one of the best defenses in baseball. In his career he has beat his FIP by nearly half a run so far, but has done even better in 2010 and 2011 beating his FIP by a run on average. This seams to line up with the Red Sox signings that have improved the defense and should continue, but perhaps not by a full run. Based on his skill I would expect Buchholz to have a FIP around 4, but maintain an ERA at 3.5.
The Red Sox have to be concerned at the fragility of the top three in their rotation and cannot allow what happened in September of 2011 to happen again. Moving Aceves to the rotation seems like something the team should save for need due to injuries and should look to add a starter this offseason and prehaps another long man. This would give them two arms from the pen that could step in for injuries as well as the potential that Daisuke Matsuzaka could return later in the year.