The fact the Red Sox even got to within one game of reaching the playoffs last season was something of a miracle. I know you might not like to hear it, but it’s true. Despite all of the Spring Training talk of 100+ wins, the World Series predictions, and an offense that would rival some of the game’s best over the last 50 years; the Red Sox carried with them a fatal flaw–starting pitching. Of course, we didn’t know that last March. We thought we had a golden ticket in our hands.
Even with multiple red flags staring us in the fact, many in Red Sox Nation were talking about the club having as many as “five aces” on the club if everything broke just right. Looking back at it now, these pipe dreams were pretty foolish and completely unrealistic. Josh Beckett was coming off of a disastrous 2010 season, and some were wondering if he’d ever bounce back. Clay Buchholz‘s performance, though tremendous the previous year, appeared to be headed for a serious dose of regression. John Lackey‘s peripherals had declined drastically. Considering his age, some analysts wondered if he’d really bounce back. Daisuke Matsuzaka is…well, he’s Dice-K. His inconsistency was so predictable, you could say he was consistent in his inconsistency. (Somewhere, Joe Morgan is smiling after reading that last sentence.)
Once the season started, it was pretty clear the kind of starting pitching staff we had on our hands. A decent, but unspectacular group that would pitch just well enough to help the team win games. A group that would later be thinned out due to injuries and ineffectiveness come September. This isn’t to say there weren’t bright spots, though. Beckett and Jon Lester pitched very well for most of the season, racking up a combined 8 fWAR over 384-2/3 innings in the process. The rest of the staff? Not so much. the remaining eight starters provided 4.7 fWAR in the remaining 555-1/3 innings given to starters. Just for reference, the Pirates starting pitching staff was the worst in the majors last year according to fWAR. They finished with 5.0 fWAR. Yes, that’s right folks. After Lester and Beckett, the remaining starters provided less value than the Pittsburgh Pirates staff.
This season, the starting pitching crew has a decidedly different feel. Erik Bedard, Tim Wakefield, and Kyle Weiland are no longer with the team; Lackey and Matsuzaka are on the shelf; Alfredo Aceves seems to be ticketed for the bullpen; and Andrew Miller shouldn’t even be allowed to hold a baseball at the beginning of a game, let alone make a start. While many were talking about the strength and relative depth of the rotation last year; this season, we’re wondering if we have enough pitching to seriously compete in the AL East. Only Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz remain in the rotation as “sure things.” The final two spots will be filled by reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard and some unknown candidate for the fifth slot. Needless to say, it’s a little unsettling to some.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the back-end of the rotation, the trio of Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz will need to shoulder a greater deal of the burden if the Red Sox expect to make the playoffs this season. By this point, Lester and Beckett are pretty established, and we know what to expect out of both pitchers. Buchholz, on the other hand, is somewhat of an unknown quantity. Outside of his very good (albeit fortunate) 2010 season, he’s fairly unproven at the major league level. He’s never made 30 starts or pitched 200 innings at the major league level, and he certainly hasn’t lived up to the kind of potential he showed while pitching in the minor leagues. He’s pitched very well since being called up in 2009, but we’ve only seen flashes of the potential dominance we were expecting.
So what do the Red Sox need out of Buchholz this season? For starters, they need Buchholz to pitch at least 180-200 innings this season, if not a little more. Ideally, the Red Sox starting pitchers would average at least six innings per start. Over the course of a 162 game season that would equate to 972 innings. Currently, we have Beckett and Lester earmarked for around 200 innings a piece, with Bard and “unknown starter #5″ (let’s call him Felix Doubront for the moment) projected to each pitch 150 innings. That gives the club approximately 700 innings out of their starters, and that’s even before we include Buchholz in the calculation. If we were to optimistically project Buchholz for 200 innings this season (a tall order given his injury history and previous workload), the Red Sox would still only end up getting 900 innings out of their starters, or 5.55 innings per start. That leaves an awful lot of innings to a bullpen that’s less than optimal as it stands right now. Can you imagine if Buchholz only pitched 140-150 innings, and the rest of the workload was managed by a replacement level starter?
Secondly, we need a reprisal of the Buchholz we enjoyed over his final eight starts last season. While most of you will probably claim that his 2010 season was better (and superficially it was), I believe that this six week stretch was the most promising and most sustainable of his career to date. When he was in the minors, scouts, executives, and fans were enamored with his impressive strikeout and low walk totals. Upon reaching the majors, those numbers declined considerably as they often do with young pitchers still learning to pitch. He was still getting the whiffs at an above average rate, but his strikeout rate remained right around 17%. After a tumultuous April, Buchholz looked as if he was starting to turn things around last May. Starting with his May 7th start, he produced a 2.57 ERA with a very encouraging 43/13 K/BB ratio in 49 innings. (All while still inducing a ton of ground balls.) He was attacking hitters, throwing strikes, balancing his pitch selection, and inducing a greater number of whiffs. He seemed to be growing into an ace before our very eyes.
If the Red Sox want to seriously contend for a championship this season, they’re going to need a healthy Buchholz to pick up where he left off. In a rotation filled with uncertainty, he’s the key to the Red Sox’s success.