Building a mystery: finding the last piece of the rotation

"Oh, you're working, building a mystery... Holding on, and holding it in...Yeah you're working, building a mystery... and choosing so carefully."

Kyle LohseEveryone knows the Red Sox need another starting pitcher. The problem is trying to identify who that is.

It’s hard to know where to start with a rotation that doesn’t have much of an identity right now. All four players currently in it – Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront – all have immense natural talent. However, their inability to harness it as a collective whole coupled with chronic under achievement in the past few seasons has left fans with more questions surrounding the rotation than answers.

And answers. Oh boy, answers. Everyone – from writers to fans – seems to have one.

But what’s the Red Sox answer? So today, instead of looking at things through the lens of my own needs and wants, we’ll throw the Red Sox under the microscope and attempt to figure out what their approach to the offseason has been so far. Let’s jump right in!

To start off, let’s eliminate the wrong courses of action.

What wouldn’t make sense for the Red Sox to pursue would be a high-priced free agent pitcher. By high priced, I mean a pitcher who’s in search of a four year deal or greater on the open market. There are a few reasons for this, of which include:

If Lester and Buchholz don’t bounce back, will a big ticket signing make much of a difference?

If Lester and/or Buchholz don’t bounce back next year, it really doesn’t matter who the Red Sox bring in. The rotation will stink. Why pay big money and incur that kind of risk for something that doesn’t improve your situation?

If Lester and Buchholz do bounce back, why would we need a more expensive version of what we already have?

If Lester returns to his old form and Buchholz can stay healthy, there’s no need to spend big dollars on a front-end starter when you’ve already got two. In this scenario, it makes much more sense to go with something less flashy, less expensive yet complimentary. When you couple that argument with the fact that the Red Sox could have as many as four pitching prospects peering in through the window over the course of the next two seasons, it makes no sense to go any bigger with a deal than you have to. While I can understand doling out 2 years to avoid rushing the development of said prospects, going long in years simply doesn’t make sense, either.

So if it’s not a big name pitcher, then what kind of hurler might the Red Sox be looking at? To answer that question, it’s probably not a bad idea to examine their performance over the past three years and identify the trends in the rotation to best identify their current needs.

When I took a glance at the Red Sox collective performance from the 2010-2012 seasons, they utterly failed to do two things:

1.) Not walk batters
2.) Keep them from scoring once they got on base

In fact, the Red Sox have the 5th worst BB/9 in al of baseball over the course of those seasons. They also own the fourth-worst LOB% over the same period of time. Walks are turning into runs and a complete inability to stop the running game seems to be making a bad situation even worse.

Giving up walks is almost always bad. Giving them up when you have a total inability to keep them from scoring is worse. Finding a pitcher who can keep the self-inflicted damage to a minimum should probably be a priority. Thus, the pitchers the Red Sox have pursued so far in the marketplace have profiled as those who come with a low BB/9 attached to them.

What’s been rather baffling to some about this offseason is that the Red Sox have been tied to pitchers who all seem to be primed for a steep regression next year. Guys like Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Joe Blanton have all been brought up as pitchers who’ve received a phone call from Ben Cherington at some point this winter, and while they certainly don’t fit a traditional sabermetric search criteria on their own, it’s pretty obvious why the Red Sox seem to be interested in these guys: they don’t walk a lot of batters.

In fact, check out the walk rates of the players they’ve almost traded for, almost signed and have been rumored to be interested in. They all have low walk rates. In fact, five of these pitchers comprise five of the top six free agent starters available by BB/9 (Greinke is the other).

Hiroki Kuroda: 2.09
Dan Haren: 1.94
Joe Blanton: 1.60
Kyle Lohse: 1.62
Brandon McCarthy: 1.95
Ryan Dempster: 2.71

The similarities don’t end there. The second big commonality amongst this group is that they’ve all got significant question marks surrounding them, likely bringing the length and dollar value of their deals down, making them riskier, but team friendlier investments given the Red Sox current situation. With Kuroda and Dempster the issue is age. With Haren it’s his health. With Lohse it’s whether the past two seasons were a fluke or not. With McCarthy, you have to wonder about his head. Everyone has an issue.

However, these pitchers also share one more thing in common: they’ve had seasons in the past where they’ve gotten the job done. There’s a record of results that’d suggest they could be of great value to whomever seeks to retain their services. With that said, there seems to be a bit of upside here, even if some of these players are a little long in the tooth.

With so many question marks in the Red Sox rotation, wouldn’t it just make more sense to double down on the question marks that are already there by introducing another one? If the signing fails, you lose little. If it succeeds, you have the opportunity to add a ton of value – whether that means flipping the player for prospects in the future – or – supplementing an already improved rotation. It simply gives you the best chance for success.

What needs to be continually re-emphasized here is that I don’t think the Red Sox are as worried about the regression as everyone else is. They want a pitcher who can come in this year and not blow his own foot off. If he can continue to do that next year, then great but I don’t think it’s a requirement. By then, the Red Sox will have a whole cavalry of pitching prospects on their way to the bigs, ready, willing and able to do all the things said pitcher can do better, for less and without the risk.

With Blanton, Haren, Kuroda and McCarthy all off the board, I’d expect the Red Sox to start getting more aggressive in their pursuit of Lohse. While I’m not crazy about him, he seems to fit the profile of the kind of player they’re courting: a pitcher who doesn’t kill himself with walks, isn’t afraid to pitch to a little contact, and has a chance to build value in the short term.

It’s not sexy, but at least the logic makes sense.

Categories: Ben Cherington Brandon McCarthy Clay Buchholz Dan Haren Edwin Jackson Felix Doubront Hiroki Kuroda Joe Blanton John Lackey Jon Lester Kyle Lohse Ryan Dempster

A world-class baseball nerd, baseball fan, and baseball man, Hunter Golden agreed to terms with Fire Brand of the American League in September of 2012 in exchange for an oversized baby bottle, football helmet filled with cottage cheese and naked pictures of Bea Arthur. In January of 2013, he was named Editor. He likes run-on sentences, enjoys over-using hyphens, and smelling books. When it comes to serious stuff, Hunter is a professional writer (no, really), father of two, Husband of one and whose natural habitat is Western Massachusetts and agreeable parts of Connecticut. Follow him at @hunterGbaseball on Twitter or shoot him an email at [email protected]

5 Responses to “Building a mystery: finding the last piece of the rotation” Subscribe

  1. Steve December 12, 2012 at 8:26 AM #

    Lohse costs a pick as well. I'd pass. I'd take Dumpster on the contract we offered him, but he declined. Maybe offer 3 for 30 but that's about it.

  2. Hunter Golden December 12, 2012 at 1:05 PM #

    Yeah me too to be honest… i didn't include it because I couldn't find a reasonable place to shoe-horn it in without it being a distraction BUT – Dempster is kind of the outlier to this group. He has the third highest K/9 ratio in this free agent class, with only Jackson and Greinke being higher. I'm sure the Red Sox see him as the value pickup among higher-strikeout pitchers. His walk rate really isn't that low, either.

    But if it came down to it, I'd be more comfortable on a 2 year deal with Dempster than I would with anything re: Lohse. Lohse is just due to blow to pieces…

    • A Different Steve December 13, 2012 at 10:11 AM #

      Yeah, I really think Lohse's stats are a product of Busch Stadium. In Al East ballparks, against AL East lineups, pitching to a DH instead of a pitcher every turn through the lineup, I think the story of Kyle Lohse, Starting Pitcher would get very ugly very fast.

  3. Hunter Golden December 12, 2012 at 2:39 PM #

    Also worth noting on Dempster – improving FIP over the past few years and a SIERA that's better than a lot of big name pitchers, Jordan Zimmerman and Matt Cain included. Rangers transition wasn't great, but almost all of it was fueled by bad luck. High BABIP, High HR/FB%, Low LOB%. So it's important to be fair to him. He's not the pitcher he was in Chicago. But he's certainly nowhere near as bad as he was in Texas last year.

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  1. Is Ryan Dempster a fit? | Fire Brand of the American League - December 13, 2012

    [...] 997 1/3 innings of 3.74 ERA ball, punching out 911 and walking just 361. As Fire Brand‘s own Hunter Golden pointed out on Wednesday, Dempster does well at limiting walks, and Boston seems to be going after hurlers who [...]