While the Red Sox bats made hay in last year’s post-season, it was their arms that got in position to ride some hot bats home throughout the season. From Josh Beckett at the top to Jonathon Papelbon at the end, each pitcher stepped up and did their job time and time again throughout the season (insert Eric Gagne joke here) leading the Red Sox to an American League best 3.87 team ERA in 2007.
While there are no real significant changes in the pitching staff year over year, there are a new set of questions to be asked and answered before we determine whether or not the staff as currently constituted can be that dominating force it was last year. Given yesterday’s news regarding the health of Curt Schilling, these questions become somewhat exacerbated.
We’ll cover all that and more, in today’s edition of 2008 Red Sox “For Better or Worse?” Starting Pitchers Edition before tackling the bullpen on Tuesday and wrapping this segment up in a nice bow next Friday with some grandiose statements and analysis as we piece together the sum of the parts that is the 2008 Boston Red Sox.
For those of you new to “For Better or Worse?”, you can catch up at the links below. But the general concept is to break down each players individual performance in 2007 and look to see whether we expect things to be better or worse for them in 2008. Once we looked at all the input pieces to the puzzle, we’ll have a better idea what to expect this upcoming season from the overall team.
On to Installment 3: The Starting Rotation.
Josh Beckett made the jump in 2007 from a pitcher with a world of talent to one of the most talented pitchers in the world. Then he stepped onto the mound in the playoffs and started to etch his name in history. Beckett would finish the 2007 season as the only 20 game winner in baseball with a 20-7 record. He amassed his 20 wins by becoming a complete pitcher and manager of the game in front of him. By letting his ego and bravado on the mound aside for an outer calm, but keeping them just under the skin to fuel the fire and passion we’ve come to expect, Beckett pitched his way to a 3.27 ERA. While he fell just short of the 200 strike out mark with 194, he did that against only 40 walks; an remarkable k/bb ratio of 4.85. The only blemish on Beckett’s season was a short stint on the DL due to a torn flap of skin on his finger.
Beckett’s regular season performance would net him a second place finish in the American League Cy Young race. But it was what would happen next that would define him in 2007. Beckett would roll through the playoffs starting four games and winning all four only giving up four earned runs in 30 innings pitched. He, nearly single handedly turned the tide of the American League Championship series winning game 5 in Cleveland and giving his team the momentum to make a comeback from a 3-1 deficit possible.
For the Red Sox to be as good in 2008 as they were in 2007, there isn’t one player they will need to live up to their standards set the year prior more. Josh Beckett is the ace and that mantle must be filled because it is from there that the rest of the rotation and bullpen flows. He is the stopper. He needs to be that “sure thing” once every five games.
My gut: About the same. Beckett’s 2007 is hard to be better than (without moving to the National League). But I see no reason that he can’t be as good as he was in 2007 in 2008. Projecting pitching is difficult. More difficult than hitting primarily due to the smaller sample size. But it is absolutely acceptable to expect Josh Beckett to be near the top of the league in wins, nearing a second straight 20 win season with an ERA below 3.50. We’ll see if the mastery of his control continues for a second straight year. If he can continue a 4.5 plus k/bb ratio and stay healthy for 90%+ of the year, he’ll be in the hunt for the Cy Young Award again. Beckett’s projections can be found here and as usual, they are a little conservative at first pass. But clearly not far off from where I expect him to be.
Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s 2007 was a ride of a lifetime. It seemed that every pitch was scrutinized, every action analyzed. He had his share of successes and more failures than I think he would have expected. But for a pitcher coming to the highest level of baseball in the world with all the expectations heaped on him that he had, he showed that the talent to be an excellent major league pitcher is there. Matsuzaka looked to me like Josh Beckett looked in 2006. While dominant at times, he seemed to get himself into trouble by relying too much on his raw talent and not enough on his arsenal of pitches. It also seemed that he would get frustrated with himself on the mound too easily and was unable to shake off men on base allowing big innings to creep up on him. Daisuke would end up leading the team in strikeouts (201) games started and innings pitched (204.2) while accumulating a 15-12 record with a 4.40 ERA. But he was also wild, walking 80 batters and they seemed to come in bunches leading to that big inning as he nibbled around the plate. The big question with Daisuke is how much of a jump is he capable of making in 2008?
My gut: Better. I fully expect Daisuke to continue to improve and make the move from a #4 starter to a #2 starter for the Red Sox. I don’t think he’ll be #1a material and having that #1/#1a combo (like a Beckett/Santana combo could have been) is gold in this league, but he will improve. I think the heart of his improvement will come in his ability to attack hitters more directly and keep people off base. I expect his ERA to drop below 4.00 and to see another 200+ strikeout year but this time with better control numbers. I think he’ll take his 2007 experience and grow and learn how to get deeper into games with lower pitch counts. As for the projections, they vary widely. But clearly there are those who expect that Matsuzaka could be the horse in the 2 spot for the Red Sox in 2008.
Tim Wakefield can either be viewed as a luxury or a liability depending on your perspective of the merits of the knuckleball and the need to carry Doug Mirabelli as your back up catcher as long as Wakefield’s in the mix. But at $5 million dollars per year and given his ability to eat innings and his his willingness to eat his ego whenever called upon to fill whatever roll the Red Sox need, Tim Wakefield’s value can’t be questioned. 2007 saw Wakefield go on one of the most amazing runs of his career before being slowed as the season progressed by a gimpy back. He ended the season at 17-12 with a 4.76 ERA making 31 starts and pitching in 189 innings. The Red Sox would be thrilled with that production again in 2008 despite the rather high ERA. The truth is Wakefield gives your team a chance to win each game he pitches and more importantly, he gives the bullpen a little breather each time he goes out there consistently delivering innings each start. Over the course of a full season, there is tremendous value in that stability from the back end of your rotation. But what do we expect from Wakefield in 2008?
My gut: Slightly Worse. While I think Wake’s value to the team is very high, I don’t think that he’ll contribute another 17 wins this season. At the same time, I don’t expect his ERA to balloon over 5.00. I think the projection systems bear that out as well. Before yesterday, I may have given Wakefield’s grade an “about the same”; not because I changed my opinion about his performance, but because of the new found status of the next pitcher on our list. With Curt Schilling’s 2008 in question, Wakefield suddenly gets painted in the light of a #3 starter instead of a #4 or #5 guy.
When the Boston Red Sox and Curt Schilling agreed this offseason to a one year, $8 million dollar contract, everyone was thrilled. The contract not only kept Schilling in a Red Sox uniform but it solidified the middle of the rotation at relatively cheap dollars. Of course, coming off of a season where he missed two months with arm trouble, the question of how much were you going to get out of the veteran over the course of the season was a ripe one. No one thought however that this question would rear it’s ugly head before the team even left for Florida.
With the recent news beaten to death across the Internet, I won’t rehash Schilling’s health and prognosticate on his future, but I can look at what Schilling gave us last year and see how that production compares to what we can expect from the people filling those rolls this year. Given that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz only contributed 14 starts between them last year during the regular season, it’s hard to make a comparison between what they, as individuals gave us last year vs. what we can expect this year. But I do think that when you bucket Lester, Buchholz, and Julian Tavarez together you can start to see how the “back half of the rotation” in total compares year over year.
Over the 2007 season the combination of Schilling, Tavarez, Lester, and Buchholz contributed 61 starts with a combined record of 21-20. If you throw Kason Gabbard’s 7 spot starts in there it moves to 68 starts and a 25-20 record. These 5 pitchers threw a total of nearly 400 innings last year with an aggregate ERA of 4.31.
So, if we expect Beckett and Wakefield to slip a hair off of last year’s performance, but for that to be made up for by an better Daisuke Matsuzaka, what do we need out of our 4th and 5th starters over the course of the year to be equal to or better than the production we got in 2007? By our aggregation, 400 innings over 65 starts, a record a few games over .500 and a mid-four ERA from the Lester, Buchholz, Tavarez, and whatever we can get out of Schilling or another unnamed starter in the back half of the year is what we need to match 2007.
My gut: About the Same. Given the loss of Schilling for much of the year and without adding anyone new to the fold in lieu of Julian Tavarez, while at the same time limiting Clay Buchholz’ innings pitched to a conservative number as we know that the Red Sox will not push young pitchers too quickly, I think this analysis proves that the Red Sox staff is still on pace to perform along the same lines as they did in 2007.
In fact, these estimates maybe fairly conservative and in line with the expectations of most of the projection systems for each of these pitchers.
So at the end of the day, where does that leave our 2008 Red Sox staff in comparison to the 2007 version that performed so admirably? According to our Better or Worse analysis, very the ’08 staff compares very reasonably to it’s 2007 predecessors and does so with a significant amount of upside at the bottom of the rotation. Assuming Beckett and Wakefield are who we expect them to be, the 2008 staff seems to hinge on the development of Daisuke Matsuzaka into the type of pitcher we expected to see last year.
Of course, much of the starting pitching performance could in fact be a moot point without continued dominance from the bullpen. Join us on Tuesday as we explore the last installment of “For Better or Worse” with an analysis of the Red Sox bullpen before we wrap up our projections for the team one week from today.