Bottom Line Rob checking in… get more Red Sox analysis and news from BL Rob at The Bottom Line.
After last night’s game, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester each have 5 starts on the season… and both have struggled to make through the first 5 innings of games, but the bullpen and offense have picked them up.
Dice-K is 4-0 despite averaging just 5.6 IPs per start and the Red Sox have won 3 of Lester’s 5 starts, despite is 1-2 record and 5.2 IP/GS average. Matsuzaka and Lester have struggled with their command, but in different ways. Daisuke’s loaded arsenal may be working against him as he attempts to paint the corners through every at-bat. After a shaky start in his homeland, Dice-K had back-to-back 6+ inning starts with 16 strikeouts and just 4 walks, but since then he’s needed 100+ pitches to get through 5 innings and has walked 8 while fanning just 6. Despite being handed large leads in those last two games, Matsuzaka seems to have regressed back to his less aggressive ways of 2007.
Dice-K averaged 7.1 IPs per start from 03-06 while with the Seibu Lions, so he’s capable of being a 7 inning starter, but he fell to 6.4 IP/GS in 2007 and currently struggles to make it through 5 innings. Are all those innings in Japan catching up to Dice-K? Is the 5-man rotation still messing with him? Is he simply being to picky? It remains to be seen, but as the No. 2 on this staff, he needs to find a way to get into the 6th ining on a regular basis.
Jon Lester has consistently struggled with his command, resulting in a 5.54 IP/GS average since 2006. He lasted 7+ innings just three times in 26 ML starts and had 7 NDs in 11 starts last season due to early exits. Lester is not picky like Matsuzaka, he just simply struggles with his command. He’s walked 17 batters already this year (0.65 BB/IP) and had a 0.49 BB/IP rate in 2007. His 50 Ks in 63 IPs (0.79 K/IP) last year and 12-4 ML record prove he’s got the stuff to be a solid No. 4 starter, but he could be a 15-game winner with better control.
Daisuke and Lester have forced Francona’s hand the most since the start of the 2007 season, but Tim Wakefield’s age and Clay Buchholz’s inexperience could result in even more calls to the pen this year. Despite an injury-shortened 2006, Wake averaged 6.09 IP/GS over the past two years, but you have to wonder much rubber is left in his 42 year old arm…
Clay Buchholz’s struggles may be the bigger concern. He’s face Chien-Ming Wang and the Yankees in 2 of his 3 starts, so you have to cut him a little slack… but his 4.7 IP/GS is not far off from the 5.63 IP/GS he posted in 26 starts (Portland, Pawtucket, Boston) last year. His strikeout potential and 2.44 ERA over those 26 starts means he’s capable of winning even when struggling, but the Sox need him to grow into a top of the rotation guy… But for now, his growing pains could mean extra innings for the bullpen.
We’re just three weeks into the 2008 season and with the Red Sox starting a week early in Japan, there’s a good chance that the starting 5 will get into form come the end of May. Heck, Josh Beckett’s return from the DL resulted in a 4.2 inning performance and 5 earned runs, but just two starts later he pitched 8 solid innings against the Yankees while fanning and 5 and walking just 1 – looking like the Beckett we know and love.
That said, the Red Sox have already played 10 games in which they won or lost by 3 runs or less… meaning that the bullpen has been worked quite a bit out of the gate. Bryan Corey and Kyle Snyder gobbled up a few of those innings, but David Aardsma leads the relief corps with 11 IPs and is one pace to pitch for 90+ innings in 2008. He’s averaged half that since 2006 (42.5 IP/Y).
Tito has already been forced to work around Papelbon and Okajima once this season. If the starters continue to exit early, the effectiveness and Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Mike Timlin and Aardsma will be crucial.
Delcarmen has hit the 9 inning mark already and leads the pen with 10 appearances, which puts him on pace for 75+ IPs. MDC has already been called on for some important outs and I suspect he’ll set a career best this year even if the starts start lasting longer. Mike Timlin looks like he may be washed up, so Delcarmen’s performance becomes even more important…
Julian Tavarez will handle mop up duties for the Sox and those moments will be stressful – but they will happen and his ability to eat innings after a starts falters will be crucial. The Sox just can’t afford to have too many of those games because Jules ain’t no spring chicken (35 in May) and his season-ending ERA has gone up almost 1 run each year since 2004.
With all these close games Jonathan Papelbon is on pace for 75+ IPs as well, but has averaged 63 IP/Y since 2006. Tito will make sure the best closer in the game isn’t over worked, even if it means giving save opportunities to Okajima and Delcarmen, so there’s no reason to be concerned about his numbers right now.
But Hideki Okajima threw 69 innings for the Sox last year – the most he’d thrown since 1999 with the Yomiuri Giants. Oki-Doki is off to another strong start – posting a 0.00 ERA over 6.2 innings, but he needed to shut down late last season when he hit his average innings mark (54.4 since 2000). Tito will be monitoring his work load as well, but occasionally sitting your 8th and 9th inning guys means more work for the middle relievers.
Bottom Line: The Red Sox bul pen is versatile with mop up guys and “lefty specialists,” but they’ll need help from the starters if they want to be fresh come October. Beckett has gone 7+ on 29 occasions since 2006. Wake is second at 19 and Diasuke, despite his ups and downs, did it 14 times last year – so I expect those guys to go late into games more often come mid-season. The questions lie with kids: Lester and Buchholz…
I think both will have flashes of brilliance mixed with some rough outings, but I don’t see either of them averaging 6+ per start this year… so Tito will have to mix it up to keep everyone fresh.
Get more Red Sox analysis and news from BL Rob at The Bottom Line.