Boston Red Sox at Minnesota Twins

So Goes the Pitching Staff

In the midst of a four-game losing streak that has dropped the team to 4-8, Sox fans have begun the multi-annual ritual of name calling and finger pointing as to where blame lies on the club’s current skid.

While the hitting has been poor by the normal standards, perhaps the most alarming development of the season has been the utter failure of the starting pitching staff.

Of particular note is how easy the hurlers have been to hit and how often they have been falling behind early in the count. Jon Lester (5.40 BB/9, 1.5 K:BB ratio), John Lackey (4.26 BB/9, 0.83 K:BB), Jon Papelbon (8.44 BB/9, 0.40 K:BB), and Clay Buchholz (5.40 BB/9, 1.33 K:BB) have been the poster children for this trend — seeing a precipitous deterioration in their first strike rates, zone percentages, and their contact rates.

Falling behind early in the count is never a good sign for a pitcher. Batters can sit on pitches, pitchers are forced to throw more fastballs, and batters don’t expand the zone. This results in more walks, fewer strikeouts, and more hard-hit balls. The Sox hurlers are doing themselves no favors in falling behind 1-0 as often as they have been — and it shows, as they have been uncharacteristically poor this year with their strikeout to walk ratio, sitting at just 1.46:1 (70:48).

For some scope, that’s comparable to having Jason Marquis (’09: 1.44 K:BB) or Livan Hernandez (’09: 1.52 K:BB) on the mound every night. In short, not the kind of pitchers that win championships.

Lester’s first strike rate has dropped from a career average of 55.0 and 54.5 in 2009 to just 49.0 percent this season. His zone percentage has dropped over seven points from a career average of 48.9 to 41.6.

Buchholz and Papelbon, in particular, have struggled locating the zone, especially on the first pitch. Through his first two starts, Buchholz has thrown just 46.8 percent strikes when the count stands at 0-0, compared to a 60.2 career rate. Papelbon’s figure is down to just 52.2 percent this year, against 63.1 on his career. Both pitchers have had trouble finding the zone in general, as Buchholz’ zone percentage has taken a hit of nearly six percent from ’09 while Papelbon has lost three percent.

A troubling development, the pitchers will have to buck this trend if they hope to recover from their ongoing slide.

Still, this is no time to hit the panic button. Every pitcher in the Sox rotation, yes, even Buchholz, is tremendously talented and will figure it out soon enough. Even fine-tuned athletes need a warmup to find their form. Maybe Lester’s wrist is a fraction of an inch out of place and isn’t snapping off the curve correctly. Maybe Papelbon is struggling with finding his release point on the fastball, causing him to miss his spots.

If there is one person that could merit legitimate cause for concern, it would be the struggles of third starter John Lackey. Though he is currently the proud holder of a pristine 1.42 ERA, he has been the beneficiary of a .246 BABIP and 88.2 percent strand rate — unsustainable numbers that hint at a forthcoming regression.

Of major importance, however, has been the joint erosion of his strikeout rate, his command, and his velocity. With every reason to believe that these developments are related, Lackey has dropped his first strike percentage by almost four points from last season (’09: 62.6 percent; ’08: 58.8 percent) while batters have connected for a career high 90.9 percent contact rate on his offerings — up over 10 percent from both ’09 and his career rates.

Though it’s easy to point to this as being an aberration of April rust or sample size, it is difficult to ignore his marked decrease in fastball velocity from last season. Averaging 89.9 mph on the heater this season, he sat at 91.6 in ’09. Such a sudden decrease in velocity is never a good sign for pitchers. However, given that he threw at just below 91 mph in ’07 and ’08, we can give the big guy a break for the time being. Either way, the red flag will be duly noted and watched carefully.

With the pitching performances we had seen to date, it is easy to get down on the club while expecting a continued slide into the cellar of the AL East. However, these Red Sox pitchers are infinitely talented — even Buchholz — and will more than likely find their form within the next few starts. There’s nothing to worry about — just be patient and enjoy the ride.

Sox Notes

– In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Sox have dropped their record to 4-8 — third worst in the American League. Their run differential (-13) is similarly putrid, ranking second-to-last, bettering only the 2-9 Orioles.

– Though the offense has been anemic, the Sox have seen a stark improvement on the defensive side of the ball so far this season. With the league’s third worst defensive efficiency in 2009 at .679, the team has ranked 12th in the MLB this year, at .706.

Down on the Farm

AAA Pawtucket

2B/SS Tug Hulett: Though the victim of a paltry .227 BABIP, Hulett continues to rake International League pitching, slugging two homers in 30 at-bats to go along with a .233/.425/.500 line. With ten walks against six strikeouts thrown in the mix, it makes you wonder what he could do against big league pitching. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if he’ll ever get the chance, as Pedroia, Scutaro, and the light-hitting Bill Hall have the middle of the infield covered. It’s really too bad, the guy has deserved a chance for some time now.

AA Portland

1B Lars Anderson: Now hear this! It seems as if we may, in fact, have a Lars Anderson sighting. After a gruesome spring that saw the fading prospect go 0-for-18, Anderson has put together a nice start to the season, hitting two homers in 34 at-bats in AA. With a .294/.368/.559 line to boot, could this be the resurgence of the once-great prospect? While the power is good, the BABIP and strikeouts are not, as his .363 BABIP is likely unsustainable and his ten strikeouts are a bad sign. Either way, it’s nice to see Anderson have some success considering the struggles he’s had in the professional ranks the last few years. The power is a great sign too, and if he can keep it up, he may have just worked himself back into Boston’s future.

RP Bryson Cox: It’s always going to be hard to get excited about 5.0 innings, but its nice to see signs of life from Bryson Cox, who has had a steady fall from prospect status the last few seasons. Ranked the Sox’ #7 prospect before the 2007 season, Cox imploded in Portland his first time through in ’07, walking 11 against 3 Ks in 14.2 innings. Though he performed well in A-ball when he repeated the level in ’08, he once again struggled upon promotion to AA Portland in ’09.

The big righty from Rice is off to a good start and, if he continues, maybe a promotion to Pawtucket will be in order. With 5 Ks and 0 BBs in 5.0 innings, it’s still far too early to predict a return to prominence, but, it’s enough to let us dream. Believe it or not, doesn’t even have Cox ranked among the organization’s top 60 prospects.

Hi-A Salem

1B Anthony Rizzo: The new it-kid in the Sox’ organization, Rizzo is proving why he has climbed so fast in recent years, batting .302/.367/.488 with two homers in 43 at-bats for Salem. His nine strikeouts are a little higher than ideal, and he’ll have to add more power or keep smoking the ball to overcome the handicap, but its still a positive performance.

A Greenville

OF Reymond Fuentes: It hasn’t been a good start for the Sox’ first rounder, as the speedy outfielder has batted just .226/.342/.290 in 31 at-bats thus far. Still, there are positives, such as his four walks and four steals (zero caught stealing). The strikeouts (8) will have to come down, but the toolsy outfielder is raw and full of potential — and the Sox knew what they were getting into when they drafted him.