The first six weeks of the season haven’t all gone according to plan for the Red Sox. Various injuries and some poor hitting with men on base have conspired to dampen their offensive production, Felix Doubront and Clay Buchholz have each turned in a stinker or two, and even Koji Uehara has shown signs of being human.
Yet the club’s biggest strength—its deep and experienced starting rotation—is beginning to pay dividends in a surprisingly wide-open AL East. Boston’s staff is starting to demonstrate that it’s the best in the division (perhaps by a sizeable margin), a reality that could make a big difference in separating the Red Sox from the rest of the pack come season’s end.
With just 1.5 games separating the five AL East teams and each squad showing signs of weakness, Boston’s starting rotation is looking increasingly superior in a division where everyone else’s staff is struggling to tread water.
Normally the AL East’s stingiest team, the Rays’ rotation has fallen prey to injuries. Tampa has been forced to send Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard (a key cog during Boston’s collapse in September of 2011) to the mound on two out of every five nights. Add in Matt Moore’s season-ending surgery and the increasing possibility that Jake Odorizzi is nothing but a bullpen arm, and the Rays are suddenly running out of viable starters. Getting Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb back from injury will help, but this still looks like the weakest Tampa Bay staff in a few years.
Masahiro Tanaka has aided the Yankees immensely in these first six weeks. Behind him, however, New York’s rotation has nothing but question marks. CC Sabathia can barely top 90 mph, Ivan Nova is out for the season, and Michael Pineda still has more questions to answer after coming off serious shoulder surgery. Even if Hiroki Kuroda improves on his bumpy start, the Yankees will need a lot to go right to match the depth and quality of Boston’s staff.
For years now, Baltimore’s biggest weakness has been its starting pitching, and now that Ubaldo Jimenez’s control and home run problems have returned, that doesn’t appear likely to change anytime soon. Chris Tillman gives the Red Sox fits and has turned into a solid pitcher, but he is by far the best starter in a staff filled with average or below-average arms. Uber-prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy loom on the horizon, but neither should be expected to be the difference maker for the Orioles this season.
Of all these rotations, Toronto’s might just be the worst. The Jays didn’t add to what was one of 2013’s lowliest staffs this offseason, preferring to go with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation. Neither is a good fit in the AL East, and Toronto’s staff grew even thinner when Brandon Morrow (unsurprisingly) landed on the 60-day DL with a torn tendon in his right hand. Drew Hutchison has been a pleasant surprise for the Jays, but the rest of the club’s rotation is filled out by pitchers who will struggle to survive in this division.
Beyond all this, the numbers bear out Boston’s advantage in the early going as well. Red Sox starters have the best ERA (3.68), ERA+ (118), FIP (3.54), and batting average against (.255) in the division. Their ERA+ ranks seventh in baseball; no other AL East squad is in the top half.
Boston’s rotation also has the division’s highest strikeout rate (21.9%) and second-lowest walk rate (7.6%), trailing only the Yankees.
Jon Lester has been an absolute rock in 2014 (his 2.15 FIP leads the AL), and considering his 15-strikeout performance against Oakland on Sunday, he is pitching as well as he ever has. John Lackey has picked up right where he left off last year, and Jake Peavy has been every bit the consistent performer the Red Sox hoped they were getting last July.
With Clay Buchholz showing better velocity and results in his last start, Boston’s rotation is suddenly looking like a big asset, its pieces falling into their proper places. Heck, even Felix Doubront has begun to show signs that he is shaking off his annual spring struggles.
Since giving up 14 runs to the Yankees on April 24 (an admittedly arbitrary date), the Red Sox rotation has allowed 33 runs over a nine-game stretch against the Jays, Rays, and Athletics, offenses that all rank within the top 10 in baseball.
In a division that looks likely to be tightly packed all summer long, Boston’s staff could prove to be a significant advantage come September. Sure, the Red Sox have proven themselves to be anything but perfect so far in 2014. Mistakes and inconsistency have run rampant, and the offense has invented new ways to strand runners.
But no team has run away with the AL East, and just six weeks ago, the Red Sox were among a handful of clubs tipped to win the World Series. The talent is there, most notably in the starting staff, which is beginning to pay off in the numbers and on the scoreboard.