58.2%, 54.9%, 51.1%, 49.0%, and 46.6%.
Those are the respective ground ball rates of Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Clay Buchholz— the five starting pitchers currently slated to make up Boston’s 2015 rotation. The league average ground ball percentage is 44.8%, with all five of those starters finishing noticeably above that rate. Considering the hitter-friendly environment of Fenway Park, plus Boston’s strong infield defense, does this mark the beginning of a trend of building the Red Sox rotation around grounder-heavy pitchers?
Those five pitchers are admittedly unlikely to be the starting five at the beginning of next season, with the Red Sox likely to acquire an ace that would push either Kelly or Masterson into a relief role. Even if the next addition to the rotation isn’t such a ground ball machine, however, the Red Sox are sending a clear message that Ben Cherington’s regime places a major emphasis on the ability to induce ground balls.
And it makes perfect sense too.
Fenway Park is one of the more difficult ballparks to pitch in and, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to trust players such as Porcello and Kelly, who were acquired from pitching-friendly ballparks in Detroit and St. Louis, to continue at their level of performance. However, ground balls are the great equalizer in that regard, rendering a good deal of ballpark data invalid, and it’s easy to envision all five of those pitchers having success with the Red Sox.
Plus, the acquisitions of these solid, reliable ground ball pitchers rather than flashy fireballers (though the Red Sox are still likely to pursue a frontline starter who could fit that mold) indicate that the Red Sox are taking a patient, intelligent approach to the Winter Meetings. With the high-octane offense that the Red Sox have assembled, a lineup deep enough that they lost almost nothing by trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers, they don’t need an elite pitching staff to have success and it’s not worth committing a huge contract or spending big-name prospects on a player that the Red Sox don’t really need.
For an example, look at the matchup in the 2014 ALCS. Neither the Royals nor the Orioles had a star-studded rotation, with James Shields the best pitcher on either team, and while the Royals had an incredible, logic-defying run to game seven of the World Series, the Orioles’ formula worked for them throughout the season and really for the past three years as they’ve become a perennial contender despite a fairly mediocre rotation.
However, due to the ground ball tendencies of these five pitchers, the Red Sox have the potential to have a rotation better than either of those teams in addition to what profiles as one of the most powerful lineups in all of baseball. While Miley, Porcello, and Masterson are certainly not the sexiest acquisitions that the Red Sox could have made, they all have relatively high floors due to the amount of grounders they generate and seem unlikely to implode in the small ballparks and offense-heavy environment of the AL East and, with the lineup that Cherington and company have assembled, that might be all the Red Sox need.