Is the Boston Red Sox rotation better than we think?


The starting rotation for the Boston Red Sox stinks. That was the narrative entering the season when the team rolled out what seemed to be a collection of middle of the rotation starters. There was no ace to anchor the staff, but they defiantly pushed forward as if they didn’t need one.

Well we know how that worked out. Not only could they have used a more reliable option at the top of the rotation, but the five guys that started in the rotation performed below the low expectations we had for them. Justin Masterson was released, Joe Kelly was temporarily demoted to the minors and Clay Buchholz predictably couldn’t stay healthy.

When we pick up the pieces of this shattered staff to look ahead at what’s left for the Red Sox to count on heading into next season, it may not be as bad as you think.

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It starts with youth. The failures of some have given opportunities to others, as Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens made their debuts this season. The pair of rookies have each struggled with consistency at times, because that’s what young pitchers do, but they have also shown flashes that remind us why scouts have always raved about their potential. Expect them to be significant cogs in next year’s rotation.

The Red Sox handed Rick Porcello a massive contract extension before he ever took the mound for them in a regular season game and it didn’t take long for him to make them regret that decision. Porcello has been a disaster this year, posting a losing record (8-14) and an ERA that still hovers north of 5.00, proving once and for all that paying a pitcher like an ace doesn’t automatically make him one.

Yet Porcello may not be a lost cause after all. He seems to have figured some things out during his hiatus on the disabled list and has come back as a new and improved version of himself. Or at least one that resembles the pitcher Boston thought they were getting. Porcello owns a 2.98 ERA in six starts since his return, down from the brutal 5.81 ERA he had at the time he was banished to the DL. His strikeout rate is up from 7.22% to 8.93%, while his ground ball rate has risen from 43.2% to a 52.5% rate that is more in line with his career average. He’s also walking fewer batters (1.91 BB/9, down from 2.12) and allowing fewer home runs (0.85 HR/9, down from 1.57) since his return. Is this a small sample-size mirage or a sign that Porcello has fixed the mechanical flaws that derailed his season? He may never live up to that contract, but the Red Sox can at least feel more comfortable keeping him in the rotation if he continues to pitch the way he has over these last six starts.

Wade Miley may end up as nothing more than a back of the rotation innings eater, but he’s been doing just fine in that role. He leads the team in innings pitched and should end up just shy of 200 this season. His 4.34 ERA won’t excite anyone, but he’s actually pitched better than that number suggests. His 3.70 FIP is 12th in the league, putting him a tick ahead of some guy named Felix Hernandez.

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Speaking of calculating a pitcher’s ERA based on factors independent of the defense behind them, Kelly’s 4.18 FIP is much easier to swallow than his 4.82 ERA. He’s actually tied with Jeff Samardzija for 25th in the league in that category. Kelly’s season got off to a bumpy start, but he’s another member of this rotation to straighten himself out after taking some time off. Soon after returning from a mid-season demotion to Pawtucket, Kelly reeled off 8 straight wins before being shut down for the season.

Buchholz is the wild card of the pack. He can look completely lost on the mound at times, while devastatingly dominant at others. His 3.26 ERA this season would have put him 7th in the league if he had enough innings to qualify, while his 2.68 FIP would have been second best behind Chris Sale. The problem is that once again he won’t pitch enough innings to qualify. Buchholz has never made 30 starts in a season and has surpassed 175 innings only once. Fairly or not, he’s been labeled injury prone, while also being prone to dreadful slumps where he can’t seem to get his head in the game. His very affordable $13 million team option means he’ll almost certainly be back, but he isn’t reliable enough to count on to lead the rotation. As long as the Red Sox don’t need him to be that guy, he still has plenty of value.

Boston’s rotation has been middle of the pack since the break, which is a drastic improvement over how they performed in the first half. Some of that is progress made by pitchers that had been performing well below what they are capable of, but this improvement also coincides with the Red Sox upgrading their outfield defense by giving Jackie Bradley an everyday spot and removing Hanley Ramirez from the equation. This aligns with why several Red Sox starters have an ERA significantly higher than their FIP. Perhaps the solution to upgrading this pitching staff has been improving the defense supporting them.

The Red Sox still need to find a reliable front line starter, through free agency or trade, to lead this staff. After that they may not need much more help, as the pieces they already have are better than their stats make them appear to be on the surface.