Red Sox can learn from Cy Young winners


The Boston Red Sox are desperately searching for a top of the rotation starter to anchor their rotation. Their quest for an ace will have them scouring the trade market and entering bidding wars for the top free agents, but perhaps there is a more unconventional way to finding what they need.

This year’s pair of Cy Young award winners serve as an example of how elite pitchers can pop up out of nowhere when put in the right situation. Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs and Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros were fringe major leaguers two years ago before making promising leaps last season. One year later they find themselves at the top of their class.

Arrieta was a disaster in the early stages of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. He posted a 5.45 ERA in parts of four seasons, culminating in a brutal 7.23 ERA through five starts in 2013 before the O’s finally gave up on him, shipping him to the Cubs. It turns out a change of scenery was all he needed, as Arrieta finished the year with a respectable 3.66 ERA over his final 9 starts. He would follow that up in his first full season in Chicago by shedding over a full run from that ERA, finishing sixth in the league at 2.53. Arrieta was able to build on that breakout year to beat out a pair of Los Angeles Dodgers in one of the tightest Cy Young races in recent memory.

Well sure, every pitcher improves when they move to the National League, is what you may be thinking. Fine, then how do you explain Keuchel’s transformation? The 27-year old posted ERA’s north of 5.00 in each of his first two seasons before breaking out last year with a 2.93 ERA. While that may have seemed like a bit of a fluke given his pedestrian strikeout rates, Keuchel answered those concerns by producing a career-high 8.4 K/9, while also lowering his walk rate. He would finish this season a close second for the AL ERA title, while posting a 7.2 WAR that led all pitchers in the league.

Oh, we should also note that Keuchel’s rookie year in 2012 came when his Astros still resided in the NL, so he actually improved after switching to the hitting-heavy junior circuit. So much for that theory that these surprise breakouts can only happen after fleeing the land of designated hitters for the easier to navigate lineups of the NL.

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Both of these pitchers entered the year with a career ERA over 4.00. As recently as two years ago, neither would have been considered a workhorse and they weren’t impressing anyone with their middling strikeout-to-walk ratios. Finally something clicked for each of them and this pair of late bloomers were able to figure it out on the mound. It took a lot of hard work, perseverance and the mental fortitude to overcome their critics, but they finally managed to harness their skills to become elite pitchers.

This leads us to the Red Sox pitching staff, which was underwhelming this season, to say the least. This staff is loaded with underachievers that have yet to reach their potential, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get there.

Take Joe Kelly for example. Scouts have always salivated over his tantalizing “stuff” on the mound, but like Arrieta and Keuchel a couple of years ago, he hasn’t quite figured it out yet. As unsightly as Kelly’s 4.82 ERA was this season, he finished the year ripping off eight straight wins while posting a 3.32 ERA during that streak, before an injury cut his final appearance of the season short. This strong finish is reminiscent of the second half of Arrieta’s 2013 season, which foreshadowed his breakout year. Could this be a sign that Kelly is ready to make a similar leap next season? If so then his Cy Yong prediction last spring may not have been as unfathomable as we all thought, it may merely have come a year or two early.

We can make a similar case for Rick Porcello, who was a massive disappointment for the Red Sox after they traded for him last offseason and prematurely inked him to a lucrative extension that immediately became an albatross. Porcello was one of the worst pitchers in baseball through the end of July, when the Red Sox shut him down with a trip to the disabled list that would sideline him for nearly a month. When he returned, Porcello was suddenly a completely different pitcher, producing a much more appealing 3.14 ERA over his final eight starts. The time off allowed him to clear his head and recapture the form that enticed the Red Sox to trade for him to begin with. If he can put that together over a full season, Porcello’s contract may not end up being such a colossal bust after all.

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Finally, there’s Clay Buchholz, who has long been an enigma due to his maddening inconsistency. At times he looks like one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, but he also has a habit of looking completely lost on the mound. He has finished first or second in the ERA title race twice in his career, yet failed to reach 180 innings in both seasons. He was a disaster in 2014, posting a 5.34 ERA, only to bounce back with another great season this year. Well, at least until another injury shut him down for the year. Buchholz managed to produce a 2.7 WAR that put him inside the top-20 in the league, despite pitching essentially only half a season. That’s the problem with Buchholz. He’s awful some years and when he’s good, he can’t make it through the season healthy. What happens if Buchholz ever puts it all together, pitching to his potential in a season where he finally logs 200+ innings?

Their history says this trio of Red Sox pitchers can’t do it, but the history of Arrieta and Keuchel’s careers never suggested they could either. Two years ago nobody was projected these two to be dominating the league, yet here we are handing them the hardware that rewards them for being the best in their respective leagues. If they can put it together after years of struggling, why can’t one of these Red Sox pitchers do the same?

It’s certainly not something the Red Sox can count on, so they will still make every effort to lure in a proven ace. Starting the season with a guy we already know can carry the staff brings a certain comfort level, allowing the rest of the rotation to settle in behind them.

Next: Red Sox trade target: Jose Fernandez

The Red Sox expect to get their ace, one way or another. If any of the incumbent starters in their rotation manages to figure it out the way this year’s Cy Young award winners did, we may find that this team had an ace on board all along.