Red Sox in 2020 will only go as far as their starting pitching

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 10: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Fenway Park on June 10, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley /Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 10: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Fenway Park on June 10, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley /Getty Images) /

Regardless of what the Red Sox do to improve the team this offseason, their success in 2020 will begin and end with the starting rotation.

There was a litany of reasons why the Red Sox crashed and burned in 2019 and the media and fans spent the entirety of the season debating them. Alex Cora’s lackadaisical spring training, complacency, injuries, down seasons from Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi’s regression, and a patchwork bullpen that got overtaxed early in the season and became more ground down the longer the season went on all contributed to the disappointing season they had.

When the dust settled, a fuller assessment showed that the offense ended up being fine, ranking fourth in the American League in runs scored, first in hits and doubles, second in walks and OBP, and top 10 in every other offensive category. Clearly, scoring wasn’t the problem in 2019.

The bullpen ended the season with the dubious distinction of leading the league in blown saves, but they were overworked from early on in the season and without the stability of defined roles, no one was really surprised at the outcome.

There’s one area, though, where all of these problems, from the need to score a ton of runs every game to the inability to hold a lead or prevent a deficit, stemmed from – the starting rotation’s dismal performance in 2019. What was one of the team’s strengths in 2018, so much so that they papered over the bullpen’s ineffectiveness in October, was the team’s biggest weakness in 2019.

On paper, a team that boasted Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nathan Eovaldi looked like it had a solid rotation, but let’s take a look at their stats from 2019:

Sale: 25 GS, 6-11 W-L, 4.40 ERA, 218 K, 37 BB, 147.1 IP, 1.086 WHIP
Price: 22 GS, 7-5 W-L, 4.28 ERA, 128 K, 32 BB, 107.1 IP, 1.314 WHIP
Porcello: 32 GS, 14-12 W-L, 5.52 ERA, 143 K, 45 BB, 174.1 IP, 1.394 WHIP
Rodriguez: 34 GS, 19-6 W-L, 3.81 ERA, 213 K, 75 BB, 203.1 IP, 1.328 WHIP
Eovaldi: 12 GS, 2-1 W-L, 5.99 ERA, 70 K, 35 BB, 67.2 IP, 1.581 WHIP (Eovaldi also pitched out of the bullpen for part of the season)

Let’s throw Andrew Cashner in since he was the predominant fifth starter after being acquired in a trade in July 2019. The stats below are only from his time in 2019 with the Red Sox.

Cashner: 6 GS, 2-5 W-L, 6.20 ERA, 42 K, 29 BB, 53.2 IP, 1.621 WHIP (Cashner also spent time pitching out of the bullpen in the latter part of the season)

I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I say that apart from Rodriguez, the Red Sox pitching staff had an atrocious season in 2019. For the sake of argument, I’m going to leave out all of the various pitchers (Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, etc) who made spot starts in the numerous “bullpen games” that the fifth (and sometimes fourth) spots in the rotation morphed into over the second half of the season and just focus on the primary starters. These six pitchers accounted for only 50 of the team’s 84 wins. Take out Rodriguez’ stellar season and that number drops to 31 wins.

Injuries obviously played a huge role in the rotation’s poor performance, as Sale only made it through half the season before being shut down for good with a shoulder issue, but even before that he never looked right. He had a terrible start to the season and only picked it up over his final few weeks before going on the shelf. Price missed time due to a wrist issue and Eovaldi didn’t make it out of April before having surgery, and then missed his initial 6-8 week recovery timetable by several more weeks.

As for Porcello, he was durable but fell victim yet again to his “odd-year” curse, pitching inconsistently while giving up a whopping thirty-one home runs as his walks also increased. He’s gone now, so that’s the Mets’ new problem.

Only one pitcher surpassed 200 innings (E-Rod), two had over 200 strikeouts (Sale, E-Rod), and Rodriguez was the only starter with an ERA under 4.00. Those are not the ingredients for a recipe for success when it comes to a big league rotation.

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Where this really killed the team last year was in the rotation’s inability to routinely go longer than four or five innings per start. That led to far too many games where the bullpen was called upon to pitch three, four, five, sometimes six innings every game, oftentimes coming into situations with sizable deficits. That would be taxing for the best bullpens and while the Red Sox relief corps performed admirably in 2019, they were not a particularly talented bunch. It wore them down early in the season and their uneasy symbiosis with the rotation created a negative feedback loop of failure. If not for the prolific offense, it would have been even worse.

What does this mean for the upcoming 2020 season? It means that if the team wants to have any success and improve upon their 84-78 record from last year, they will need the starters to stay healthy and most importantly, effective. Sale needs to find a way to hold up for an entire season, something that becomes more unlikely every year as he ages and especially with his frame and unorthodox delivery. As he goes, so goes the rotation.

Price needs to stay healthy and hope that he truly is “built differently,” as he’s claimed, and that the arm issue he’s struggled with the last few seasons doesn’t end up finally requiring surgery. Eovaldi needs to show that A) he can stay healthy for the first time in his career, and B) that he can consistently pitch well and overcome his control issues. It would be great if the Red Sox could have some stability in the fifth rotation spot, too, but it remains to be seen if newcomer Martin Perez is that answer.

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As for E-Rod, he was the lone bright spot in 2019 and had his breakthrough season. After giving us glimpses of his potential to that point in his career, he was finally able to put it all together over an entire season. The Red Sox need to hope that this is truly the pitcher he will be going forward and that he wasn’t just a one-year wonder, because if everything else doesn’t fall into place with this rotation and E-Rod reverts back to his pre-2019 self, 2020 is going to be another long and frustrating season.