Red Sox pitching staff is suddenly generous with allowing home runs

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 09: Nick Pivetta #37 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 9, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 09: Nick Pivetta #37 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 9, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Red Sox pitchers are suddenly giving up home runs in bunches

The Boston Red Sox pitching staff has exceeded our expectations this season. Even with Chris Sale still on the sidelines and Eduardo Rodriguez enduring a rocky stretch as he works his way back from a lost season, the starting rotation has been surprisingly solid. Part of their success was built on their ability to keep the ball in the park but that trend has abandoned them in recent weeks.

Through May 30, the Red Sox owned the best home run rate in the league and third-best in the majors at 0.75 HR/9. The team’s 3.87 ERA was fourth in the league and 11th in the majors at the time. It wasn’t a dominant pitching staff but it was formidable enough to keep the team in games for their powerhouse offense to get the job done.

In 14 games since, Red Sox pitchers have allowed a major league-high 26 home runs and they own the second-worst home run rate at 1.89 HR/9. Boston’s 5.73 ERA ranks 26th in the majors during that span.

Much of the damage has been done during the current homestand. Red Sox pitchers gave up multiple home runs in each of the three games against the Houston Astros, a series that saw Boston drop two out of three.

The Red Sox have lost two of the first three games of their current series with the Toronto Blue Jays and the pitching staff has been pounded by the long ball in consecutive losses.

Nick Pivetta surrendered a career-high four home runs in Saturday’s loss and the Jays tagged Brandon Workman with another in the ninth to run away with a 7-2 victory.

The next day, Martin Perez failed to make it out of the second inning, allowing five earned runs on three homers while recording only four outs. Recent call-up Ryan Weber was thrown to the wolves for mop-up duty and surrendered four home runs while getting charged for 11 earned runs. Boston resorted to using position players on the mound for the final two innings of the blowout, leading to Toronto going deep one more time against Christian Arroyo.

The eight home runs by the Blue Jays were the most ever by a visiting team at Fenway Park, per Alex Speier of The Boston Globe. The previous record of seven was last reached by the Baltimore Orioles in 1967. The Red Sox have homered eight times in a game at Fenway before, most recently in 2003, but this was the worst they have allowed an opposing team to abuse them with the long ball on their home turf.

While some will be quick to make a connection between these recent pitching woes and MLB’s latest crusade to crack down on pitchers using foreign substances, there’s no evidence to support that accusation. The “sticky stuff” that some pitchers allegedly apply to the baseball is used to improve spin rate. Many Red Sox pitchers don’t rely on strong spin rates and those who do haven’t shown any suspicious trends – either a spike in spin rate early in the season when they were successful or a sudden decline coinciding with recent struggles.

The recent uptick in home runs has primarily been the result of pitches catching too much of the plate. Pitchers are missing their spots and leaving meatballs over the middle that are going to get crushed. Those issues are magnified against recent opponents such as the Astros and Blue Jays, two of the strongest lineups in baseball.

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Fatigue may also be a factor. The Red Sox have played 66 games this year after the season lasted only 60 games in 2020. That means most pitchers are approaching or have already exceeded last year’s innings totals. This concern is part of why manager Alex Cora has been cautious with the workload of his rotation and has been hesitant to allow them to pitch deep into games. He’s trying to conserve their arms for the long haul.

Boston expected to rely on depth to get them through the season but potential spot starters Tanner Houck and Connor Seabold have missed time with injuries. These prospects will eventually be available to give some tired arms a break and the Red Sox still anticipate the rotation getting a boost from Sale’s return sometime this summer. In the meantime, the pitching staff will need to grind through the schedule.

We also have to consider that some regression was expected. The Red Sox have pitchers who have a history of keeping the ball in the park but few expected them to be this good. Nathan Eovaldi has allowed fewer than one homer per nine innings over the course of his career but his league-leading 0.4 HR/9 probably isn’t sustainable.

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The Red Sox were never realistically going to make it through the entire season allowing the fewest home runs but they won’t continue to be nearly as generous as they have been in recent weeks. Pitchers will make adjustments to hit their spots, they will face less imposing lineups and balance will be restored.