Red Sox’ Moneyball-style offseason continues with Corey Kluber contract

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 02: Corey Kluber #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park on October 02, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 02: Corey Kluber #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches in the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park on October 02, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The offseason hasn’t been a walk in the park for the Boston Red Sox.

Losing Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, Matt Strahm, Rich Hill, and potentially, Rafael Devers, is weighing heavily. They’ve made several free-agent bids, but many have opted to sign elsewhere, some even taking less money and/or years than what the Sox offered.

But if you look at the pitching additions they have made, it’s clear that walks in the park are exactly what they’re trying to avoid, where their opponents are concerned.

After having the pitching staff with the second-highest walk rate in the American League in 2022, and the second-highest bullpen walk rate in the AL over the last five seasons, the Sox are taking a page from the Moneyball playbook: find hitters who can get on base and pitchers who don’t let opponents do the same.

The Sox know from ample firsthand experience how much walks can come back to bite a pitching staff, so this offseason, they’ve made it their business to sign some of the stingiest pitchers and more patient hitters. Chris Martin owns the lowest career walk rate among active pitchers (minimum 200 IP) and Justin Turner has a 10.1% walk rate and 14.5% strikeout rate over the last six seasons; league averages are 8.3% and 20.8%, respectively. Masataka Yoshida‘s plate discipline was phenomenal in Japan’s Nippon League, and will hopefully continue to be the case now that he’s coming to MLB.

Now, they’re adding Corey Kluber to the starting rotation, after a season in which he outranked all qualified pitchers with an impressive 3.0 BB%.

Red Sox signing Corey Kluber to 1-year contract in continued push for pitchers who limit walks

Kluber’s deal is for one year and $10M, but he can earn up to $2M more in bonuses. The Sox have an $11M club option on him for 2024 with as-yet-unspecified performance-based escalators and more bonuses in that second year.

The two-time Cy Young has been linked to the Sox for several years, in part because of his connection to the area. He and his family live in his wife Amanda’s hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts, and in the past, he made it clear that the Sox knew he’d like to pitch for them:

"“I’m looking for an opportunity to win as well as an opportunity that works well for our family. I think [the Red Sox] are well aware of how I feel when that time comes and things start kind of picking up.”via Boston Globe (subscription required)"

The current Red Sox starting pitching situation is one of quantity, but not exactly quality. Even though the Sox still had more than enough pitchers to fill the rotation after Eovaldi, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill became free agents at the end of the season, the remaining group has an overwhelming number of question marks, red flags, and risks. Brayan Bello is a rookie, Garrett Whitlock is returning from hip surgery and struggled in a starting role last season, James Paxton hasn’t pitched since he threw 1 1/3 innings in 2021, and Chris Sale missed almost all of 2022 due to a rib fracture followed by a pinky fracture, and then a broken wrist.

The 36-year-old Kluber will be another question mark and risk, though to some extent, every player is when they sign on with a new team. But from a durability standpoint, he’s coming off one of his best seasons in years. After throwing 116 2/3 innings total between 2019-21, the righty pitched 164 innings in 2022 and made 30+ starts for the second time in the last six seasons. Durability, or lack thereof, was a key issue for the 2022 Sox; Nick Pivetta was the only starter to throw at least 128 innings and not go on the Injured List at least once.

Kluber’s 4.34 ERA and career-worst 20% strikeout rate this year aren’t enticing, but his 3.57 FIP – his best since 2018 – indicates that his season was better than how it looks when viewed through the lens of ERA. Among qualified American League starters, he ranked 12th in FIP, right behind Yankees star Gerrit Cole, and ahead of every Red Sox starting pitcher. He ranked in the 75th percentile or better in HardHit% (75th), average exit velocity (80th), chase rate (96th), and BB% (99th).

Of course, anyone looking at the Red Sox financials and long-term contractual obligations (or lack thereof) will rightfully point out that one of the richest ownership groups in all of pro sports doesn’t need to go the Moneyball route. The Sox need to get on base more and keep opponents off the bases; what they don’t need to do is pinch pennies like Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane begging A’s owner Stephen Schott for thousands more. Not millions more, thousands.

The Red Sox ended their 86-year curse by combining the Moneyball model with spending some serious money. As evidenced by the A’s, Moneyball on its own won’t get them that far.