There is something magical about the start of every Boston Red Sox baseball season. Fans enter the season dreaming big about the team's potential and how they may capture another World Series Championship. Armed with optimism, the Red Sox started the 2023 campaign against the Baltimore Orioles. Despite a poor performance from their starting pitching, the Red Sox took two out of three games from the Orioles due to clutch hitting, strong relief pitching, and a little luck (thank you Ryan McKenna).
Unfortunately, the Red Sox starting pitching struggled mightily during the series and the team often found themselves battling back from deficits. This inauspicious start has led to concerns especially given the many question marks about the starting pitching staff entering the season. However, a deeper dive into each individual performance suggests that the rotation should be better going forward.
Two-time Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber, was the opening-day Red Sox starting pitcher. Unfortunately, he struggled over 3.1 innings putting the team in an early hole allowing five runs including two home runs. Despite an offensive rally, the Red Sox were not able to climb out of this deficit. Uncharacteristically, Kluber had control issues allowing four walks. Nobody expected Kluber to regain his past Cy Young form, but this performance was an outlier due to his lack of command. In fact, Kluber only walked 21 batters during the entire 2022 season including walking four batters in one game a single time.
One explanation for this lack of control may be the temperature which would impact his feel for his offspeed pitches. The game-time temperature on Thursday at Fenway Park was 38 degrees. Manager Alex Cora did not seem concerned, telling reporters after Kluber's outing, "I’m not worried about Kluber throwing strikes. He’ll be fine". What is also reassuring is that his only four-walk performance last season was also his first start after which he demonstrated exemplary control. As the temperature rises, Kluber should regain his control and improve on this opening-day performance.
Red Sox SP Chris Sale made his first start at Fenway Park in 528 days
On Saturday, the Red Sox sent Chris Sale to the hill to try and even the series. Due to various injuries, Sale was making his first Fenway Park start in 528 days when he started in the 2021 American League Championship Series.
Red Sox fans have anticipated the return of "Sale Day" all spring training. A return to form for Sale would go a long way in the Red Sox returning to the postseason. Unfortunately, Sale's performance was disappointing. He only lasted three innings allowing seven runs on three home runs. Once again, the team found itself in an early deficit.
Sale summed up his performance, telling reporters after the game, “That was about as embarrassed that I’ve ever been on a baseball field. … I was out there throwing batting practice”. Fortunately, the team was able to rally and win the game.
Though this was not the pitching performance that Sale or the Red Sox fans wanted, there were some positives. Sale's fastball was consistently around 94-95 m.p.h. topping out at 97 m.p.h. Per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, Sale featured his best changeup in years (subscription required). Sale seemed to have great stuff but did not execute which should not be unexpected for someone returning from injury with so much time away. Most importantly, he has not had any health setbacks. As he shakes off the rust, there should be optimism that he can be an improved starter going forward.
For Sunday's rubber match, the Red Sox gave the ball to Tanner Houck who entered the season after struggling during spring training. Unlike Kluber and Sale, Houck got off to a strong start shutting out the Orioles over his first 4 innings. Then in the fifth inning, Houck allowed three runs on 2 home runs..
As the weather warms, reinforcements arrive and players shake off the rust, it is not hard to envision the Boston Red Sox starting rotation turning things around.
While this was the best starting pitching performance of the opening series, it exemplifies why many feel Houck is better suited for a multi-inning bullpen role. He can dominate over short stretches but he seems to struggle the more a lineup sees him. Houck was only thrust into a starting role after injuries to other pitchers. Fortunately, reinforcements seem to be on the way.
On Friday night, Garrett Whitlock who is rehabbing from offseason hip surgery, made the opening day start for the Worcester Red Sox. Against an impressive Syracuse Mets affiliate, Whitlock pitched four innings allowing one run with six strikeouts.
Whitlock is scheduled to make another minor league appearance in Double-A Portland this Thursday. If there are no setbacks, he will join the Boston Red Sox in the middle of April against Tampa Bay. Whitlock's return along with the eventual return of Brayan Bello and James Paxton a few weeks later will provide reinforcements to the Red Sox's starting pitching. Their return will also allow the Red Sox to return Houck to the bullpen where he can thrive in a multi-inning role that seems to better suit his pitching arsenal. Moving Houck back to the bullpen will also strengthen the bullpen.
Opening weekend was not the perfect start for the Red Sox rotation as they struggled with command and surrendered early leads. Fortunately, due to a historic offense, strong bullpen, and some timely luck, the Red Sox were able to escape the opening series by taking two of three games from the Orioles. However, it is not sustainable to keep winning with poor starting pitching performances. As the weather warms, reinforcements arrive and players shake off the rust, it is not hard to envision this starting rotation turning things around.