Opinion

Grading the Boston Red Sox starting pitchers

How have the Red Sox starting pitchers done so far this season?

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (May 27, 2018 – Source: Omar Rawlings/Getty Images North America)

It is June 11th so this may be a weird time to do this. There has been no half-season mark plateau reached and there is still plenty of season to go. At the very least, the starters have accumulated a decent enough sample to which quasi-mid-season grades can be handed out to each member of the BoSox rotation. As of this writing, Boston has participated in 66 games in 2018, which means there are still roughly 100 games left to be played (96 to be exact).

Most of you are probably familiar with how “grades” work, with letter grades ranging from “A” to “F”.  Obviously, this is not a foolproof exercise and is completely subjective. These grades do not reflect how well each pitcher has done because they are merely my own interpretation of how they have performed. This is purely for fun and should be viewed as such.

Anyway, that’s enough preamble for now. Let’s get down to the grades!

Chris Sale: 89 IP, 2.83 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 2.6 fWAR 

Grade: A

In his sophomore season in a Red Sox uniform, Sale is experiencing a copious amount of success yet again. Despite a small decrease in strikeouts (12.13 K/9) and a small increase (2.22 BB/9), he is still running the third-best K/9 among qualified starters and is still offering free passes way below league-average. Moreover, he’s generating the highest percentage of soft contact (Soft%) in the majors at 29.1% by a considerable margin. If you are an opposing batter, the alternative to being struck out by Sale is to hit a weak ball somewhere in the field of play. To save yourself from embarrassment, your best play is to avoid the batter’s box altogether and accept futility.

With that said, Sale has been a bit more mortal this year, which still overwhelmingly means he is an elite starting pitcher, but docks him from an A+ to an A. Before Friday’s dominant outing against the Chicago White Sox, the Condor had entered a two-game stretch where he allowed 10 earned runs in a little over 10 innings. Granted, it was facing two of the most imposing lineups in baseball (the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros) and it was just a small blip in what has otherwise been a tremendous season.

His velocity has returned to prime speed after it lost a tick in April, so those early-season worries have completely evaporated. The only noticeable difference between this year and last has been his ability to use his sinker/two-seamer effectively. He has been using it the same amount as in the past, but it has been hit relatively hard, as hitters have knocked it around for a lofty .674 slugging percentage. This may be attributed to the fact it has lost a bit of its vertical movement, according to Brooks Baseball.

Regardless of the fact Sale’s fourth-best pitch has had some turbulence this season, Sale is having another superb season. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, while relishing every single Sale Day. Also, get Sale some runs!

David Price: 74.1 IP, 4.00 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.5 fWAR

Grade: B

Say what you will about Price’s mysterious hand injury that caused him to miss a start against the New York Yankees. Since that point, though, he has been extremely consistent, logging 5 innings with no more than 3 earned runs in each of his last six starts. In other words, in that same span the lefty has compiled a Sale-esque 2.81 ERA and 2.82 FIP in 32 innings pitch. He is starting to strike out even more hitters, which he already did quite frequently while simultaneously curtailing a bit of a walk problem that has plagued him for the first time since 2009-2010.

Price owns an extraordinarily-low 2.35 BB/9 for his career, but has seen it ballon to 3.63 this season, which is higher than the league-average. He is staying in the zone a little less this season, but the real culprits (probably) to his higher-than-usual walk total are his decrease in O-Swing% (outside the zone swing percentage), SwStr% (swinging strike percentage) and F-Strike% (first-strike percentage). He is not getting ahead of hitters nearly as often as in the past, while also not having the ability to get hitters to chase on pitches, particularly the ones outside of the strike zone.

In terms of pitch mix/effectiveness, there has not been anything considerably different, besides a slight uptick in changeup usage and whiffs in his past couple of starts. After struggling with the off-speed pitch in the beginning of ’18, Price has turned it into one of his premier pitches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his results have been much better since he has gotten more adept at using the changeup.

Anyway, when hitters are putting the ball in play against Price, they are not doing so with much authority. He, although not on Sale’s level, has done an excellent job managing quality of contact off him.

In his third season in a Boston uniform, Price has been a very solid starting pitcher, especially of late. He may never live up to the lucrative contract he signed with the team, but he has been quite effective since putting on a Red Sox uniform and this year is no different.

Rick Porcello: 86.1 IP, 3.54 ERA, 3.31 FIP and 1.8 fWAR

Grade: B+

After a sterling start to the 2018 season, Porcello experienced a hiccup in early-to-mid May but has since pick himself up nicely with three consecutive quality starts. Per usual, he has been an innings-eating machine, ranking 10th in innings pitched among qualified starters and seems destined to eclipse 200 innings for the third straight year.

He is following up his lackluster 2017 campaign with a much stronger 2018 and that can partially be accredited to his sinker/two-seamer. Porcello has always been touted as a sinker/groundball pitcher throughout his career, but abandoned that identity last season. He featured a career-low in sinker percentage and correspondingly saw his groundball rate drop. This year, however, he has used it more (although still less than in other years) and has seen his GB% (groundball percentage) soar to 47.4%, which is the highest since his Detroit Tigers’ days. The sinker has also been demonstrably more effective, yielding a 62.27 groundball percentage and being hit for a low .340 slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, Porcello has decided to incorporate the slider more prevalently than ever before in his arsenal and he has been even better with that pitch. Batters have only managed to muster a .165 batting average and .299 slugging percentage while getting whiffs (per swing) over 25% of the time off the breaking ball.

The right-hander has produced the best K/9 (8.34) of his career and has maintained his excellent command by rarely allowing walks. It has been a very good season from Pretty Ricky thus far; similar to his 2016 Cy Young season.

Eduardo Rodriguez: 66 IP, 3.68 ERA, 3.44 FIP and 1.2 fWAR

Grade: B

E-Rod has been having the best season of his four-year MLB career, despite the fact he is somehow still only 25. His strikeouts-per-nine has risen in each year, leading to a crisp 10.50 K/9 in 2018, trailing only Sale on the staff. He has also reduced his BB/9 from 3.28 last season to 2.86 this season. These peripheral numbers are doing extremely well for the left-hander. Additionally, Rodriguez has yielded a higher groundball rate than in his prior two seasons and, like the pitchers above him, has suppressed hard contact.

It is important to understand how the implementation of a cutter has aided in his development this season. According to Brooks Baseball, he had not whipped out a cutter since mid-2016 but has become his third most-used (and best) pitch. It has been hit for the least amount of damage of his five pitches and gets hit on the ground an inordinate amount of the time for a cut-fastball. Anecdotally, it seems to be a nice pitch to mesh with his changeup, which has long been his most-heralded pitch. This season the changeup has received an extraordinary 40.14 whiff per swing percentage.

A new pitch has been instrumental in the fact Rodriguez is limiting run production like never before. He possesses a very strong ERA and FIP, but his problem continues to be working late into games. He has not logged 7 innings of work this year and has only gotten through more than 6 innings in two of 12 starts. E-Rod works deep into counts (at a slow pace) and it has worked for him this season, but if he could be more methodical with the same stats, he would have a better grade than a “B”.

Drew Pomeranz: 37 IP, 6.81 ERA, 5.32 FIP and -0.1 fWAR

Grade: D-

Rarely does every kid get a good grade and I do not think it is completely surprising that the guy with the nickname “Big Smooth” is the one who does not. Pom’s struggles have been well documented and have culminated into a suspect DL trip earlier in the week. In fact, there is a real possibility that when he returns from the injury he will no longer be in the starting rotation. This was probably not the season the upcoming free agent has envisioned.

His command problems have been very much aggravated in ’18, with his BB/9 jumping to 5.11 this season. For a guy who usually hovered around a league-average BB/9 (3.30-3.40), this leap is disconcerting and has been a huge reason why he has scuffled the way he has. Further, when batters make contact off him this year, they hit the ball HARD. His Hard% (hard-contact percentage) is up significantly and his Soft% (soft-contact percentage) is down significantly. Meanwhile, his 1.70 HR/9, while perhaps unsustainable, is extremely high and is a compounding factor for his struggles.

He has lost noticeable velocity on his heater, going from a guy last year who could consistently get in the low-90s to a guy this year who has reverted to the high-80s. Every mph matters and the fastball’s reduced velocity is evidently harmful to his performance. Not only that, but, historically, Pomeranz is a pitcher who has utilized his fastball and knuckle-curve almost equally. While he has continued to do in ’18, the curve has not nearly been effective. It has more vertical movement than ever before in his career (more break, easier to identify?) and has been belted for a .424 average and .530 slugging percentage. For his career, hitters have hit the breaking ball for a .259 average and .346 slugging percentage. You see the problem.

If the left-hander struggles with either of his oft-thrown pitches (4-seamer or knuckle-curve), he most likely will struggle, without the secondary pitches available to get him through the game effectively. This season both pitches have been ineffective and have taken a significant step back. Consequently, it is not shocking he has been as bad as he has.

His silver lining is his K/9 is still good and not far from vintage Pomeranz, while his BABIP (.367) is also unsustainably high. Regardless, this has not been a good year for him by any stretch of the imagination and we may very well have seen the last of his starting pitching days in a BoSox uniform.

The Reserves: Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, Steven Wright and Jalen Beeks

Grade: A-

The group has combined for just five starts, with every one of the reserves getting just one besides Velazquez, who has made two. Wright made his 2018 starting pitching debut on Tuesday and looked fantastic, throwing 7 innings of no-run ball against the Detroit Tigers. The knuckleballer will most likely be in the rotation for the foreseeable future, displacing Pomeranz.

Anyway, Velazquez, Wright and Johnson have all done tremendously when called upon in their limit action as starters. Beeks, on the other hand, had a rough 2018 debut on Thursday, allowing 6 earned runs in 4 innings of work. If it were not for the southpaw’s one unsightly start (even though he has a lot of talent and great AAA numbers), the group would have an A+.

For a team who was chastised for their lack of starting pitching depth coming into the season, I would say they have done okay in this department.

Conclusion

Putting it all together, the Red Sox staff boasts the 5th-best fWAR in baseball and the 11th-best ERA. This is a very formidable group, with only one question mark at the back-end of the rotation, which hopefully Wright will be able to fill. If I had to give the group, as a whole, a letter grade, I would probably give them a B+ or A-.

This is a really strong group of pitchers, with an ace at the top and three really good pitchers following him. It has all the makings of an imposing rotation in the postseason.

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