Opinion

Should Boston be more worried about the rotation than the bullpen?

Four games down, 158 more to go. Entering April, Domingo Santana leads MLB in RBIs, Corbin Burnes has more strikeouts than anybody not named Max Scherzer, and Pablo Sandoval has already committed 2 errors in his lone start thus far (I couldn’t resist). Perhaps the most surprising outcome from MLB’s 2019 inaugural weekend is the fact that both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox sit beneath the Tampa Bay Rays, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East standings entering Monday.

All of these temporary truths are bound to change between now and the end of the year (unless Farhan Zaidi and Bruce Bochy suddenly realize that Sandoval is a waste of a roster spot and wisely cut him) so give it a few more weeks before hitting the panic button. Sure, the 2019 Red Sox took 16 fewer games to reach their third loss of the season than the 2018 version, but there are some positive takeaways from Boston’s opening series vs. Seattle.

For one, the offense continues to produce at a rate that falls under the “well above average” category, scoring 24 runs in 4 games. Furthermore, the late-inning relentlessness that distinguished last year’s lineup seems to have carried over into this season. Through their first 4 games, the Sox have a higher OBP in the 8th inning than any other inning, followed by the 9th inning. Their highest OPS comes in the 6th inning. Aside from the 7th inning, Boston’s lineup has been objectively better from the plate in the latter half of the first four games.

Inning         BA  OBP  SLG   OPS

1st inning   .350 .381 .400  .781

2nd inning   .294 .316 .529  .845

3rd inning   .200 .333 .333  .667

4th inning   .200 .250 .400  .650

5th inning   .294 .294 .294  .588

6th inning   .333 .333 .778 1.111

7th inning   .000 .077 .000  .077

8th inning   .286 .412 .571  .983

9th inning   .211 .400 .421  .821

It’s safe to assume the Sox won’t be playing with the same sense of urgency that they did during the Seattle series every night. Remember, the one win was in come-from-behind fashion.  And hopefully, the team starts to hit in the 7th inning at some point. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that the position players are not only doing their part, but they seem to be getting on base more as the game goes on.

Speaking of things that improve as the game develops, how about those pitchers? All eight relief pitchers have already tossed at least 1 scoreless inning. Matt Barnes is (literally) perfect so far. Boston’s bullpen has a 3.60 ERA through 18.0 innings, and 4 of those 5 earned runs were the direct result of 3 home runs. Basically, when the ball stays in the yard, these guys have been lights out.

Good news for those Sox fans who were losing sleep last week worrying about the bullpen, AMIRITE? Alex Cora’s secondary arms seem to have taken his lineup’s lead by kicking it up a notch after the starter gets knocked out.

Unfortunately, it’s been too late at that point. At least, 75% of the time, it was. Up until now, the players who lace them up on a daily basis have handled their roles sufficiently. It’s the every-fifth-day guys who have held the team back. And don’t point the blame at the catchers, just because neither of them is Sandy Leon. As I just mentioned, our inferior bullpen arms are getting along perfectly fine without him.

Chris Sale inked a new contract roughly a week before Opening Day, guaranteeing him both $145 million and a spot in the Red Sox rotation through the 2025 season. It’s a relatively large investment for a player who only shows up in the box score about 20% of the time. That’s not to say it’s a bad deal; compared to teammate David Price, it’s a bargain, and I happen to love the idea of locking up the next Randy Johnson through his prime for the annual cost of what Yoenis Cespedes is making this year. The only drawback is that it limits Dombrowski’s ability to spend elsewhere, like say, for example, the bullpen.

Contrary to what my eyes and my gut tell me, Chris Sale IS human, so he’ll have an outing like last Thursday’s from time to time, and that’s OK. Better it come in March or April than September or October. That being said, the other starting pitchers (who come across as way more mortal) don’t have Sale’s track record of consistent dominance, so their initial performances actually concern me.

Nathan Eovaldi was a clubhouse hero last October, and he was compensated accordingly during the offseason. With his ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun for multiple innings each time out, there’s a reason why Red Sox Nation believes he can build on last season and become a staple in the rotation for years to come. There’s also a medical chart with his name on it that contains more pages than the Da Vinci Code. His ceiling is as high as just about anyone else’s on the staff, but his floor is also the lowest, and the scariest. His success is also heavily predicated on his velocity. Statcast indicates that, while his fastball velocity is in the 83rd percentile, his spin rates, hard hit %, and exit velocities all rate average or poor. If Eovaldi’s velocity starts to decline in his 30s, his effectiveness as a starter could see a similar downturn.

Eduardo Rodriguez is another starter with a comically wide range of plausible projections. If his knee holds up, he has the potential to contend for a Cy Young award one day. He also throws a lot of pitches, often leading to a high pitch count and an early exit. In 2018, he threw 2,313 pitches over 129.2 regular season innings, which averages out to slightly under 18 pitches per inning. Furthermore, E-Rod never went more than 6.2 innings in any single outing during the 2018 season. In layman’s terms, he’s capable of giving you a quality start when he hits his spots, but the Sox will still need multiple relievers to reach the finish line.

We’ll never see 2016 Rick Porcello again, but he should be better than his 2015 and 2017 stat lines. He’ll give up a bunch of dingers when his sinker doesn’t sink, but otherwise, he’s a quick and efficient second-tier starter who can go deep into games from time to time. As long as he reaches 200 innings, and his ERA is below 4.50, Boston should be fine. Considering he’d be the best starter on some teams, the Sox could do much worse for a bottom-half-of-the-rotation arm.

Then there’s David Price, complete with new jersey number. Health will once again be a major factor to consider for Alex Cora, as Boston needs Price to be effective beyond just 2019 after he opted into the last 4 years of his record deal. He’s averaged just 125.1 innings over the past two seasons after hurling over 220 innings during each of the previous 3 years in Tampa, Detroit, and Toronto. I’ll take quality over quantity in terms of innings, but one way or the other, Boston will need to survive at least 1,458 innings (not including extras) before playoff baseball begins. Most Red Sox pundits expected those innings to come via solid starts, paired with good defense and baserunning, followed by an anxiety-filled rounds of Reliever Roulette. So far, it’s been pretty much the opposite, from a pitching standpoint.

Rumors of a potential 6-man rotation could take some of the burden off the team’s 5 designated starting pitchers. Potential reinforcements could arrive in the form of a trade or a minor leaguer getting the call up. Maybe the Red Sox are just copying a page out of the Bill Belichick’s playbook and mailing in the first month of the season, since that’s seemed to work out so well for them in recent history. Regardless, I’m ready for the rotation to get into rhythm with the rest of the team. Cora & Co. have stumbled out of the gate, to say the least, but hopefully Price will buck that trend tonight and set the tone moving forward.

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