Ever since the Red Sox dealt Jon Lester and John Lackey a year ago at the trade deadline there has been near constant talk of how the Red Sox need an ace starting pitcher to head up their starting rotation. They’ll never win without an ace, they can’t win without an ace, they neeeeeed an ace, and so forth. Then the rotation assembled by now former GM Ben Cherington, one that was supposed to be a group of second-to-fourth starters, pitched like a group of four and five and six and in some cases (coughPORCELLOcough!) 10 or 11 starters (when you stop spelling out the number you know it’s bad). That cost Cherington his job and brought the clamoring for an “ace” to a fever pitch, so much so that new team president Dave Dombrowski acknowledged the need for one in his introductory press conference. He’s lucky he did, too, because had he equivocated even a little bit it’s not hard to imagine a bunch of pitchfork-wielding fans menacing him mid-presser. So public opinion has congealed. The Red Sox need an ace. But do they really need an ace?
If you look at the Red Sox rotation’s ERA it’s easy to see how bad they’ve been. They’re last in the AL in starters’ ERA and 28th in baseball ahead of only Colorado and Philadelphia. There! Case closed! But ERA isn’t perfect. So if you look at better indicators of pitcher quality than ERA, like DRA or FIP, you’ll see that Boston’s rotation wasn’t the worst at all. In fact, they were in the middle of the pack amongst their leaguemates. Red Sox starters collectively were 12th in baseball in DRA and 14th in baseball in FIP. That’s about what we were all hoping for at the beginning of the year! A decent pitching staff and a great offense and the Red Sox would be playoff bound, except DRA and FIP are measurements of pitcher quality, not measurements of what happened. What happened was the Red Sox gave up a ton of runs in part because of their pitching staff but in part because their defense is bad. I discussed this before in this space. Boston’s defense is measured in ERA, so a significant component part of “We need an ace!” is “Our defense is awful!”
The truth is Red Sox can win without an ace just as they can lose with one. Think about the teams that had aces this year. The Reds had Johnny Cueto and were forced to deal him because they were terrible. Cueto was very good but he couldn’t fix the rest of Cincinnati’s starting staff. The White Sox have Chris Sale who probably deserves the AL Cy Young Award. The White Sox are 16.5 games out of first place in their division. Sale couldn’t fix the team’s defense or their hitting or, for that matter, the back of their rotation. The White Sox are terrible whether they have Chris Sale or not.
The argument goes, the Red Sox need an ace to improve their starting staff, but if the whole staff is deficient, what will one ace do?
An ace isn’t a cure-all, and it’s being treated as such around these parts. You don’t even have to leave Boston to see this. Last year the Red Sox were awful, but Jon Lester was amazing! The Red Sox ended up dealing him for a variety of reasons but even his awesomeness wasn’t enough to save the team or the rest of the rotation. The team would undoubtedly be better this season with Jon Lester than they are now, but Lester has been worth 1.3 wins by WARP and 3.0 wins by fWAR. Add either to the Red Sox win total now and they’d still be utterly irrelevant in the context of making the post-season. The argument goes, the Red Sox need an ace to improve their starting staff, but if the whole staff is deficient, what will one ace do?
The Red Sox need for an ace is founded upon the idea that the entire starting staff pitched badly this season. It’s almost like we’ve never advanced past our April understanding of the rotation when everyone on the team was awful except Clay Buchholz who was painfully unlucky. Wade Miley has turned the boat around and is pitching fine. He’s been quite good if you don’t count his rough April and perfectly cromulent if you do. Clay Buchholz has been excellent and is now hurt. This is Clay Buchholz. Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and Steven Wright have all shown promise. This isn’t the perfect group, and they need to pitch better, either with new blood or through simply doing it themselves, but if the other areas of the team are better, this is staff is more workable than you’d think. Had the staff’s results been more acceptable and had the team hung around the edges of the Wild Card race, there’s a good chance the focus would have shifted to other areas of need, and there are other areas of need. Pablo Sandoval needs to not be terrible. Hanley Ramirez also needs to not be terrible. Someone needs to play first base. Someone needs to play right field. The list is not short! We can ding Cherington all we want for failing to bring back Lester and/or failing to cede to every demand made by Ruben Amaro in the quest for Cole Hamels, but ask yourself how much better would the Red Sox be right now if instead of paying Pablo Sandoval, they’d traded for Josh Donaldson? There are other ways to make the Red Sox better besides paying exorbitant prices for starters.
But it almost seems like it doesn’t matter at this point. The ace train is racing down the tracks without brakes and the only way to stop it is for Johnny Cueto, David Price, or someone else with a scarlet letter A pinned on their chest to hop aboard. Ace trains respond to magic scarlet letter As as everyone knows. So that’s probably where this is all headed. The Sox will, after all, pay big money to David Price or Cueto or someone who will ride in and make us all feel better, and sometime in November or December we’ll all take a sigh of relief and think, ‘Okay, now the team can go out and win.’ That will feel nice, but there will be a ring of falseness to it.
To be clear, this article isn’t intended to be an argument against acquiring an ace. That is a silly argument to make. Every team needs as much good pitching as they can get, including the Red Sox. That one guy can help, and depending on who he is he can help a whole lot. But he’s not going to solve every problem on the team and he’s not single-handedly going to turn a bad team into a World Series contender. Turning over every table and chair to fix one problem while others fester isn’t the way to create a World Series-caliber team.
The goal is to win the most games and it’s much easier to do that with a great pitching staff than with a bad one, or one that piled bad luck on top of their mediocrity. But Boston didn’t lose this season because they failed to acquire an ace. They lost because their whole team wasn’t good enough. That’s a problem too deep for one guy, no matter how good, to solve.
Photo by Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images