We’re like five minutes into the offseason and already the talk surrounding the Red Sox acquiring an ace is stifling. Here’s the pitch by Wade Davis, strike three, the Royals are World Champs, THE RED SOX NEED AN ACE!!! Please note how that was one sentence. The whole thing is like stepping out of an air-conditioned building in Fort Lauderdale in July. It’s cool and comfortable and then the next breath it’s as humid as the earth allows for. It’s like getting slapped across the face with a large wet fish.
We’ve pretty much discussed this getting an ace thing to death and, given the trajectory of this off-season, there won’t be much stopping us from digging up the grave, opening the casket, and smashing the topic in the face with a shovel a few thousand more times between now and the start of spring training. So lets all toss a big old shovelful of dirt over our shoulder and get on with it. The Red Sox may sign an ace. They may give David Price $230 million. The may trade Xander Bogaerts for Sonny Gray [Important note if you are Dave Dombrowski: please DO NOT DO THIS thank you] or some other such trade. It won’t matter though.
The part that’s been left out of this whole discussion, the part left behind in the rush to micro-focus on the top of the pitching staff, is the rest of the pitching staff. Last season’s Red Sox pitching staff, essentially unchanged going into 2016 given that the team has picked up Clay Buchholz’s option, finished 24th in starters ERA. That wasn’t flukey either, as they finished 20th as a team in starter FIP. The moral is they weren’t very good.
So what if the Red Sox had acquired David Price? Not this season, but last. They needed an ace, remember? What if they’d got one and he was one of the best in baseball? What would have happened to the Red Sox staff then? They would have been awesome, right?
Well, let’s see. Last season David Price threw 220 innings and gave up 60 earned runs. That’s a 2.45 ERA and it is one of the main reasons Price may win his second Cy Young award. So, suppose he did this for the Red Sox in 2015. If we replace 220 ‘Red Sox starter’ innings with 220 David Price 2015 innings, the Red Sox ERA drops from 4.39 to [drum roll] 3.95.
The part that’s been left out of this whole discussion, the part left behind in the rush to micro-focus on the top of the pitching staff, is the rest of the pitching staff.
That would have been tied for 11th with the San Francisco Giants. Adding Price would have moved the Red Sox’s rotation from one of the worst in baseball to an above average one. While it doesn’t take Boston to the top of the league, it is a sizable jump. It should be noted that of the teams that made the playoffs, four — the Yankees, Rangers, Royals, and Blue Jays — had worse starter ERAs than that hypothetical 3.95. The other six playoff teams had better starter ERAs. So, not an insubstantial bump, given it puts the team into the thick of a group of playoff teams.
But that’s not the whole story. There’s more because there’s more to the pitching staff than just a starting rotation. It’s the bullpen, and Boston’s version last season finished 26th in ERA. I know ERA isn’t the best stat to use here, but it’s easy and gets the point across, specifically in this case where the Red Sox bullpen was, in a word, bad. While displaying their badness on the mound, Red Sox relievers threw another 501 innings. Those innings, when added back into the total, which for the sake of argument includes David Price’s innings, bring the team’s cumulative ERA [drum roll] back up to 4.10. Booo! That slots the Red Sox at 21st in baseball in overall ERA, and that’s with David Price on the team.
Last year’s Red Sox team had a bad pitching staff, the 25th best in baseball by ERA. Had they had David Price, perhaps the best pitcher in the American League this past season, they’d have gone from 25th best all the way to 21st best. Even with David Price Cy Younging it all over the place the Red Sox pitching staff would still have been lousy.
All of which brings us to this point: pitching staffs are about aces yes, but more so they’re about overall quality. In a way, this is the point, the market inefficiency, that Ben Cherington was chasing last off-season when he didn’t sign Jon Lester or Max Scherzer, and brought in Rick Porcello and Wade Miley (I chose to forget about Justin Masterson. Who?). A stronger-than-average fifth starter, a strength that depth on a starting staff can afford you, can have as much or more value to a team over the course of a season as an ace. The trick is, you have to fill up the first four slots in the rotation with as good or better pitchers for that to work. Cherington tried that and failed, but it wasn’t the idea that was bad, and I’m not even sure it was the execution so much as that’s just the way baseball seasons turn out sometimes. In any case, had Cherington done all he did and added David Price or someone who threw exactly as effectively as David Price did this season to Boston’s roster, the results would have been virtually the same.
Dave Dombrowski is on a mission this off-season. He’s already talking about making “potentially painful” moves to bring in the top pitcher the Red Sox need. But if that’s all he does, he’s wasting his time. They can bring in David Price for $200 million or more but if that’s all they do then, at least as far as 2016 goes, it’s a waste of money. This isn’t to say David Price wouldn’t be a big improvement, so much as it is to say the pitching staff is 12 guys and when you factor in injuries, it’s actually much more than that. One guy is important but one guy is never the most important. The Red Sox have needs in their rotation and all through their bullpen. They have some depth in the minors when it comes to starters, but just about zero depth when it comes to relievers. The team is going to have to depend on almost all of those guys throughout the grind of a 162-game season. And Dombrowski knows all of this. But the seduction, the chase, the infatuation with acquiring an ace pitcher is only a part, a smaller part than most of us probably want to acknowledge if we’re honest, in the remaking of the Red Sox pitching staff. Come spring, if David Price or Zack Greinke or some other huge splash in the free-agent market is all that’s been done, it isn’t likely to move the needle much if at all.