If nothing else, Dave Dombrowski is a man of his word. He said the Red Sox would sign an ace, and they did, inking David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract. He’s since indicated that, with Price, the signing of fourth outfielder Chris Young, and the trade for closer Craig Kimbrel, the team has made its moves for the winter. I’m sure he’s not opposed to a trade that would make the team better, but it seems that as far as Dombrowski is concerned for now, the opening day roster has been assembled.
That makes me wonder about the starting rotation. Signing Price assuages the hysterical screaming for an “ace” starter and improves the outlook for the 2016 starting rotation, but I’m not sure it solves the rotation as a whole. I’m not sure it doesn’t either. It’s worth noting there was considerable disagreement about the quality of the rotation even before last season, and watching them for a season doesn’t seem to have done much to clear that up. Recall that before the Price deal the consensus seemed to be that the rotation wasn’t very good. Now, post-Price, they’re fine, good even. I’m not sure it works like that.
So let’s look at some numbers and try to square where we are. We’ll start with last year. The Red Sox rotation finished seventh in 2015 in starters DRA. Better than Toronto, Texas, and Kansas City, though we all know the Royals’ strength wasn’t really their starters. Still, that’s very good! That’s not a team that needs to add David Price. DRA is more or less a measure of underlying quality, so if you believe it, the Red Sox have a pretty good if under appreciated rotation on their hands. Click on over to ERA, though, and you’ll see the Red Sox were also seventh, but not seventh from the top. They were seventh from the bottom. That’s the rotation we’re familiar with, the one that couldn’t get out of its own way during the first two thirds of the season unless Buchholz was pitching. FIP seems to tell a different story, maybe unsurprisingly more in line with DRA. By FIP the Red Sox had the tenth best rotation last season in terms of overall value. That’s some impressive variance there. On one hand we’ve got a stat saying, in essence, that Red Sox starters last season were collectively bad. On the other hand, we’ve got a stat saying, in essence, the Red Sox starter were collectively good. Huh?
Recall that before the Price deal the consensus seemed to be that the rotation wasn’t very good. Now, post-Price, they’re fine, good even. I’m not sure it works like that.
Of course, the 2016 Red Sox rotation figures to be different in composition from the 2015 rotation even if you ignore Price (which, how could you ignore Price?). Justin Masterson has mercifully gone on his merry way, but then so have Rich Hill and Craig Breslow. Fun Fact 1: if you combine Masterson’s awful nine starts with Hill’s four and (even more weirdly) Breslow’s two, the collective ERA of those three is 4.04 which is 0.35 lower than the team’s collective ERA. Hill and Breslow more than cancelled out Masterson’s terribleness. Baseball. Strange game. Anyway. The 2016 rotation figures to contain holdovers Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Wade Miley, though Joe Kelly could take the last spot if someone is traded. For now, even though the 2016 Red Sox will certainly demand the services of more than just those five pitchers, that’s what I’m going to address.
We all know Buchholz has the ability to be an ace. Fun Fact 2: On a per-inning basis, Buchholz was more valuable than Price last season. Seriously. Of course, part of Price’s value is that he throws 220 innings where as none of Buchholz’s value comes from that. Because, you see, he doesn’t. Still, Buchholz actually put up the best season of his career last year. He dropped his walks below five percent of batters faced while upping his strikeouts above 22.8 percent. He’s really quite good, you know. The question with Buchholz is always health, as he embodies more than anyone the idea that any pitch could be the last one. Still, it’s reasonable to project Buchholz for a very valuable 120 innings or so. Call that a slight step back, but if he can stay healthy (I KNOW I KNOW) he could improve on last season’s value even if he doesn’t pitch as well.
Miley put up his best season since his 2012 in Arizona that garnered him Rookie of the Year votes. That probably makes it sound better than it was though, because it was fine, not especially great. His strikeouts fell back to his career norms after a jump in 2014, but his walk rate fell a bit, as did his home run rate. So overall fine. Okay. He is what he is, and expecting two wins out of him next season is eminently reasonable. So that’s what we’ll expect. Here’s to opening the microwave and finding your TV dinner cooked all the way through!
Any big collective step forward seems most likely to come from either Buchholz somehow managing to pitch 200 innings, or Porcello reverting to form.
Eduardo Rodriguez is a bit of a wild card. Young pitchers, right? He looked ace-like some times, and overwhelmed other times. The overall performance was pretty good, around a two-win pitcher, and that came in just 121.1 innings. Expecting an innings jump and, hopefully, a little less of the overwhelmed Rodriguez seems fair, so maybe a slight step forward in overall value. The Red Sox are hoping for that, but there are certainly other outcomes that are possible and far less flattering, so I’m not sure expecting more than two wins from Rodriguez is a recipe for anything beyond disappointment.
Perhaps the guy where the most improvement can come is Rick Porcello. Porcello put up his worst season since his rookie year in 2008 with the Tigers last year. However, there are signs that Porcello can become what the Red Sox thought they were getting when they gave him his $82.5 million extension before last season. After being terrible terrible terrible and getting shut down last season, Porcello came back strong at the end of the year, posting a 3.58 ERA in 50.1 innings while striking out 52 to 11 walks. Also, his ground ball rate shot up, from 40.8 percent in July to 51.7 percent in September. (He only pitched seven innings in August, but his GB% was 47.7 then for you completists.) You can’t throw out the vast majority of the season and say, look, Porcello is what he did in September. The rest of the year is data too. But September is far closer to what he did in his recent seasons in Detroit in terms of style as well as effectiveness. If Porcello can be a three win pitcher instead of a one win pitcher, that’s a big jump, and given that he’s done it before, it seems whatever word means slightly less than likely.
If the rotation is to improve, the largest jump is going to come from the Red Sox not needing both Joe Kelly and Wade Miley in the rotation with that extra spot going to David Price. That’s a big step up. Beyond that though, we’re still left with the rotation of a last place team. That’s a bit disingenuous, I acknowledge, but even so it’s hard to call it a high-upside rotation. Any big collective step forward seems most likely to come from either Buchholz somehow managing to pitch 200 innings, or Porcello reverting to form. Beyond those two things, the rotation seems likely to perform similarly to 2015. Will that be good enough? If you believe DRA and FIP it should be. Or you could believe Dave Dombrowski. He seems to have a pretty good handle on things.