The story of the Red Sox’s season has quickly become about the offense, and with good reason. The Sox have scored the most runs in baseball and are near the top in most offensive categories. David Ortiz has yet to age, Xander Bogaerts is becoming a star, Jackie Bradley Jr. is impossibly hot and the lineup is as deep as it’s been in years. There’s plenty to feel good about over a month and a half into the season.
One of the biggest stories entering 2016 was the Red Sox’s pitching. The Sox suffered one of the worst staffs in baseball last season, which contributed significantly to their last-place finish. They addressed part of the issue with the acquisitions of David Price, Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, but plenty of questions remained about the depth of the starting rotation. Who would emerge as the No. 2 behind Price? Which Clay Buchholz would we see? Could Rick Porcello or Joe Kelly turn it around? What are realistic expectations for Eduardo Rodriguez? Enough uncertainty remained to leave healthy skepticism regarding the team’s potential for this season.
The pitching staff has faced plenty of adversity thus far. Injuries to Rodriguez and Kelly thinned the rotation, allowing the likes of Sean O’Sullivan to make multiple starts, and Smith is back on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Price owned a 6.75 ERA through his first seven starts and the bad Buchholz has been in full force throughout. And yet through it all, the Sox’s staff has proven itself more than serviceable. One might say it’s been pretty good.
This pitching staff looks good enough to get the Sox into the dance and perhaps make a run at the division, especially in an AL East that isn’t exactly ripe with elite pitching.
The Red Sox haven’t won on hitting alone. The pitching staff, despite its flaws, also deserves credit for their success. One example came Wednesday night, when Price held the Royals to two runs over 7.1 innings in a 5-2 win. Price wasn’t great, but he did enough to buy the offense time to get going. The bullpen, as has typically been the case this season, shut down Kansas City from there. The Sox have ranked highly in many pitching categories this season, which is something that couldn’t be said about last year’s squad. Entering Sunday, they were in the top half of the game in team DRA – as well as starter and reliever DRA – PWARP and FIP. They have three starters in the top 20 in the AL in PWARP. And their 3.20 bullpen ERA is eighth in baseball.
Much of that success is thanks to some pleasant surprises. Steven Wright has been arguably the Sox’s most reliable pitcher, posting a 2.52 ERA and 0.9 PWARP through eight starts. Porcello has shown drastic improvement from last season and before Sunday’s start owned a 3.56 DRA and 8.6 K/9. The bullpen, meanwhile, has been about more than Kimbrel, as Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross and Heath Hembree own FIPs of 2.37, 2.53 and 2.87, respectively. It’s uncertain whether or not such a pace can be maintained, especially from Wright or Porcello, but at the same time Price has shown his struggles wouldn’t be permanent, either.
I’m not here to tell you the Red Sox’s pitching has been elite, or even great. I’m certainly not going to call it World Series material. I expected this team to miss the postseason primarily because of the issues with the rotation. Now – thanks in part to a dangerous lineup – this pitching staff looks good enough to get the Sox into the dance and perhaps make a run at the division, especially in an AL East that isn’t exactly ripe with elite pitching.
The Red Sox have the second worst team ERA (4.11) in the AL East, but have otherwise proven they stack right up with the rest of the pitching staffs in the division. They’re second to the Rays in DRA, FIP and cFIP, and first in PWARP. They’re behind the Yankees in K% by 0.2 points. They look like they belong, but that’s just a quick glance. Here’s a deeper look at how each divisional foe’s pitching staff has performed.
Starters: It’s been the Chris Tillman show in Baltimore. The right-hander is off to a career-best start, posting a 2.61 ERA and 2.80 FIP through nine starts this season. He’s their clear ace, but behind him is some uncertainty, hence the Orioles’ 4.56 starter DRA. The injury to Yovani Gallardo forced Tyler Wilson into the rotation, but Wilson has been solid with a 3.68 ERA in five starts while Kevin Gausman has a 2.70 ERA in four. The issue has been the performances of Ubaldo Jimenez and Mike Wright, who have ERAs of 5.60 and 4.97, respectively. The Orioles essentially have three reliable starters right now. If Price is back to form, the Red Sox can tout the same, assuming Wright and Porcello remain solid.
Bullpen: The Orioles have baseball’s second best best bullpen ERA, but the unit’s DRA of 4.19 is only 19th. The O’s have a dominant closer in Zach Britton, while Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens are consistent and sit at over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. The Red Sox have shown just as much overall depth and consistency, especially when Smith is healthy. But Baltimore’s foursome of strong relievers is a key reason for its success thus far.
Starters: The Rays have only four pitchers with more than three starts this season. So like the Red Sox, Tampa’s starting pitching depth is a concern. But Tampa Bay is proving it’s still the class of the AL East when it comes to pitching. The Rays lead the division in most pitching categories, including a starters’ DRA of 3.70, which ranks fourth in baseball. That’s thanks in large part to the two arms at the top – Chris Archer and Drew Smyly. Archer hasn’t been stellar, but he is striking out 11.13 per nine innings and owns a 3.45 DRA. Smyly, meanwhile, has a 2.84 DRA and is walking just 2.25 per nine innings. But, as I’ll continue to emphasize, the trio of Price, Wright and Porcello has been just as effective as far as DRA is concerned. Both teams have three starters with DRAs under four.
Bullpen: Tampa’s bullpen hasn’t been as impressive. The Rays’ 4.24 reliever DRA is last in the division despite the success of closer Alex Colome. Colome has a 2.36 DRA and 1.52 FIP, but he’s also the only Tampa Bay reliever with a DRA under four. Erasmo Ramirez’s 4.05 DRA hasn’t been as reflective of as his success this season as his 2.06 ERA. Getting Brad Boxberger back will help, though.
Starters: The Yankees have started out poorly this season. Starting pitching is a major reason why. New York has a starter DRA of 4.35 and starter ERA of 4.72, and outside of Nathan Eovaldi and Masahiro Tanaka the rotation hasn’t been good at all. Michael Pineda (6.60 ERA, 4.85 FIP, 4.33 DRA) and Luis Severino (7.46 ERA, 5.37 FIP, 5.25 DRA) have been disasters, while C.C. Sabathia (4.57 DRA) is far from dependable. Ivan Nova’s return on Thursday should improve the rotation, but he’s hardly a savior.
Bullpen: New York’s bullpen is as good as advertised. The Yankees have baseball’s best reliever DRA despite being without Aroldis Chapman for most of the season. The Red Sox actually have a better bullpen ERA, but the Yankees are stronger on the back end with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller leading the way with FIPs of 1.86 and 1.19, respectively. New York has also received good outings from Kirby Yates (2.25 FIP) and Nick Goody (2.54) in middle relief. The Yankees’ bullpen is clearly elite, but the numbers show the gap between them and the Red Sox’s relief corps isn’t that significant.
Starters: Toronto has rolled out the same five starters all season, and they’ve been average to just above average most of the way. The Blue Jays are 15th in starter DRA (4.35) and seventh in starter ERA (3.60). Marco Estrada has led the rotation for Toronto with a 2.61 ERA, 3.17 FIP and 3.49 DRA. He and Aaron Sanschez (3.97 DRA) are the only Blue Jays starters with DRAs under four. Marcus Stroman owns an underwhelming 4.23 ERA and 4.56 DRA.
Bullpen: The Blue Jays’ bullpen has also been right in the middle of the pack. Roberto Osuna and Gavin Floyd have been solid with ERAs of 1.50 and 3.05, respectively. The issue is the quality of the arms beyond those two drops off significantly.
With three solid starters and Kimbrel, Tazawa and Koji Uehara all strong out of the bullpen, the Red Sox are proving they stack right up with the rest of the pitching staffs in the AL East – at least for now. The Sox have just as much starting pitching depth as the Orioles and Rays and thus far the top of their rotation has proven to be just as effective. The biggest difference is the performances of aces. Price hasn’t been nearly as strong as Tillman, Smyly or Archer, but he’s looked better in recent starts and could be on his way back to an elite level. Kelly’s return is also key, and looks better after pitching a shutout on Saturday.
The bullpen is also right in the mix. Kimbrel got off to a shaky start, but is down to a 2.50 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 2.38 DRA and 14.50 strikeouts per nine innings. That puts him right with the other closers in the division. A healthy Smith would aid the Red Sox’s cause, but the efforts of Tazawa, Uehara, Ross and Hembree have proven to be enough.
The Red Sox’s pitching staff doesn’t possess the flare or dominance of the lineup. There are still plenty of questions moving forward. But this group has done enough to complement the offense to this point and could be enough to lead the Sox to their first playoff appearance in three years.
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