Let’s start off by establishing that the “Who’s the Ace” conversation going around in Ft. Myers this spring is approximately 1,000x more tolerable now that our choices aren’t Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson. The Red Sox legitimately have an ace this year – and better yet, they have three. But since the sole purpose of the internet is to complain about things you have no control over, it’s only right that this space gets used to take a good thing, like the Red Sox having three really great pitchers, and drag it through the mud for no reason at all. Nobody’s perfect, (Don Orsillo is perfect) so let’s take a look at how all five projected Red Sox starters can improve upon their 2016 season.
He could not throw temper tantrums in the clubhouse. Throughout his six years in Chicago, Sale was the model of consistency. Since 2012, the first year he handled a normal-sized starter’s workload (he pitched 23 innings in 2010 and 71 in 2011), his numbers have remained relatively constant. Across the board, there’s very little deviation. All the fancy pitching stats that end in “IP” show a consistently dominant pitcher, so for Sale, it’s less a matter of improvement and more a matter of sustainability, which is good news for the Red Sox because of all the aforementioned sentences in this paragraph.
One area that Sale could look to improve upon, however, are strikeouts. Throughout the team’s courtship of Sale, skeptics were quick to point out that Sale’s strikeout numbers were dropping at a rate that garnered some extra attention. They weren’t totally wrong, either; last year, Sale posted a K% under 30% (25.7) and a K/9 (9.25) under 10 for the first time since 2013. Why the sudden drop? One possible explanation is that Sale once again moved away from his changeup. In 2014 and 2015, the changeup was his second-most used pitch. Those also happened to be the years that Sale enjoyed his highest strikeout numbers, if you exclude the first year when he only pitched 23 innings, which we will because there’s nothing like a nice clean narrative. It’ll be interesting to watch how Sale, under a new pitching coach, approaches balancing his secondary pitches this season.
No one would benefit more from having a strong start to the season than David Price. Last year, Price was caught up in being the $200 million man who didn’t have a great first month or two, a reputation that unfairly stuck around throughout what was an incredibly productive summer. He then got shelled in the playoffs, which you might have heard about from every single person on Twitter on every single day.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that Price will not only match his performance from last season, but exceed it. One of the most obvious ways that he’ll be able to improve this year is by keeping the ball in the park. In 2016, Price’s HR/FB ratio (13.5%) was not only uncharacteristically high compared to his previous season, but it was uncharacteristically bad compared to everyone else in baseball. There were only 20 pitchers who had worse HR/FB ratios than Price in 2016, which is odd considering the year before, Price was the 8th best pitcher when it came to avoiding dingers. Fenway can be a pain in the ass for lefties (don’t worry though Chris Sale, you’ll totally be fine), but considering that Price’s career HR/FB ratio is 9.6%, getting back there would go a long way toward not letting baseballs go a long way.
When running this article idea past our [ed note: handsome] site editor, he asked what I planned to mention as the way that Porcello could improve. That sounds like an easy question to answer – surely there’s one thing that Porcello could do better at. But then you take a look at Porcello’s stats and realize that he was better in almost literally every way last year. His FB% jumped six percentage points last season, which looks notable before you keep reading and see that that spike is more than likely because of his rise in infield flies, which went from five percent in 2015 to 13 percent the following year. In fact, his HR/FB ratio actually dropped, so while yes, batters were putting the ball in the air more frequently last year, they were doing it in a mostly harmless way.
People like to say that Porcello is a groundball pitcher, but that’s not exactly true anymore. His GB% has been just average over the last three years and continues to decline dramatically. In just over four years, Porcello’s GB% has dropped 10 percentage points. For someone who made his name as a master of ground balls, one could argue that it’d be nice to see him get back to that. A different person would then argue that well, actually, his best year came during a season in which he had the lowest GB% of his career, so who really knows at this point? Porcello was about as close to being the perfect version of himself as he could get last year, so any drastic improvement this season seems unlikely. Optimism!
This one is easy. Rodriguez’s biggest improvement this year will be staying healthy through all 182 games and their impending ALDS loss to the Indians again. Health is a boring answer, so we’ll move on to the next best thing: walks. The major league average for walks was just a hair over seven percent, and Rodriguez walked batters at a clip a full percentage point higher than that. Had he been healthy all year, his BB% (8.7) would have been in the top-15 worst BB%s of any starter in baseball.
Rodriguez has always had command issues, so a dramatic reversal is probably unlikely. When he’s pitching well, like he did for much of the second half of last year, he can get away with the walks by flashing some shiny strikeout numbers in front of our faces that keep us all distracted and daydreaming about his potential. It’s when he’s the Eduardo Rodriguez from the first half of last year, the one who doesn’t strike a lot of people out and allows a ton of fly balls, that we have a problem.
I have spent my brief time writing for this website insisting that Drew Pomeranz would be better off as a bullpen guy, even a LOOGY. The Red Sox have two lefty starters in Sale and Price that are unquestionably better than Pomeranz and one in Rodriguez who theoretically is. The Red Sox bullpen, however, is noticeably absent of lefties who aren’t named Robbie Ross or Fernando Abad. But alas, the team has not listened to me, so here we are including him on our starters list STILL.
Pomeranz is an interesting case in that he’s the exact opposite of Porcello; he has an endless number of areas in which he could improve. It was no secret that Pomeranz’s biggest issue last season was the home run (although for all the flack he took, David Price was equally as bad in that category). Interestingly enough, his FB% hasn’t varied by much more than a percentage point in either direction over the last three seasons. So maybe fly balls that weren’t going out in Oakland and San Diego are now leaving Fenway? Pomeranz clearly isn’t going to get away with that fly ball rate in Boston, so keeping the ball on the ground is going to be the biggest key to his success this year.
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