The rotation situation will work itself out


Here we sit on August 4th, one-half game out of first place. It was great that we got Victor Martinez at the trade deadline, but the infield corners are not the only place where it seems we have an overflow of players to deal with. The rotation also has a lot of dubious candidates and a lot of question marks; beyond our top two, who should be going out there every fifth day? Six guys, three rotation slots plus a backup starter role. Viewed positively, this is great depth. Negatively, we’re talking about six guys who all have their problems; in 16 starts since July 1, the back end of our rotation has posted a 5-6 record and a collective 6.32 ERA. There are a number of issues which need to be looked at for each one. Let’s think it out.

The Enigma: Daisuke Matsuzaka

Matsuzaka came out of the WBC this year just sucking. Amid whispers of overthrowing and shoulder problems, he was unable to command the ball, and was diagnosed with mild shoulder problems; he’s been rehabbing in Florida ever since. Fans have given up on him this year, and then there was the debacle where he went and spewed nonsense to a Japanese paper about the Sox FO, and had to apologize for his actions. I’ve always defended him because he’s been a pretty good pitcher, despite too many walks, working too slowly, etc. But now I’m really starting to get angry at this guy.

Dice-K has to be the most stubborn player ever to pitch in a Boston uniform. Consider this split: hitters with bases empty against Matsuzaka in his career are at .267/.354/.427 in 960 PA; with men on base, they are .219/.314/.362; with runners in scoring position, they are .218/.326/.355 in 454 PA. That is not small sample size. Dice-K is known to be an escape artist, stranding baserunners left and right. To me, that means he is quite capable of getting people out when he needs to; but he nibbles around the zone and refuses to “give in” to opponents. He’d rather walk 5 guys a game than give up one hit to anyone, and it’s hurting the team. He won’t compromise his approach to pitching. And he won’t compromise on the Sox throwing/shoulder strengthening program. This is all costing him and costing the team, and there’s no way of telling whether it’s going to change at all. That’s a concern, with this guy’s contract less than half done at this point.

The Ageless Knuckleballer: Tim Wakefield

Wakefield had a great first half, won eleven games and made his first All-Star team. Looking at his peripherals (4.29 FIP), this is the best year he’s had since 2003, when he topped 200 IP. But he’s also 42 and is pitching with a partially torn labrum and back problems. The Sox didn’t expect him to be healthy all the way, and he’s taking some time right now. There’s also the fact that his 8 HR allowed this year are WAY below his norms, so his xFIP is actually mch higher, at 5.53.

Make no mistake, Wakefield is valuable to the Sox. As a guy who makes only $4M yearly, he’s been worth at least two wins the past three seasons, easily worth about $9M to the Sox. But you have to consider the other costs to the Red Sox, like having to carry George Kottaras as his personal caddy. Kottaras is not a good hitter, but backup catchers rarely are, and limited PAs make it pretty moot. But the Sox are in a situation where they are handcuffed a bit, because Kottaras is out of options, so they can’t move him even though Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez could handle the catching duties on their own (at least until Wake returns). That’s why we’re stuck with the choice of having fewer pitchers or just 4 outfielders on the roster right now, two of whom are known to be quite brittle.

The Over-the-Hill Hall of Famer? John Smoltz

Coming off surgery, Smoltz so far hasn’t looked like himself, getting hit very hard. We all know that he’s struggling with command, but his stuff seems to be intact, he’s not walking people and his 4.08 xFIP is not nearly as bad as his 7.12 ERA. Looking at his platoon splits, you might be surprised to find that he’s been pretty good against right-handed hitters (.247/.266/.416), but he’s getting murdered by lefties (.397/.440/.654). That’s an indication that while the slider might be okay, his offspeed stuff might not be so good. Results-wise, his changeup and slider have been his best pitches (according to pitch type values), but the fastball and split-finger have gotten tagged and the curveball isn’t doing much to fool anyone. So hitters are sitting on his fastball, because he can’t command the other stuff.

Also, take a look at Smoltz’s early and late-game splits. In innings 1-3, hitters are .286/.341/.405 against him; they are hitting .366/.375/.690 in innings 4-6. I think there’s a fatigue issue here. Even if the velocity isn’t dropping so much, the command gets progressively worse as the game goes on, and it’s costing him. So basically Smoltz is a four-inning guy right now who needs another weapon against left-handers. I think if he can’t pick it up after two more starts, we have to move on.

The Career NL Guy: Brad Penny

Brad Penny has had some very good starts; he’s also had some doozies mixed in there. One night he shuts down the Yankees, the next he’s giving up 7 runs to Oakland. Interestingly, he’s struggled getting righties out (.316/.362/.484). His fastball/splitter combo works reasonably well on left-handed hitting (.268/.327/.459), but his curveball is getting bludgeoned (-13.9 wCB). He’s only averaged about 5.5 IP per start, mainly because hitters start timing Penny pretty well the second (.337/.389/.509) and third (.281/.302/.521) time through the order.

Despite enjoying the support of most of Red Sox Nation, Penny has not been that great, even for a 5th starter. Unlike most of these other guys, he’s been healthy, and he has his fastball back; yet 7-5 with 5.07 ERA (4.33 FIP, 5.00 xFIP) just doesn’t impress me. I think we’re just seeing Penny’s limitations. He’s had a decent career in the NL, but he’s just not good enough to hang in the AL East. I’m still of the camp that we should have flipped him before the deadline when he still had some trade value.

The Overhyped Prospect: Clay Buchholz

Many people will agree that throwing that no-hitter so early in his career was possibly the worst thing to happen to Buchholz. Having that kind of notoriety and expectation on you is really tough; just trying to make it in the big leagues is hard enough! This year has been really up and down for Buchholz, with two good starts against Toronto and Oakland, and two poor, 4-inning jobs against Texas and Baltimore. Unfortunately, Buchholz is showing that he still needs some work to be a Major League regular. Any bullpen can’t take too many of those short outings without becoming porous.

In Clay’s defense, he’s only had four starts and his 4.73 xFIP is better than the 6.05 ERA. Let’s not get carried away and say that he’s finished as a prospect in this town. He is trying to use his fastball more (56.4% compared to 49.9% career in the bigs) and that’s setting up his other stuff quite well; the slider, curve and changeup all show positive run values when thrown this season. The kid needs to get some confidence and experience, and he’ll be a solid pitcher. But can he do that this season? That’s the question.

The Overshadowed Prospect: Michael Bowden

Bowden pitched very well for a season and a half in the minor leagues, up until about July. He even had a little two inning cameo with the Red Sox which really turned fans on to him. Let’s not get carried away; Bowden will be a solid pitcher, but is seen by most to project as a number 3 starter at best. Plus, Bowden is struggling now at Triple-A, getting taken deep quite often, and he’s a rookie. That alone should tell you that he shouldn’t be in this rotation unless someone else gets injured.

Conclusion

Is there a problem? Yes and no. The performance of the back three rotation spots has been bad. They have averaged just 5.5 IP/start, and that needs to improve, especially now with Justin Masterson gone and us shorthanded in the pen. They’ve also allowed 120 hits in just 88.1 IP; part of that is their fault, but a lot of that is bad luck and some spotty defense, so that should even out some. And it hasn’t been ALL bad. These guys have struck out 78 men and walked only 22, so that’s fine. They need to avoid the long ball and stick a little longer into games.

The Roy Halladay train has passed us by, but there’s still light at the end of the tunnel. Wakefield is close to returning, so Buchholz will likely go back down to Pawtucket. Theo is gambling that either Smoltz will get it back, or the switch flips on for Clay. While it’s not likely that they both will happen, there’s a good chance one of those two things happens. That, plus a little regression back to the mean and maybe a healthy Dice-K coming back in September, and this rotation should be just fine. End of problem.

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4 Responses to The rotation situation will work itself out

  1. Kris says:

    Nice analysis of the pitching situation. I agree with a lot of what you said. One thing the Sox need to consider, I think, is scanning the waivers for “salary dump” pitchers, kind of like how they did with Paul Byrd last season. A guy like Jon Garland, who has an ERA in the 4s but has been steadily improving over his last 10 starts has been mentioned on MLBTR as a possible waiver candidate, as has his teammate Doug Davis, who is having a good year. Of course, they are both NL guys in the weakest division, but they can’t be much worse than the cast of characters the Sox now have in the 3-5 spots. It’s a gamble, but I think the bigger gamble is waiting for one of Penny, Smoltz, Buchholz, etc. to get their act together. They don’t need another ace, just a decent starter who can go 6-7 innings giving up 4 runs or less, especially with Wake and Dice being huge question marks as to when they’ll return and how healthy they’ll be.

  2. redsoxtalk says:

    Kris, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. I agree, the more solid thing might be to go out and get a pitcher who’s already commanding his stuff; however, given roster size limitations, I don’t see them doing this until they have to cut Smoltz or Penny loose (which may be as soon as a week or two).

    I’m personally not a huge fan of Garland, but I do like Davis okay. If Arizona (who is in dire financial straits) can be coerced into giving him up for a PTBNL and/or cash, I’d like for Theo to consider that.

  3. Jim says:

    Can we talk pitching without the mention of Masterson?

    Should they have kept him and traded Clay Buchholz?

    The longer Buchholz stays in the rotation, the less valuable he becomes.

    Sure it’s nice to get a strong bat, when you’re in your legendary and predictable, post All Star hitting slump, but when you have 2 consistent starters in a 5 man rotation, I think the focus should have been elsewhere.

    Wakefield’s return can’t come soon enough, but is the season long enough for the long awaited good stuff to return from Smoltz?

    Can they get to the playoffs with Smoltz, still a weak link, and Bad Penny, an even weaker one?

    Lots of questions for Theo.

  4. redsoxtalk says:

    And now Ken Rosenthal reports that the Sox have signed 38-year old Paul Byrd to a minor league contract. He was sitting at home waiting for someone to call.

    This is an emergency signing, and could possibly indicate that the Sox are ready to move on from either Smoltz or Penny in favor of Clay Buchholz, even after Wakefield returns. As veterans, they can not be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. Basically they stash Byrd at Pawtucket in case Buchholz doesn’t figure things out.

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