Will The Boston Red Sox Pitching Staff Hit Their Spot In 2016?

The Boston Red Sox made one of the biggest free-agent splashes this offseason by signing David Price to a record-setting, seven-year, $217 million contract. Yet, the question remains if adding Price and trading for Roenis Elias will be enough to solve the numerous problems the Sox’ pitching staff had in 2015.

In the American League, Boston hurlers, collectively, ranked 14th in ERA (4.31), which beat out the Detroit Tigers for last place (4.64 ERA). They were tied for second worst team WHIP (1.36) with the Texas Rangers, again edging out the hapless Tigers’ staff (1.37 WHIP). Their .264 opponent batting average slid them snugly into third worst in the AL. Sticking to the trend, they owned an opponent OPS of .751, which was, again, second worst in the AL and again besting only the Tigers. Their 18.4 percent strikeout rate anchored them to 13th in the AL. In short, the additions of Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and nearly a full season of Joe Kelly did not solve the problems of the season before — they had very similar numbers as above and generally the same poor rankings. The team did improve by seven wins over 2014’s version of the Red Sux. A last place finish of 71-91 in 2014 turned into a last place finish in 2015, but with 78 victories.

Sometimes, improvement still tastes bitter.

While I am often a cranky, yet devoted fan, my musings often come off as whining and moaning. I’d like to try and keep a bit more of a positive angle here, maybe partially due to the fantastic finish to last season. In September alone, they played at a .630 winning percentage clip. However, I’m not sure that one dominant, yet 30-year-old hurler is enough to salvage such a problematic staff.

Then again, the 2015 staff had a .305 BABIP, the second highest in the AL, and allowed an opponent ISO of .149, which was third lowest, so maybe it isn’t as awful as it initially looked. And maybe it’s just the happy anticipation of spring training, but I think the starting rotation will be decidedly improved. Following are a few reasons why.

Reflecting back on an article I wrote in August about Joe Kelly’s change in usage of his sinker, I think he’s finally settled into a good rhythm in Boston. He went 8-0 in August and September and had his best monthly ERAs of the season, by far, at 2.68 and 3.86 respectively. I think he could compete with Clay Buchholz to be the #2 starter behind Price. If he has a good spring and builds on his August/September of last season, he might become the pitcher I thought he could be after his promising 2013 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

As for Buchholz, staying on the field consistently is one of his biggest road blocks. While healthy last year, I wasn’t disappointed in what I saw. He has lost some velocity — not an uncommon occurrence for a 31-year-old pitcher — but his four seam fastball, which sat around 93 mph, still has good separation from his curveball at 78 mph. This encourages me that he’ll have plenty of room to work with his five-pitch arsenal to set up opposing batters by confusing their timing. His decline in velocity has been gradual over his career, so adjusting should be an equally gradual process that should prohibit any wild gaps in productivity and effectiveness. He has also come to a point where he is more comfortable with his secondary pitches, indicated by his usage rates (check the graph from Brooks Baseball below). Throwing all of his pitches at similar rates of use also lends to confusing hitters, as he’s become more unpredictable.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

So, as long as his back or shoulder or whatever might be ailing him stays relatively pain free, I see a very dependable and effective Buchholz backing up Price, along with Kelly.

Getting rid of Wade Miley was a brilliant move, in my opinion. A guy who struggles mightily to pitch six innings per start and gets into shouting matches with his manager in view of the cameras is welcome to let the door hit him where the good lord split him. As someone who also gets to see a lot of the Seattle Mariners, I can’t say that Roenis Elias will be an immediate upgrade over Miley. Elias owns a career ERA+ of 93 and Miley’s is 101, but Elias is two years younger and significantly cheaper for any frustrations he’s being paid to provide fans. Additionally, Elias is significantly more consistent than Miley when you look at their numbers from year-to-year, particularly when looking at K/9, K:BB, H/9, and WHIP.

The best part, however, of swindling the Mariners into taking Miley off Boston’s hands is getting Carson Smith. Now, obviously Smith won’t be part of the starting rotation, but he’s a stud out of the bullpen. Smith is part of a bullpen that has gotten younger and harder throwing, along with Craig Kimbrel. A solid bullpen can only benefit its starting counterpart. When Elias, for example, is struggling to get through the sixth inning, but still with a lead, John Farrell will be able to confidently, comfortably turn things over to his bullpen. In turn, this will reduce taxation on the starting staff, leaving them physically and psychologically more suited for success in subsequent starts. One number that should be comforting to us Sox fans is that Smith stranded 26 of the baserunners he inherited and only eight of them scored in 2015.

Overall, I think the rotation should be in much better shape than last year. The front office has made some shrewd moves bent on immediate success. Will that bring them a division title in 2016? It would seem almost certain that it will at least help the Red Sox avoid another last-place finish.

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