Weighing Boston’s Options For the Fifth Starter Spot

Heading into Spring Training 2016, the biggest question regarding the Boston Red Sox depth chart was who would be rounding out the pitching rotation as the fifth starter. After adding David Price in the offseason to fill the role as the club’s ace, spots two through four projected to be filled by Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez. However, the fifth spot in the rotation was completely up for grabs, with Joe Kelly and Steven Wright looking like the frontrunners. Additionally, youngsters Henry Owens and Brian Johnson were in the conversation, as was offseason addition Roenis Elias.

Unfortunately for Boston, the young left-hander Rodriguez will begin the season on the disabled list after suffering a dislocation of his right kneecap and a subluxation of his right patellar tendon on February 27. According to Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe, manager John Farrell acknowledges that while Rodriguez will throw off the mound for the first time since the injury today, he won’t be ready for the season opener. Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal built off that by tweeting today that it’s likely Rodriguez won’t return until April 26.

With Rodriguez set to miss nearly a month after his knee injury, the Red Sox will now have to turn to two of the five pitchers mentioned previously, albeit one will be in just a temporary role. Thankfully for Boston, Joe Kelly has performed well in spring training so far, and many now consider him a sure lock for the fourth spot in the rotation during Rodriguez’s absence. This means that the fifth spot in the rotation is going to be filled by one of Wright, Owens, Elias, or Johnson.

So far this spring, Johnson and Elias have struggled, which makes them relative long shots to fill that role at the current time. With only one major league start under his belt and no starts this spring, Johnson is most likely no longer in the running for the position. Elias may have some hope left of grabbing the spot due to his extensive experience as a starter with the Seattle Mariners, but his 9.64 ERA and 2.57 WHIP this spring don’t inspire much confidence in his abilities at present.

With those two most likely out of the picture barring a late-spring resurgence, it seems that the Red Sox will be handing the ball to either Steven Wright or Henry Owens in place of Rodriguez come April. So, who should it be? Who will it be? There’s a case to be made for either player, as it stands now.

Joe Skipper/Getty Images North America

Joe Skipper/Getty Images North America

Steven Wright, 31, RHP
2015 Statistics (as starter): 
9 GS, 52.1 IP, 3.96 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 2.35 K/BB, .228 BA, .692 OPS, .242 BABIP, 9 HR
2016 ST Statistics (total): 2 GS, 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB, .286 BA, .726 OPS, 1 HR

Wright has been relatively solid in his major league career, compiling a 3.95 ERA in 107.0 innings pitched, 72.2 of which came in 2015. For a knuckleballer, he keeps his walk totals relatively low, and picks up a fair amount of strikeouts on occasion. The main knock on Wright is his ability to keep the ball down, as he had a perfect 1:1 GB:FB ratio last season, which is a dangerous game to play when you pitch at Fenway Park. In fact, his HR/9 was 1.49, well above the league average of 1.02, and even above the Red Sox team average of 1.11.

So far this spring, Wright has shown positive improvement, keeping his walk rate low (two free passes in seven innings) while allowing an 11:7 GB:FB rate and just one home run. If Wright can continue to stay away from allowing too many fly balls this spring and bring that in to the regular season, he may be the Red Sox best option to fill in while Rodriguez recovers. Additionally, the 31-year-old is out of minor-league options, which means he would have to be pass through waivers before being optioned to the minors. Seeing as Wright seems to at least have some value as a major leaguer, it’s likely that Wright would not make it through waivers, and the Red Sox front office would likely rather not test that hypothesis.

"<strongHenry Owens, 23, LHP
2015 Stats (as starter): 
11 GS, 63.0 IP, 4.57 ERA, 1,37 WHIP, 2.08 K/BB, .255 BA, .726 OPS, .293 BABIP, 7 HR
2016 ST Statistics (total): 3 GS, 7.2 IP, 4.70 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 1.29 K/BB, .231 BA, .758 OPS, 0 HR

In his first major-league season in 2015, Owens showed flashes of brilliance (8IP, 4H, 1ER, 4K vs. KC on 8/21; 7.2IP, 3H, 0ER, 5K vs. BAL on 9/27) as well as mediocrity (1.2IP, 6H, 7ER, 2BB, 2HR vs. NYY on 9/2; 4.1IP, 10H, 7ER, 4BB vs. CLE on 10/2). Owens’ control was his downfall as a 22-year-old, walking 3.4 per nine innings and recording starts with four walks four times. However, Owens did flash the ability to limit hits and home runs. Owens allowed no homers in five road starts, and five of his seven homers allowed at Fenway Park came in just two starts (3HR vs. SEA on 8/16, 2HR vs. NYY on 9/2).

This spring, Owens has continued to limit his hits allowed, giving up just six hits and no home runs in his three outings so far. He’s also flashed good strikeout ability, ringing up nine batters so far. However, Owens command continues to be spotty, as he’s walked seven in 7.2 innings (four walks in 2.2IP vs. MIA in his latest start). If Owens can show that his last outing was an outlier, and limit his walks in the rest of spring training, he may make a compelling case to get the ball instead of Wright. Should the Red Sox go with Owens, they could potentially avoid passing Wright through waivers by keeping him on the roster as a long-relief pitcher.

sox rotation 2One consideration that could be made when deciding who the Red Sox choose to use as their fifth starter is the potential opponents their pitcher would be facing. If manager John Farrell wants to get creative, he could use off days to his advantage and line up the rotation as pictured at left.

With this configuration, the potential fifth starter would see a start at Toronto, at home against Tampa Bay, at Houston, and then at home against New York.

So considering that Wright is a right-hander and Owens is a left-hander, it may be useful to look at the splits for each opponent and see how they fared against lefties and righties last season.

Obviously. most teams feature lineups with more right-handed bats than left-handed, so any advantage against lefties should be taken with a grain of salt. However, it still might be useful to see if any of the three teams’ splits stand out one way or the other.

opponents splits

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tool.

As we can see, all four teams performed better against lefties than righties last season, particularly Toronto and Houston. The difference isn’t very significant, but it is noticeable. Every team had a better OPS, and every team except Tampa Bay had better walk and strikeout rates against lefties.

If Wright’s and Owens’ handedness was reversed, this information may have thrown a wrench into this decision, and give the Red Sox a serious reason to consider going with Owens. However, the split data seems to reinforce the idea that Wright should get the nod as Boston’s fifth starter. All the rest of the factors – last season’s statistics, this spring’s statistics, and Wright’s option situation – seem to tilt the scales in Wright’s favor as well.

While Red Sox fans may not like the idea of starting a decidedly unimpressive knuckleballer in their rotation instead of the young, highly-regarded Owens, the best option seems to be doing so, especially as this will be a short-term situation, with Wright making two or three starts, at most. Owens is still just 23, and will benefit from more time in the minors in order to work on his command, which should allow him to cut down on his walks and give up fewer hits on his fastball (.312 BAA on FB in 2015). It does stand to note, however, that spring training is far from over – Wright or Owens could be injured or their performances could trend one way or the other, changing how the Red Sox coaches feel about either player.

While Rodriguez’s absence will be disappointing for Red Sox fans, they should be thankful that they have enough pitching depth to warrant a conversation such as this. With any luck, Wright will perform well enough to remain on the big-league roster as a long reliever once Rodriguez returns. Should he not, Boston’s executives may have a difficult decision to make. However, for the time being, the Red Sox fifth rotation spot looks to be in relatively capable hands.

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