The weakest link of the American League’s second-best rotation is just plain obvious, and the Boston Red Sox need to do something about it.
Since returning from a left forearm injury, Drew Pomeranz has struggled significantly. In a rotation featuring two former Cy Young winners and one runner-up on the best team in baseball, the 29-year-old southpaw cannot afford to put the Red Sox in danger of losing every fifth day.
Pomeranz has always been extremely inconsistent throughout his career. He actually had a fantastic season in 2017, finishing 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA in his first full year in Boston. Expectations for Pomeranz were high entering 2018, but the back-end of the Red Sox rotation was somewhat open. Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Pomeranz were all locks in the front of the rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez‘s position as the number five starter seemed pretty definite once healthy. That left Hector Velazquez, Steven Wright, and Brian Johnson appearing to be hybrid pitchers out of the bullpen. And then, of course, the red-hot Joe Kelly could pitch in any role of Cora’s choosing.
Two months into the 2018 season, the Red Sox have enough evidence to shift around their pitching situation in order to perfect it heading into the summer. Sale (5-2, 2.76 ERA) has mostly performed like his usual self, and he continues to be one of the top pitchers in the AL. He will face off Friday night against Gerrit Cole, who is neck-and-neck with Sale for the AL lead in strikeouts. Porcello (7-2, 3.65 ERA) is pitching nearly as well as his 2016 season after an awful 2017 campaign. Price (5-4, 4.04 ERA) has been inconsistent, but, at times, he has shown signs of being the best pitcher on the team. Rodriguez (6-1, 3.88 ERA) continues to have a breakout season for the Red Sox, and has secured his place in the rotation.
Meanwhile, Pomeranz has a team-worst 6.81 ERA with a 1-3 record in eight starts so far this season. Just looking at the statistics should indicate how much of an outlier Pomeranz has been this season for one of the strongest rotations in baseball.
Pomeranz showed some signs of effectiveness on Thursday night in Houston. He threw five innings, giving up four earned runs on six hits with five strikeouts. Pomeranz had solid command of his fastball, which has increased in velocity since his previous starts and is now topping off at around 90-91 mph. To finish off Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, he utilized his fastball in tough locations to get both hitters to whiff. However, his fastball also gave Carlos Correa the perfect pitch to crush a two-run home run to left field in the first inning.
But one decent performance cannot make the Red Sox forget about his past struggles. Yes, there are positives to take away from the start in Houston. But still, how can the Red Sox be satisfied with that stat -line from Pomeranz when it is not that drastically distinctive from his most recent starts? The team has won half the games in which Pomeranz has started, and Pomeranz was not particularly great in any of those starts. He has allowed at least two earned runs every start and is averaging close to four earned runs per start. His fastball looked improved against Houston, but his velocity is not going to blow hitters away.
Amid Correa’s homer last night, Pomeranz’ first-inning sorrows have continued. Through his eight starts, Pomeranz has given up nine earned runs on eleven hits to go with six walks and two home runs. The first inning needs to be where the Red Sox build their momentum, as getting off to a strong start in any game is always beneficial. To reference Jeff J. Snider’s piece from May 25, Pomeranz might actually be a starting pitcher who needs an opener.
However, it has ironically been a savior per se that has come into the game after Pomeranz to clean up the mess Pomeranz left. The aforementioned Wright, since returning from suspension and injury, has been phenomenal as a long reliever. Through six appearances, Wright has a 2.25 ERA with fourteen strikeouts over sixteen innings. Wright initially got off to a slow start, but he has since picked up much of the slack when Pomeranz has pitched. He has certainly earned his spot in the bullpen. Yet now it is almost like when Pomeranz pitches, Wright also pitches — creating a split-start every fifth day. The Red Sox are essentially using six starters in this way, but isn’t there a method to utilize their pitchers more efficiently?
Why not just start Wright in the first place? If he pitches well, Wright can consistently go into the later innings thanks to his sustainable knuckleball. As an All-Star starting pitcher in 2016, Wright had four complete games and a 3.33 ERA. That year, he was able to pitch into the sixth inning most games, and many outings he went deep into the seventh, eighth, or ninth. His knuckleball-first approach is rare, but it can be super effective when it works. In essence, the option is right there for the Red Sox to start a more qualified Wright over a struggling Pomeranz, so why not?
If the Red Sox choose to keep Wright in the bullpen, they could also look at other options. Velazquez, who has made two starts to go with twelve relief appearances, is 5-0 with a 2.12 ERA on the season. The Red Sox, however, might not want to gamble on losing Velazquez’s versatility in the bullpen and as an emergency starter. Johnson has started one game this season, along with sixteen relief appearances. He should likely stay in the bullpen, as his 5.33 ERA and history of mediocre starts might not be worth swapping spots with Pomeranz. And Kelly, who has probably been the most impressive Red Sox player not named Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez this season, could switch back to being a starter in order for him to face more batters. But his transition to a reliever took a long time, and with his success this season (3-0, 1.73 ERA), the Red Sox would be hesitant to make any changes to his role on the team.
Another option could be looking to Triple-A Pawtucket for any potential early-summer call-ups. The only viable option would be Jalen Beeks, who is 3-3 with a 2.56 ERA. Beeks is coming off his best start of the season. He went seven innings, allowing four hits and one run while not walking a single batter and striking out seven. There is clear potential for Beeks to shine for the Red Sox down the road, but it is all a question of when his time will come.
Fans have seen enough of Pomeranz’s struggles, and a stronger option in Wright is waiting to return to his starting role. It is imperative that the Red Sox move Pomeranz out of the rotation, or else they will continue to put themselves in danger of losing every fifth day.