Starting Pitching is Key to Boston's Success
Updated: Apr 16
The Red Sox are a good baseball team. That is not at all something I thought I would be writing after the first series of the season, but it is now extremely clear that it is the case. After that awful three-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Orioles, Boston ripped off 9 consecutive victories, including sweeps of the Rays and those same Orioles, then took the first three in a four-game set against the Twins before finally losing, 4-3 on a walk-off single, on Thursday. The offense has been stellar, as was expected—even in the horrendous 2020 season, the team’s offense was productive—but the true catalyst of the Boston’s streak was the starting pitching. The Red Sox have seen their starters go 5+ innings 12 times in 13 games, the sole outlier being Garret Richards disastrous first start of the year. The team’s starting pitcher has given up 3 or fewer earned runs 11 times in that stretch, the two exceptions being a 6 inning, 4 run effort by Nick Pivetta, and the aforementioned start by Richards in which he gave up 6 earned runs in 2 innings. The starters’ ERA stands at 3.72, and is just 2.99 if you remove the first start from Richards. Nathan Eovaldi in particular has been stellar, going 17.1 innings in his three starts to the tune of a 2.08 ERA. Eduardo Rodriguez bounced back from missing all of 2020 and his first start of 2021 with two solid, if unspectacular, efforts, and the back-three of Pivetta, Richards, and Martin Perez has been exactly what a team wants of the back-end of a rotation, consistently going 5 innings and giving up 2 or 3 runs per start. The difference between the starting pitching success in 2020
and 2021 is night-and-day.
Strong starting pitching is going to be the key to continued Red Sox success in 2021. The offense has been great, and there is no reason to doubt that it can continue to produce at a high level. J.D. Martinez has been fantastic after struggling the previous year, and Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are producing like the burgeoning superstars that we all hoped they would become. Christian Vazquez has been phenomenal, continuing to prove that the power-stroke he found in 2019 is real, and Alex Verdugo has picked up where he left off in 2020 when he was one of the few bright spots on the team. Throw in contributions from Christian Arroyo, and Boston can score more than enough runs to win, even while waiting for the likes of Bobby Dalbec, Kiké Hernandez, Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, and Marwin Gonzalez to really start producing (for what it’s worth, Statcast has Dalbec and Hernandez as two of the ten unluckiest hitters in the league so far this season, so their breakouts could be imminent).
With the offense producing, and the bullpen—especially closer Matt Barnes and new addition Garrett Whitlock—looking like a strength, it is apparent that the success of the 2021 Red Sox will depend on whether the starting pitching can continue to produce at a high level. There is, in my opinion, a lot of reason for optimism in this regard. Nathan Eovaldi was one of the few players on the Red Sox who didn’t completely suck in 2020, and he has been great to start 2021, as noted above. He’s not an ace, and ideally would be more of a number 3 starter, but there is no reason to worry about him all of a sudden performing terribly. There was considerable worry that Eduardo Rodriguez may not be able to bouce back from the COVIC-induced myocarditis that sidelined him all of 2020, but he has proven that he is ready to pitch at a high-level once again. With Eovaldi and Rodriguez, the worry is not so much that they will not be able to sustain their performance, but is, rather, that they are both prone to missing time. Nick Pivetta struggled with the Phillies, but was an intriguing prospect at one point, and is still only 28. After a few encouraging starts with Boston at the end of last year, and a very solid start to the current season, there are many reasons to believe that Chaim Bloom may have found a hidden gem. If the Sox tweaked something in Pivetta’s mechanics, he could come to fulfill the potential the Phillies saw in him several years ago. To date, he has gained almost 2 mph of velocity on his fastball in 2021, so it seems very likely that the team has, in fact, found something to tweak to turn Pivetta into a solid major league pitcher. Martin Perez was decent, but nothing special, in 2020, and has started that way in 2021. In fact, Perez has been decent, not special, for pretty much his entire career. There’s not a ton of upside there, but he’s the team’s fifth starter. If your biggest problem is that your fifth starter is only ok, then you’re in a fantastic position. Even Garrett Richards has been fine. He had arguably the most question marks of any of Boston’s rotation arms entering the season, having not been fully healthy since about 1972, and his disastrous first appearance did nothing to alleviate the doubts. Since then, however, he has turned in two solid starts, going for 5+ innings and allowing 2 or fewer runs both times, earning one win and one no-decision.
I am not worried about Eovaldi, Rodriguez, Pivetta, or Perez. I think they are all average to above-average pitchers, and should continue to perform at the level they have to open the season. I could see Richards performance falling off a cliff, but the Sox have Tanner Houck waiting in the alternate training site, eager to get another crack at the rotation after showing so much promise so far in his young career. At any rate, I expect the rotation to give the team a chance to win each and every night, which is far more than you could say about in just one season ago. If they can do that, and the Sox can stay in the hunt until August, all of a sudden Chris Sale comes back, and Boston might start to look like a true contender. The offense is great. The bullpen looks to be one of the better units in the American League. All that’s needed for this Boston team to succeed is for the starting pitching to continue to perform as they’ve been performing. If this can happen, there is no reason why the Red Sox can’t shock some of the pundits who penciled them in for another terrible season.