State of the Sox: Starting Rotation
Over the next ten days I will be posting an overview of every position on the Red Sox. Today we will be looking at the starting rotation. Read the others here: First base, Second Base, Third base, Shortstop, Left Field, Center Field, Right Field, Catcher, Designated Hitter
Starting rotation in 2019:
The Red Sox starting rotation massively underperformed in 2019. The 2018 team’s rotation was one of the best in baseball, ranking 5thin MLB and 3rd in the American League with 19.4 bWAR. In 2019, however, the team ranked 13th in baseball with only 11.3 bWAR as nearly every starting pitcher performed worse than they had the prior season. Chris Sale, who had placed 4th in Cy Young voting in 2018 after posting a 12-4 record with a 2.11 ERA, 1.98 FIP, and 13.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, had the worst season of his career. After finishing in the top six in Cy Young voting every season since he became a starter in 2012, Sale made only 25 starts in 2019, a career low (other than his first two seasons when he was a reliever). He finished with the highest ERA (4.40) and highest FIP (3.39) of his career, while giving up more home runs (1.47 per 9 innings) than ever before and walking more batters (2.25 per 9 innings) than he has in any season since 2012. David Price made only 22 starts. His 4.28 ERA was his highest since his rookie season of 2009, and his 1.26 home runs per 9 was the second highest of his career. 2016 CYA winner Rick Porcello was at least durable, making 32 starts, but it might have been better if he had not pitched so much. He had a mind-bogglingly bad (and career high) 5.52 ERA, and his 4.76 FIP was 0.01 below his career high, which he set as a rookie in 2009. He walked 2.32 batters per 9, better than only his rookie season, and struck batters out at his lowest rate since 2014 when he was with the Tigers. 2018 World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi made only 12 starts after spending much of the season injured, and posted a career high 5.99 ERA, a career high 5.90 FIP, and walked 4.66 batters per 9. Eduardo Rodriguez represented the lone bright spot on the staff, as the young lefty finally managed to make a full season’s worth of starts (34). He posted a career low 3.81 ERA while striking out 9.43 batters per 9. He threw 203.1 innings, making him the sole Sox pitcher to surpass 200 innings on the season, and led the team’s pitchers in fWAR with 3.7.
Depth chart for 2020:
Price was traded to the Dodgers along with Mookie Betts, and Porcello signed with the Mets. Sale and Eovaldi are both reportedly healthy to start Spring Training, and Rodriguez is ready to go as well. The newly signed Martin Perez will slot into the fourth spot in the rotation, but the fifth spot is in flux. Fangraphs projects the fifth spot in the rotation to be split between Matt Hall, Kyle Hart, Tanner Houck, and Hector Velazquez.
How the rotation can be better than 2019:
The 2020 rotation looks significantly worse than the 2019 or 2018 rotations on paper. That said, the two members of the rotation not back with the team (Price and Porcello) were dreadful in 2019. Chris Sale has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball for the entirety of his career, and at 30 years old should not be in decline. Additionally, despite his awful stats, he was still striking out 13.32 batters per 9, more than any other season in of his career other than 2018, and his FIP being a full run lower than his ERA indicates that he had pretty awful luck. Furthermore, 19.5% of fly balls hit against Sale went for homers, which is absurdly high and further demonstrates bad luck. If Sale can stay healthy, he should be able to bounce back to being one of the best pitchers in the game. Rodriguez is only 26 years old, and has shown flashes of greatness when healthy. It would not be at all surprising for him to take another step forward in 2020. Eovaldi is extremely fragile, but it would be difficult for him to be any worse than he was in 2019, a season in which he was worth -0.3 fWAR. Perez and whoever the fifth starter ends up being do not inspire lots of confidence, but it isn’t hard to see them being at least as effective as the combination of Porcello and Price. If all of the above happen, Boston’s 2020 starting rotation will be much better than 2019’s version.
How the rotation can be worse than 2019:
That said, Sale and Eovaldi were both hurt for large portions of last year (and weren’t good while healthy). Rodriguez has dealt with injuries several times in his young career. The Sox have no starting pitching depth (illustrated by the fact that they don’t even have a fifth starter), so any time missed by one or more of those three could be devastating. Underperformance by any of those three could also spell disaster for the team’s chances of competing in 2020.
I think Sale will bounce back in a huge way, and will be far more similar to the pitcher he was in 2017 and 2018 than the pitcher he was in 2019. I also think that Rodriguez will continue to develop into a very solid starting pitcher. I am almost certain that Eovaldi will miss some time over the course of the season, but am confident that he will make more starts than he did a season ago, and will be far better. I think Perez can be at least an average fourth starter, and am hopeful that the random assortment of bodies that fills the fifth spot in the rotation won’t be an automatic loss every five games. I think the rotation on the whole will be better than it was in 2019 when nearly every single pitcher underperformed. That said, I have a hard time seeing the rotation being anything more than average given how little depth the team has at starting pitcher.