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Tony Massarotti

Red Sox’ rotation full of guess work

Few sure things on the staff anymore

Jon Lester and the Red Sox face many questions as they begin the 2012 campaign.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Jon Lester and the Red Sox face many questions as they begin the 2012 campaign.

On the field, at least, the principal issue now is as it was then: the durability of the starting rotation. Minus Jon Lester, there is relatively little assurance that any of the Red Sox’ projected first four starters can make in the neighborhood of 30 starts, even assuming that there is a commitment to do so.

And if they can whether they can do so now with reasonable effectiveness is also an issue.

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For now, let’s table (but not forget) all discussion about the end of the 2011 season and deal purely in facts. Despite having one of the highest-paid rotations in the game last season, Red Sox starters finished ninth in the American League in ERA. They finished a dreadful 13th in innings pitched, ahead of only the Orioles and just behind the Royals. Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey have since undergone elbow surgeries, and Clay Buchholz has not pitched in a meaningful game since June 16.

In the place of Lackey and Matsuzaka, the Sox now have a cast of fill-ins that includes John Maine, Carlos Silva, Brandon Duckworth and Vicente Padilla.

Questions, questions, questions.

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A sizable mound of questions.

And so for now, along with their dignity and credibility, here is what Red Sox starters sacrificed last season, all as the club continued to pay the whopping $300 million (and then some) invested in Beckett, Lackey, Lester, Buchholz and Matsuzaka: their standing in the game’s hierarchy. The Angels (Jered Weaver), Yankees (C.C. Sabathia) and Tigers (Justin Verlander) all have a better ace than the Red Sox, assuming the Red Sox have a true ace anymore at all.

In the AL last season, there were five pitchers who won 15 games and had an ERA under 3.00, and none of them pitched for the Red Sox. Given the money the Sox have poured into their rotation in recent years, that is not a good sign.

Let’s not forget: for the better part of the last 25 years, the Red Sox have had one of the true aces in baseball. Roger Clemens begot Pedro Martinez, who begot Curt Schilling, who begot Beckett. But the Beckett of today is not the man of 2007. Lester took a step back last year and similarly looks more like a No. 2 starter. And before anyone suggests the Sox have a depth of No. 2s, the question of durability significantly alters that argument, too?

Know how many times Beckett has made at least 30 starts in consecutive seasons? Once - and not since 2007. (He made precisely 30 last year.) Matsuzaka only did it once (in 2007). Even Lackey only has started at least 30 games once in the last four seasons. Buchholz failed to start 30 games in 2010, let alone last year.

Only Lester has started 30 or more games (actually 31 or more) with any regularity, having started at least that number in each of the last four years.

The great unknown in this group is now Daniel Bard, who is making the conversion from reliever to starter. (The Sox may end up doing the same with Alfredo Aceves, but he has had a history of injury problems.) Still, Bard has never pitched more than 77.2 innings in any season - majors or minors - since being drafted in 2006, and his history as a starter early in his career was wretched. As a starter in 2007, Bard posted a 7.08 ERA in 22 starts and walked more than a batter per inning, and so the Sox intervened at the start of the next season.

They made him a reliever.

Of course, the Bard of today is far different than the Bard of 2007, having added a changeup to a repertoire that already includes a fastball and slider. He now has enough pitches to succeed. And yet, during each of his two full seasons as a reliever, Bard has faded some in August and September, raising the question of fatigue and durability.

Want to know one of the great myths in baseball? That when a pitcher tires, he loses velocity. He often does not. What he often loses is control, because delivery of the pitch requires more effort. As a result, you should not to be surprised to learn that in August and September of the 2010 season, for example, Bard walked 14 batters in his final 25.2 innings, an average 4.9 walks per nine innings. Last year, in his final 22 innings, Bard walked 11 batters, an average of 4.5 per nine.

Now compare those numbers to what Bard did before Aug. 1 in 2010 (when he walked 2.9 per nine innings) and 2011 (when the number was 1.2).

When Bard gets tired, his walks increase anywhere from two to four times, which is the biggest reason he becomes less effective. That is probably true for many pitchers, which introduces the question as to (it)why(end) pitchers tire.

In fact, as a whole last September, Red Sox pitchers walked more batters per nine innings (4.36) than any other team in baseball. Think about that. To a man, albeit for varying reasons - undoubtedly ranging from to body type to nutrition and conditioning - they almost all faded. Lester walked 4.55 men per nine innings in the final month. Lackey walked 4.56. Erik Bedard walked 6.75 and Bard walked 7.36. Beckett came in at a respectable 2.74, though he was hit harder than at any other point during the year, which means he wasn’t throwing quality strikes when he did get the ball over the plate.

Here’s the ultimate point: when it comes to durability, taking the ball 30 times a year (for a starter) is challenging enough. Taking the ball 30 times and maintaining some level of endurance is another matter altogether. The Red Sox last year did neither. And short of Lester, none of them have recently given any indication that they can do it on a regular basis.

Does that mean this year is a lost cause? Of course not. It just means that it’s time for the Red Sox starters to get serious about their jobs again. It means that Sox pitchers must enter this season in better shape than they have ever been in before, and that they must continue to maintain that pace during the season. And it means that Red Sox starters have a lot to prove, because there was no single, greater reason for the club’s failure last summer.

Pardon the expression, boys, but the ball is now in your hands.

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