Sports

Paul Swydan | Statistically Thinking

Do the Red Sox really need to get an ace pitcher?

Detroit Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello throws against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

AP

The Red Sox acquired Rick Porcello in a trade that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers.

When the Red Sox acquired Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson toward the end of the Winter Meetings, the collective response from Red Sox Nation was, “that’s it?” To say the players lacked the name value or oomph that the fan base has come to expect, especially in the wake of the Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez signings, would be an understatement. There have been numerous calls for the team to land an ace.

While the definition of “ace” is often a moving target, the point is well taken – people want the rotation to get better. The question is, can it?

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Now, as someone who has written in the not-so-distant past that the rotation wasn’t cutting it, I’m sympathetic to the view that the team needs to improve its rotation. The problem is that this just might not be possible. At least not according to Steamer’s projections, which you can find housed at FanGraphs here.

A brief note on projection systems before we continue. There are a few major projection systems – Steamer, ZiPS, PECOTA, Oliver, and Marcel are among the most prominent. As was noted by Dan Meyer this week at The Hardball Times, projection systems have improved in the past half-decade, and while each work a little differently, they all are very good systems. We’re using Steamer here simply because its projections are available year-round, and other systems are not.

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According to Steamer, Porcello ranks 14th among starting pitchers in terms of FanGraphs’ wins above replacement (fWAR). He is just one of 17 pitchers projected by Steamer to be worth three WAR or more. Now, we know that more than 17 pitchers will be worth three WAR or more – in 2014, 33 pitchers reached the three WAR threshold. The reason Steamer and other projection systems will only peg about half as many to hit that mark is because pitchers are simply more volatile, both in terms of performance and durability.

2015 Projected WAR
Clayton Kershaw
4.8
Chris Sale
4.7
Felix Hernandez
4.6
Yu Darvish
4.4
Corey Kluber
4.1
David Price
4
Max Scherzer
3.9
Stephen Strasburg
3.8
Jon Lester
3.6
Madison Bumgarner
3.4
Masahiro Tanaka
3.3
Marcus Stroman
3.3
Zack Greinke
3.2
Jeff Samardzija
3.1
Rick Porcello
3.1
Hisashi Iwakuma
3
DATA: FanGraphs/Steamer

Heading into last season, there weren’t a whole lot of people banking on big seasons from the likes of Phil Hughes (fifth in WAR at 6.1), Dallas Keuchel (16th, 3.9) or Tanner Roark (31st, 3.0). In fact, at this time last year, Keuchel and Roark were projected to be replacement level pitchers.

In the spirit of trying to improve the rotation, let’s look at the 13 pitchers projected to be worth more than Porcello next season through the lens of Steamer and the FanGraphs depth charts – which project playing time for each player – and see if there is a chance the Sox could acquire them:

1. Clayton Kershaw, 201 IP, 4.8 WAR

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Ha ha ha, no.

2. Chris Sale, 192 IP, 4.7 WAR

Ha ha ha, no.

3. Felix Hernandez, 192 IP, 4.6 WAR

See numbers 1 and 2.

4. Yu Darvish, 192 IP, 4.4 WAR

I’m tempted to give the same answer as numbers one-three, but I think there is a glimmer of hope here. Just not during the offseason. The Rangers have precious few young commodities, but their roster is also loaded with question marks on the veteran side, and as such, they’re projected to have the third-worst record in the American League at this moment.

General manager Jon Daniels is under contract through 2018, so if the team starts slow, he’ll have the confidence that he can burn it down and live to see the team escape the sewer pipe and emerge once again into the cold, cold rain of contention. It’s a long shot, but it could happen. In July.

5. Corey Kluber, 192 IP, 4.1 WAR

Never say never with the Indians, who have to continuously operate on a budget tightrope, but it probably wouldn’t be the savviest PR move to trade the reigning Cy Young Award winner.

6. David Price, 192 IP, 4.0 WAR

This would seem incredibly unlikely as well. The Tigers already traded a starting pitcher to the Red Sox, and one would think that – David Ortiz feud nonwithstanding – if Ben Cherington and co. could have landed Price, they would have done it already. There’s a slight chance that the Tigers collapse in 2015, but it’s likely that in a still-soft AL Central, they’ll be in the playoff picture come July. Maybe the Sox can land him as a free agent next winter, and him and Papi can hug it out at the podium.

7. Max Scherzer, 195 IP, 3.9 WAR

Here’s where Sox fans can set their sights. Only money – and the forfeiture of a draft pick -- separates the Sox from landing Scherzer. He’ll be just 30 years old this season, and strikes out batters by the barrel full. The question is whether or not the Sox want to outbid what should be a strong market for the Missouri native.

8. Stephen Strasburg, 182 IP, 3.8 WAR

Now, this is an intriguing proposition, isn’t it? The Nationals have not been shy this offseason, be it with dangling star players (Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann) or completing an actual blockbuster trade (this week’s three-way trade with the Padres and Rays). With Strasburg unlikely to sign a contract extension with the team, they have two seasons of his services left.

Would now be the time they would look to flip him? Would Mookie Betts do the trick? It’s an intriguing debate. The multi-talented Betts is projected at 2.5 WAR for 2015, but he’ll also be under team control for far longer than Strasburg. Not that the team would necessarily want to trade Betts, but that is the level of talent it would take in order to land the former number-one pick.

9. Jon Lester, 192 IP, 3.6 WAR

Too soon.

10. Madison Bumgarner, 201 IP, 3.4 WAR

There’s an unwritten rule that you’re not allowed to trade the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Well, unwritten ‘til now, since I just wrote it down. Whoops!

11. Masahiro Tanaka, 192 IP, 3.3 WAR

It was sure swell that the Yankees and Red Sox came together last year to forcibly remove Stephen Drew from John Farrell’s bear hug, but I doubt that the two teams come together on a trade for an actual good player any time soon. Even if there was interest, Tanaka’s elbow problems have me more than a little bit wary.

12. Marcus Stroman, 192 IP, 3.3 WAR

The Blue Jays are gearing up for another shot at contention, so it’d be pretty unlikely that they’d trade their best young pitcher (and probably best pitcher overall) to a division rival.

13. Zack Greinke, 192 IP, 3.2 WAR

Definitely within the range of possibility. Greinke is technically signed through 2018, but he can opt out of his deal after the 2015 season, and there’s a good chance that he will. He’ll only be 32 heading into the 2016 season, and there’s a good chance that he can secure the same payday he is currently scheduled to receive, but for more years.

The new Dodgers regime has certainly not been shy about moving pieces around the chess board this winter, and if the Red Sox wanted to make it worth their while, Greinke could probably be had. He might not cost as much as Strasburg since it would only be for one year instead of two, but then the Dodgers are clearly gunning to win the Fall Classic this season, so they don’t really need to trade Greinke either.

That’s it. Using the Steamer projections and the FanGraphs depth charts of playing time, those are the only pitchers projected to be better than Porcello. And in the case of Tanaka, Stroman and Greinke, they are barely better.

What if we equalize things though? Say, project everyone at 200 innings pitched? FanGraphs has a page for that too, and not much changes. Three additional pitchers pop up on the list ahead of Porcello – the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, and the Mets’ Matt Harvey. All three are up and coming pitchers/stars who are under their team’s control for several years. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of them.

Of course, WAR is but one measure. We could break this down by ERA or Fielding Independent Pitching, or K-BB%, or whatever other rate statistic you chose, and other pitchers would pop up on the list. In fact, several other pitchers might pop up on the list, including the three pitchers Chad Finn suggested the team target the other day – Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, and Jordan Zimmermann.

But the point here is this – Rick Porcello is pretty damn good. He’s been an above-average pitcher for four consecutive seasons. You can’t say that about Cueto, who was hurt frequently in 2013 when he wasn’t busy getting psyched out by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ crowd. Zimmermann has been great, but now that he is four seasons removed from his first Tommy John surgery, the clock is ticking on him in a big way for surgery number two, according to research presented by Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2013.

And Hamels has the unfortunate burden of playing for a team with unrealistic expectations of what their players are worth.

The Red Sox don’t have the sexiest starting rotation in the game. But according to the FanGraphs depth charts, the rotation is currently projected to be the sixth-best in the game, third-best in the AL and best in the AL East. Rick Porcello is a big reason why.

Rick Porcello 2015 projected stats
W L ERA WHIP K/9 FIP
Rick Porcello 13 9 3.99 1.29 6.2 3.7
DATA: FanGraphs/Steamer

You might not think of him as an ace, and he may not technically be one, but outside of his former teammate Max Scherzer, when you combine performance with durability, there simply aren’t a lot of pitchers the Red Sox could get who would be an improvement.

Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @Swydan.
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