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108 Stitches Newsletter with Alex Speier

Monday, February 20, 2017
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Chris Sale is the focal point of the Red Sox’ spring training, the transformative addition who is meant to help propel the Red Sox towards sustained championship ambitions even in the absence of David Ortiz. That being the case, it’s instructive to recall just how challenging a responsibility that can be for a pitcher who relocates to Boston.

Curt Schilling, of course, managed to do the nearly impossible. The Red Sox traded for him after their 2003 heartbreak with the view that he (along with a new manager in Terry Francona and elite closer in Keith Foulke) could represent the addition who would allow them to finally ascend the summit.

Schilling did just that in a dominant 2004 campaign that merited a runner-up finish in Cy Young balloting, posting a 3.26 ERA that represented an improvement from his 3.33 career mark and an ERA+ (park-adjusted ERA compared to his league) of 148, a bump over his preceding standard of 133. With the benefit of 12 seasons of hindsight, his campaign stands out as even more remarkable as it seemed then.

Since that 2004 season, the Red Sox have added nine starting pitchers with at least 100 starts in the big leagues who went on to make at least 20 starts in their first season in Boston – most recently, David Price in 2016 and Rick Porcello as well as Wade Miley in 2015. The First Year In Boston (should we call it the FYIB metric?) dropoff from prior career standards is eye-opening.

Every one of the nine starters in question – Price, Porcello, Miley, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, and David Wells – posted an ERA in their first season with the Red Sox that was higher than their pre-Boston career norm. On average, the group’s ERA was 0.75 runs higher in their first season with the Red Sox than they’d produced in their careers to that point; the rises ranged from 0.23 runs (Clement) to 1.55 runs (Penny).

The First Year In Boston metric
A look at how nine starting pitchers fared in their first season with the Red Sox
YEAR ONE IN BOSTON PRE-RED SOX CAREER DROPOFF
Pitcher Year ERA ERA+ ERA ERA+ ERA Change ERA+ Change
David Price 2016 3.99 114 3.09 126 0.90 -12
Rick Porcello 2015 4.92 87 4.30 97 0.62 -10
Wade Miley 2015 4.46 96 3.79 103 0.67 -7
Ryan Dempster 2013 4.57 90 4.33 99 0.24 -9
John Lackey 2010 4.40 99 3.81 116 0.59 -17
Brad Penny 2009 5.61 83 4.06 105 1.55 -22
Josh Beckett 2006 5.01 95 3.48 116 1.53 -21
Matt Clement 2005 4.57 99 4.34 98 0.23 1
David Wells 2005 4.45 102 4.03 111 0.42 -9
SOURCE: Baseball-reference.com

Some of the increase would be expected given the impact of pitching in Fenway Park and the smaller ballparks of the American League East. Nonetheless, on average, the group saw its ERA+ -- which accounts for park effects – fall by an average of 12 points.

It’s interesting to note that Price’s FYIB (sure, let’s do this) experience was very much in line with those standards – his ERA was 0.90 runs above his pre-Boston norm, while his ERA+ went from 126 (meaning 26 percent better than league average) to 114. In other words, Price essentially experienced a “standard” departure from the elite levels he’d established in his career, part of the reason why the Red Sox tend to consider his 3.99 ERA of 2016 a solid foundation for what they hope will be an even better second season.

“You get into an environment that you then become comfortable in, and likely to maybe settle into what your natural abilities are, maybe not try to do too much in certain cases. Boston is a known commodity to [Price] now after a full year,” said manager John Farrell. “I know a lot of criticism has come David’s way, but 17-game winner, 230 innings pitched, led the American League in strikeouts – it’s a strong year. It might not have met some of the external expectations surrounding the signing of David here, but like I said, I think year two is always important. You can say the same thing for Hanley [Ramirez]. The second year is a different environment for them, more of a known commodity, and they’re able to just maybe stay a little more focused at times and not be distracted by some of the other external things that may be out there.”

Of course, that hope for a stronger Second Year In Boston (SYIB? Too much…) underscores the fact that there will be an expected transition for Sale, who arrives in Boston with a career 3.00 ERA and 135 ERA+; a normal adjustment might see him with a 3.75 ERA and 123 ERA+.

Such marks would be excellent, but Sale hopes that he doesn’t have to lower the bar to account for his relocation from the AL Central to baseball’s most pitcher-unfriendly division.

“I expect a lot of myself. I have very high expectations for myself. I demand a lot from myself. I don’t think it’ll be anything different. I’ll be harder on myself than you guys will,” said Sale. “For me, [making the transition to Boston is] like a horse running a race. The horse has his blinders on and he runs until he’s told not to run or the race is over, whatever it is. That’s my goal this year, to just focus on baseball things. Anything outside of that, put the blinders up. A lot of distraction can go on throughout the season and in the clubhouse, whatever it is, and I’m going to do my best to kind of keep those separated and keep my focus on baseball-related things.”

Whether that permits Sale to move to his new organization without a performance dip remains to be seen – but certainly, in order to do so, he’d have to buck a fairly consistent trend.

Dan Shaughnessy writes that, after some notable disagreements with White Sox management in 2016, Sale believes he’s learned from what he characterized as his mistakes.

Given that his entire career has been spent with one organization and one pitching coach (Don Cooper), one of the biggest challenges facing Sale is the need to establish a rapport with new pitching coach Carl Willis, writes Scott Lauber of ESPN.com.

To the links!

SHOWTIME FOR PABLO: Pablo Sandoval did all the right things in the offseason and said all the right things upon his arrival to spring training on Thursday. Now, the significance of those efforts will give way to the all-important on-field test as the 30-year-old tries to re-establish his career after a very hard first two years in Boston. I look at Sandoval’s arrival in Red Sox camp following a physical remake that had him dropping 35-40 pounds.

Scott Lauber of ESPN.com offers a detailed account of Sandoval’s offseason work and the motivation behind it.

Anything but a worst-case scenario from Sandoval should represent an upgrade over the Red Sox’ 2016 production at third base, writes Brett Cowett of Baseball Prospectus.

HANLEY’S THEATER: Ramirez’s 2017 reintroduction proved memorable, as the slugger spoke passionately about his friendship with David Ortiz, the void left by his close friend’s departure, and his outlook on life as Ortiz’s successor as the team’s designated hitter. Peter Abraham details the captivating session.

(For what it’s worth: Ortiz restated his intention not to play on Twitter.)

FOLLOW THE LEADER: Rob Bradford of WEEI.com captures a scene that illustrates how Red Sox leadership will work in the post-Ortiz era.

KIMBREL IS SPELLED WITH K (AND SOMETIMES TWO B’S): Craig Kimbrel was often dominant in his first season with the Red Sox, but a career-worst walk rate (5.1 per 9 innings) led to a career-worst ERA (3.40) and loss total (6). Abraham examined the root of his control struggles and the Red Sox’ hopes to address them in 2017.

NEW OUTLOOK FOR THORNBURG: New Red Sox setup man Tyler Thornburg, acquired from the Brewers this winter for Travis Shaw, Mauricio Dubon, and Josh Pennington, is excited to pitch in a pennant race.

Thornburg’s breakout 2016 season occurred after he made a simple delivery adjustment last spring, writes Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal.

THE 25th SPOT – AND BEYOND: Josh Rutledge thought his time with the Red Sox was done when he signed a minor league deal with the Rockies. As Abraham writes, Rutledge was thus caught off guard when the Red Sox took him back from Colorado in the Rule 5 draft, with the possibility that he could make the Opening Day roster as a versatile righthanded bench bat.

After two challenging years spent navigating injuries and anxiety, lefthander Brian Johnson – a potentially important starting depth option – believes he’s in an excellent spot entering the 2017 season.

Brandon Workman likely will need time in the minors to open the year, but a pitcher who held a role of considerable bullpen importance in the 2013 postseason has seen some promising signs in his efforts to restore his career post-Tommy John surgery, Abraham writes.

SEOUL MAN: Xander Bogaerts hopes that history repeats itself with his participation in the World Baseball Classic given that the last time the Aruba native played for Team Netherlands, the Red Sox won the World Series. That said, as Abraham writes, Bogaerts is a bit anxious about the jet-lag-inducing challenge of playing in Korea.

Bogaerts wants to steal more bases this year, writes Jen McCaffrey of MassLive.com.

Bogaerts tells Steve Buckley of the Herald that, despite the team’s exhortations, he won’t stop sliding into first base.

At 24, Bogaerts feels old, writes Ian Browne of MLB.com.

A FIRST FOR MORELAND: Chris Smith of MassLive.com writes that in high school, Mitch Moreland believed his future would unfold not at first base – a position where he’s now a Gold Glover – but instead on the mound.

A SHIFT VERSUS THE SHIFT: The Red Sox will encourage their hitters in select situations to take advantage of defensive shifts by bunting or hitting the ball to the opposite field, writes John Tomase of WEEI.com.

CAVALIER ATTITUDE: Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski returned serve on Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s description of Boston (post-Sale trade) as the Golden State Warriors of MLB, giving his own NBA-centric description of New York to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post.

MASH UNIT: Eduardo Rodriguez threw off a mound for the first time this spring on Thursday. The undertaking went without incident. Rodriguez said that he should be ready for Opening Day. Knuckleballer Steven Wright is scheduled to throw off a mound on Monday for the first time since his August shoulder injury. Lefty Drew Pomeranz likewise is slated to throw off a mound on Monday.

Pomeranz told Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald that he’s entirely focused on winning a rotation job.

Carson Smith is still nearly a month away from pitching off a mound, but the early paces of his rehab from Tommy John surgery suggest he won’t need to alter his delivery, writes Ian Browne of MLB.com.

BEYOND THE STARS AND SCRUBS: Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs examines the White Sox’ offseason overhaul in the context of a desire to build a less top-heavy contender, a model that is prevalent among teams that have found that quality depth is a more reliable means of contending than a select few elite players.

PITCHERS, RE-IMAGINED: Eno Sarris of Fangraphs tries to identify pitchers who might benefit from an arm-slot change based on the 2016 velocity, movement, and spin rate measurements of their fastballs. The exercise is fascinating as a window into how conversations about the science of pitching are currently happening in the game, since it is precisely this sort of objective data that is now a standard part of roster-building conversations about pitchers.

PITCHING ATTRITION AROUND THE GAME: Orioles starter Chris Tillman is dealing with shoulder soreness that has his status at the start of the season in question – a situation that Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun characterizes as potentially ruinous for a very thin Orioles rotation.

Cardinals righthander Alex Reyes – considered the top pitching prospect in the game – will require Tommy John surgery, a potentially devastating blow for St. Louis, writes Jesus Ortiz.

Those injuries, of course, will be followed by others this spring – and the Red Sox likewise will have to sweat the health of their potential rotation members, particularly the three pitchers (Steven Wright, Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez) who are coming off of injuries to compete for the team’s final two spots. That backdrop will offer an ongoing, after-the-fact opportunity to re-examine the Sox’ decision to trade Clay Buchholz for a minor leaguer of modest profile in Josh Tobias. Buchholz talked to Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer about a new start with a new team as an antidote to what he described as the “complacency” borne of a career spent with one organization.

BRONSON BEATING A DEAD HORSE? Forty-year-old Bronson Arroyo is happy to represent a “science project” who attempts to defy age and injury in one last attempt at a comeback with the Reds, Mike Hartsock writes for the Dayton Daily News.

NEW RODEO FOR ROSS(ES): Cody Ross is starting a new baseball chapter, working as an instructor in Giants camp.

David Ross is excited to balance two new jobs with more time with his family, writes Chad Finn.

MINOR DETAILS: Rafael Devers appears ready for the Red Sox’ top prospect spotlight. Here’s my feature on the 20-year-old, and why the Red Sox wouldn’t part with him in the Sale deal.

Righthander Chandler Shepherd, a Red Sox relief depth option who is almost certain to open the year in Pawtucket, has a fascinating vantage point this spring as the fourth member of a pitching group that features Porcello, Price, and Sale.

The White Sox want former Red Sox prospect Michael Kopech to take it easy as he gets into spring training.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pegs the White Sox’ acquisition of Kopech, Moncada, and two other prospects in exchange for Sale as the best transaction of the winter.

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.

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