Adjectives are unnecessary and perhaps inadequate to define the struggles of the Red Sox pitching staff. Numbers more accurately crystallize the work of a largely unrecognizable group.
⋅ The pitching staff has a 5.79 ERA through 10 games, worst in the majors.
⋅ The team has allowed 17 homers, second most in baseball.
⋅ Sox starters/openers have a 6.69 ERA, worst in baseball. Repeated face-plants out of the starting blocks having left the Sox trailing after three innings in eight of 10 games.
⋅ The rotation’s lack of stuff and/or deception is highlighted by its 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that would be the worst by any team since 2013.
Beyond the problem of performance is one of perception. Nate Eovaldi represents the one link to the 2018 championship rotation. Martin Perez has a years-long track record of average to slightly below-average performances.
The other three spots are occupied by Ryan Weber, a journeyman in his fourth organization in five years; Zack Godley, who signed as a free agent after the Tigers released him in mid-July; and an opener. The rotation has felt like an open audition — which, in a sense, it has been.
“The front-line talent here is outstanding and has been for a long time,” said Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “A lot of the failures of last season can be traced to depth. That was something we needed to improve. We certainly set out to improve it.
“I think we have improved it, even though we have a long way to go. [The early-season pitching] has just shown how reliant you are on players who are not your front few options.”
▪ How did they get here?
Rewind. What happened to put the Sox in this position?
The team traded David Price to the Dodgers just before spring training. The Sox made the move knowing that it would weaken their rotation, particularly given this year’s free-agent starting pitching market was cleaned out by early January. But the team assumed that with Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Eovaldi, and Perez, it would still have the basis of a solid group.
Then Sale suffered a setback in early March, raising doubts about his availability even before it became clear he’d need Tommy John surgery. The Sox had cursory conversations with teams about available starters as one potential avenue for gaining reinforcements, but nothing gained traction before MLB instituted a transaction freeze when the sport shut down.
When teams returned to camp, Rodriguez was sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19. Teams with potentially available solid starting pitching in March preferred to hoard given the unusual shape of this season.
Down its top three starters, the team had no real external options with which to replace them save for castoffs Godley and Dylan Covey. And while the Red Sox have started to develop some pitching inventory within their farm system, the most advanced prospects — righthanders Bryan Mata and Tanner Houck — aren’t yet seen as big-league ready.
So, the team has given opportunities to pitchers who have gotten only fleeting big-league looks — Weber, Chris Mazza, Matt Hall — in hopes of unlocking something. The Sox have added five pitchers via signings, trades, and waiver claims since training camp opened on July 1; the only other team to add more than three did so in response to a coronavirus outbreak.
“Some of the guys are going to have success and some of them might not, but there’s no way to really find out who can take the baton and run with it without giving them that opportunity,” said Bloom. “The ones who do step up have a chance to be part of your group moving forward. That’s something we desperately need.
“There’s a lot of value giving opportunities to those guys, recognizing that it can be a frustrating process seeing different outcomes.”
His Rays had success taking fringe performers from other organizations and reshaping their pitch mixes or specific pitch shapes in order to make them meaningful contributors. But they also had a number of experiments that didn’t pan out. In a 60-game season — one in which the opportunities to have a coaching staff work with players are constrained by both the schedule and protocols — it may be harder to help players achieve meaningful in-season development.
“You just might not have enough months in the calendar to see some of these things come to fruition,” said Bloom.
▪ Will this get better in 2020?
A league-worst performance through 10 games means that things can’t get much worse, but the short-term forecast isn’t much rosier.
“I think,” said one American League evaluator of the team’s pitching, “[the Red Sox] will just have to wear it this year.”
The Sox will stretch out Darwinzon Hernandez in Pawtucket (where he’s working back from a COVID-19 infection) to see whether he has a chance to contribute in the big leagues as more than a short-stint reliever.
Beyond him, Mata and Houck need more development before being considered for the rotation. The Sox want Houck to figure out how to retire lefties consistently. At 21, Mata shows the makings of a four-pitch mix headlined by a mid- to upper-90s two-seamer, but he needs refinement, and Bloom comes from a Tampa Bay organization that excelled at pitcher development because it proceeded deliberately. It’s unlikely Mata reaches the big leagues this year.
There are others in Pawtucket — Brian Johnson, Covey, Kyle Hart — who may get rotation or bulk-innings opportunities. But while a revolving door approach may achieve some improvement in the rotation, expectations should be measured.
▪ Beyond 2020
The Sox’ pitching situation is sufficiently bleak that some evaluators wonder whether the team will be able to correct course by 2021. The team sees the potential for a very different outlook.
Rodriguez is viewed as all but certain to return. If all goes well, Sale will return in the early months of next season, with precedent suggesting he could be something close to top form by the second half. While Eovaldi may emerge as a trade candidate this season, he also could be part of a solid starting group.
Beyond those three, the team can use the coming months to gauge the attractiveness of its other internal options. It holds an option for 2021 on Perez; he could assert himself for both this year and next. Perhaps one of Mata, Houck, or Hernandez makes a case to start next year. Maybe Godley, Mazza, Hart, or Johnson takes advantage of an opportunity.
If just one player — a prospect, a veteran, a journeyman — can show something, then the team could explore the trade and free-agent markets this winter in search of a mid-rotation option and feel like it had the makings of a contending staff in 2021.
There’s precedent for a dramatic turnaround. In 2012, the Sox had an atrocious rotation — 5.19 ERA, 27th in MLB. The next year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz rebounded, John Lackey returned from Tommy John surgery, Felix Doubront took a step forward, and Ryan Dempster stabilized the back in a championship season. The distance between a nadir and a peak is sometimes not as gaping as it seems.
That said, the Sox unquestionably now reside at a low point. They must devote the coming months, of the season and offseason, to starting what could be a long climb.