Improvement seemed inevitable, even unavoidable, for a Red Sox pitching staff that ranked among the worst in baseball in 2020. But even with a significant overhaul that started in the middle of last season, it seemed hard to anticipate the magnitude of the performance jump in 2021.
The team entered Wednesday with a 3.60 ERA, almost two runs better than last year’s 5.58. That improvement of 1.98 represented the second-largest in the majors from a year ago.
While the Red Sox endured one of their uglier pitching performances of the season in Wednesday’s 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays, in a sense the game offered a reminder of how far the staff has come. After all, last year a six-run yield was an average nightly occurrence. This year, the poor performance represented enough of an exception to seem out of character. For the most part, the Sox staff has reliably given the lineup a chance to win, holding opponents to four runs or fewer 14 times, most in the American League.
What’s allowing that leap forward?
Something old, something new
Last year, the season-long losses of Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale devastated the rotation. Now, while Sale is still months away from a return, Rodriguez has been back and attacking the strike zone with the conviction and relentlessness borne of his breakthrough 2019 campaign. Nate Eovaldi has also been dominant at the front of the rotation.
“I think both are elite starting pitchers,” said catcher Christian Vázquez.
Nick Pivetta, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, and Tanner Houck have been serviceable or better in most of their starts, a far cry from the revolving-door rotation of a year ago. Bullpen newcomers Garrett Whitlock, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Matt Andriese have been outstanding in passing the baton to Matt Barnes, who has been dominant (9 innings, 1 run, 16 strikeouts, 2 walks) at the end of games.
“He’s got electric stuff this year,” raved Vázquez, Barnes’s teammate dating to 2012 at High-A Salem. “I’m seeing the best Matt Barnes I’ve ever seen in all my years with him.”
Count the differences
Staff-wide, perhaps the most dramatic change has been the ability to suppress an opponent’s quick-strike offense. In 2020, the Sox allowed 1.8 homers per nine innings, most in the big leagues. This year, they are yielding just 0.3, the lowest mark in the big leagues.
How does that happen? Vázquez surmised that the change related to doing a better job of attacking on the first pitch.
He’s wrong. Surprisingly, it turns out that Red Sox pitchers have done a poor job on first pitches. Not only are they throwing fewer first-pitch strikes (58.5 percent in 2021, down from 60.8 percent last year), but they’re getting hammered when doing so, allowing a major league-worst 1.199 OPS and seven homers when opponents put the first pitch in play.
However, Sox pitchers have done a great job of getting back into counts and putting away hitters regardless of whether throw a first-pitch ball or strike. That represents a contrast to 2020, when a first-pitch ball often snowballed into the most favorable counts (2-0, 3-0, 3-1) for hitters.
The Sox threw 7.8 percent of their pitches in those three counts in 2020, the third-highest rate in baseball. This year, they have thrown just 6.8 percent of pitches in those counts — 15th in the majors.
With more control over counts, the Sox have seen their walk rate drop from a putrid 10.5 a year ago (third-worst in MLB) to a more reasonable 9.0 percent (15th) this year, with fewer acts of self-sabotage creating fewer scoring opportunities for opponents. They’ve increased their strikeout rate from 20.5 percent last year (20th in MLB) to 24.1 percent (15th).
And when they haven’t struck out opponents, Red Sox pitchers have allowed far less hard contact. They went from a gruesome 36.8 percent hard-hit rate a year ago (third-highest in the majors) to 28.6 percent (fifth-lowest).
Of course, the across-the-board improvement boils down in many ways to a fairly straightforward cause.
They’ve got stuff
A year ago, the Red Sox had a few power arms (including Eovaldi, Ryan Brasier, and Barnes) but leaned heavily on pitchers whose limited velocity placed them as outliers in the modern game. Starts from Ryan Weber, Matt Hall, Kyle Hart, and Zack Godley featured pitchers who only occasionally cracked 90 miles per hour.
This year, the Sox feature many more hard throwers. Their average fastball velocity is 95.2 m.p.h., second-highest in the big leagues — a bump from 94.0 last year (10th). The starters have seen an increase from 93.8 m.p.h. (10th-highest in MLB) to 95.4 mph (second), while the relievers have gone from 94.2 m.p.h. (10th) to 94.9 (fifth).
“It’s easier when you have a good arm on the mound,” said Vázquez. “You’re not afraid to attack the zone. When we have electric arms like we have now, it’s easier to call games.”
Velocity is not the be-all, end-all for pitchers, but it remains an incredibly important predictor of success.
“I noticed in ’19 we were behind velocity-wise in spring training,” said manager Alex Cora. “Then I noticed we were back in the game in spring training this year.
“For how much we love pounding the strike zone and yeah, put the ball in play, weak contact and make plays, when they don’t put the ball in play and you get swings and misses late in games, it’s a lot better.”
Thus far in 2021, there has been a lot of “a lot better” for the Red Sox. The vault from one of the worst pitching staffs in the game last year to the top third of the majors (the team’s 3.60 ERA entering Wednesday was ninth-best) has positioned the top-scoring offense in the majors to prove difference-making, allowing for the Sox to open the year with the sort of stretch that proved impossible for any sustained duration in 2020.