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Paul Swydan | Statistically Thinking

Outlook isn’t great for Red Sox pitching rotation prospects

Edwin Escobar has the highest projected strikeout-to-walk percentage of any of the 11 current candidates for a spot in next season’s starting pitching rotation. AP

The Red Sox have no shortage of starting pitcher candidates on their roster for the 2015 season. With 11 players currently in the mix, the team has more than enough depth to withstand the normal wear and tear of a season.

My colleague at FanGraphs, Eno Sarris, has found that the average team needs 10 starting pitchers in any given season. But there’s a big difference between depth and quality depth, and despite the plethora of candidates willing to step into the rotation, Boston finds itself precariously thin.

Simply put, the team doesn’t have a lot of quality options. This is perhaps best exemplified by Clay Buchholz. For the past decade, we have been captivated by the inescapable highs and lows of Buchholz’s career. He has a no-hitter on his resume, and has twice been an American League All-Star. And yet, he has rarely pitched well consistently. Since 2008, his 13.3 WAR ranks just 60th among big league pitchers. His 3.98 ERA ranks 93rd out of 219 qualified starting pitchers, and his 4.09 Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP – a metric that attempts to strip away the positive or negative effects of a team’s defense on its pitchers and evaluate pitchers on what they can control, namely strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs – ranks just 108th.

In other words, he’s middle of the pack at best.

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If we focus on the past three seasons, the picture doesn’t improve. Since 2012, his 4.19 ERA and 3.98 FIP – essentially the same as his career marks – rank just 93rd and 67th, respectively, out of a sample of 121 pitchers. That’s not especially encouraging. And the bad news is that Buchholz might just be the best bet among the established starting pitchers the Red Sox currently have.

One of the best ways to predict future performance is to look at strikeout and walk rate, particularly in tandem (K-BB%). Last season, the major league average for K-BB% was 12.7 – in other words, the average pitcher struck out 12.7 percent more batters than he walked. Out of the Red Sox’ 11 potential starters in 2015, the only one who posted better than average K-BB% were prospects Henry Owens, and Eduardo Rodriguez (Edwin Escobar was very close as well). And it wasn’t that some of the team’s pitchers were slightly below average. Many of them were way below average.

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Joe Kelly, Allen Webster, and Anthony Ranaudo performed particularly poorly. Of the 208 pitchers who tossed at least 30 innings last season as a starting pitcher, all three were in the bottom 20 in K-BB%. Webster was eighth worst, and Ranaudo finished dead last – just one of two pitchers to finish with a negative K-BB% (the other was the 32-year-old Paul Maholm, whose season ended in August due to knee surgery).

Obviously, Webster and Ranaudo didn’t have a lot of time in the majors, and during the time they did spend in Boston the team was out of contention and not necessarily fielding its best lineup, but defenders really shouldn’t have much effect, if any, on a pitcher’s ability to strike out batters and limit walks. And while the sample isn’t large, their projections for next season don’t paint a rosier picture.

Matt Barnes appeared in five games in September for the Red Sox.Getty Images

Only two of the team’s 11 pitchers are projected to be above league average in K-BB% next season, according to Steamer Projections – Edwin Escobar and Matt Barnes. Neither has started a major league game as of yet, which means they’re less likely to have first crack at a job in spring training. As things currently stand, the only two pitchers you would write in the rotation in dark pencil are Buchholz and Kelly, but neither of them are projected to have a league average K-BB%. In other words, back of the rotation types. If Buchholz and Kelly end up being the four and five in the Sox rotation, well OK, but as currently constituted, that will only happen if prospects like Barnes, Escobar, Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez step forward.

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Now, taking the projections here as gospel would obviously be folly. We need some additional context. One note we can make is that some of these pitchers, particularly Rodriguez, pitched through injuries last season. Last spring, Rodriguez battled a knee issue. It knocked him out of action for about a month, and overall his performance suffered during his time in Double-A with the Orioles.

Once he came over to the Red Sox in the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to Baltimore, Rodriguez pitched considerably better. As such, his projection for next season may be unnecessarily conservative. After all, Rodriguez was a consensus top 75 prospect last season, and FanGraphs (36 overall) and ESPN (43 overall) had him ranked even higher.

Still, the team suffered through the growing pains of young players for much of last season, and if they want to hop right back into the saddle come April, it probably would be wise to not be counting on more than one rookie in the rotation. If that’s the case, then the team is going to need to fill in externally, be it through trades or free agency. We don’t yet know who will be available via trade, but there are several players who look to hit the open market via free agency, and almost all of them would be upgrades.

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The obvious names to note are Max Scherzer, as well as old friend Jon Lester, but even beyond them there are guys in James Shields, Francisco Liriano, and Brandon McCarthy who would be definitive upgrades over the major league commodities the team presently has in tow.

The Red Sox have plenty of options on both sides of the ball. But while their options on the position player side of things skew closer to an embarrassment of riches, the starting pitchers skew a lot closer to just plain embarrassment. Of the 11 starting pitcher candidates under the team’s control, probably no more than three will end up being league average pitchers next season, and the best options are also the greenest.

If the team is serious about contending next season, it will need to do better.


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

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