TORONTO — Yes, the bullpen has been short an arm, and yes, the black hole in the fifth starter spot often has crushed team momentum. But no pitching problem for the Red Sox has been more vexing than the utter mediocrity of a starting rotation that was expected to rank as one of the game’s elite.
When the Red Sox made the four-year commitment to Nate Eovaldi in December, it was with a clear vision in mind. Some teams structure their staffs around bullpens. Not the Red Sox.
“We built this team from the first inning through the sixth, and then the last three,” said manager Alex Cora. “There are other teams that build from the ninth all the way through the first inning. For us to do the things we want to do, our starters have to give us quality starts and we go from there.”
That hasn’t been happening. Quite the opposite. The Red Sox rotation this year entered Thursday’s game against the Blue Jays with a 4.67 ERA, 18th in the big leagues. The team is 18th in quality starts with 33.
With roughly $90 million invested this year in David Price, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Eovaldi, and Eduardo Rodriguez, this was not what the Red Sox expected. Even with Eovaldi making just four starts — and his replacements averaging roughly three innings and a 6.75 ERA in 16 starts — the rest of the rotation has been largely underwhelming.
“We built our ballclub for them to be our strong suit,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “I don’t think it’s been what we expected or hoped.”
David Price has been the team’s most consistent starter, forging a 6-2 record and 3.33 ERA in 15 starts — though, with some careful management of his workload, that has limited him to 78 innings. Chris Sale admitted to being lost in a first-half wilderness, going 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA. Eduardo Rodriguez has been typically inconsistent (8-4, 4.79), while Rick Porcello (5-7, 5.07) has navigated a dramatic rollercoaster.
The Red Sox expected more, and they need more. The lack of regular length from their starters in turn compromises the bullpen, both because of innings demands and because the relievers have spent much of the first half navigating a tightrope where one pitch is the different between wins and losses.
Still, the Sox remain convinced that their talent surpasses the performance to date. The rotation has 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings, sixth in the big leagues — a number that usually correlates with dominance. And the team has a Fielding Independent Pitching mark (essentially, an expected ERA based on the outcome of each individual at-bat) of 4.01, fifth in the big leagues and adjacent to many of the best rotations in baseball.
So why is there a gap between the Red Sox’ actual ERA and its FIP? That question is one that team assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister has considered for much of the last month.
“There’s a definite opportunity to close the gap between, in a very simple way, where our FIP is at and where our ERA is,” said Bannister. “To me, the underperformance has come via sequencing. They’ve been giving up hits in the least opportune times.”
In other words: The Red Sox staff has the ability to strike out batters at an elite rate. But the team has been particularly vulnerable with runners in scoring position, the situations where a single hit costs the team one or two runs. With runners in scoring position, Sox opponents are hitting .278 (24th in the big leagues) with a .370 OBP (28th), and .476 slugging mark (24th).
“That’s where the conversation has taken place over the last month. Everybody is aware of it,” said Bannister. “FIP-wise, we’re one of the elite pitching staffs. Our ability to strike people out is right up there with Houston and other teams. This is not a lack of talent scenario. It’s making sure that the actual sequencing of events in the games are matching up to what we’re capable of. That’s part execution, part luck. But just making sure we put the probabilities in our favors in those situations.”
For all of the poor numbers from the rotation, the Red Sox remain convinced that they are not far from better performances. The team is focused on improving the execution of its pitchers with runners in scoring position, particularly with regards to pitch selection and, often, fastball location.
With a small increase, the team believes that the offseason expectation of a dominant rotation capable of carrying the club remains within reach. And if the Red Sox rotation gets on a roll, many of the shortcomings that have been magnified so far this year — especially in the bullpen — will appear less glaring.
“They’re a very talented group of pitchers. … They’re the guys who are supposed to carry us, really. That’s why I think they’ve been fine. They’ve been OK. But I can’t say they’ve really carried us at any point,” said Dombrowski. “The bullpen keeps getting pointed to all the time, I think a lot of times unfairly. It’s just that collectively, in a lot of places, we haven’t done as well as we hoped.”
The Red Sox will address their fifth-starter shortcomings in some fashion, whether it’s deploying an opener, or making a trade for a starter, or bolstering the bullpen so that at some point Eovaldi can get stretched back out for the rotation. But regardless of what happens with that final rotation spot, if the Red Sox do not get more from their front four, their ambitions of contention will sputter.
“It hasn’t been the way we planned it. We expect those guys to go deep in the games. We haven’t been consistent doing that,” said Cora. “The stuff is there. It just hasn’t happened. We live in an era where we’re looking everywhere to fix it. We will fix it. They’re going to dominate and they’re going to carry us.”
If they don’t, then any hopes of building momentum in the second half will go the same way as the season to date.