Part 3 and last of this series. See first post for explanations of terminology.
Opening Day Age: 27
2011 Bill James projection: 204 IP, 8.51 K/9, 3.62 BB/9, 3.45 FIP
Analysis: After a strong followup to his breakthrough 2009 season, Lester has made a strong argument for himself as the best lefty starter in MLB. He continued to improve in 2010, significantly raising his GB/FB ratio to 1.81 while maintaining the whiffs. While his walk rate rose, his other peripherals indicate this was a conscious choice in approach more than a slip in control. Lester threw first-pitch strikes at the highest rate of his career, yet his total zone % was also his lowest ever by a wide margin. Opposing hitters hit infield pops against him at their highest rate ever, and posted their lowest line-drive % ever. Long story short, he became even more proficient in 2010 at getting hitters in the hole early, then methodically frustrating them with tempting pitches outside the zone. The result: tons of strikeouts, ground balls, and weak contact. Lester also continued to show virtually no platoon split thanks to the quality of his cutter and change, both of which registered top-notch pitch-type run values (17.9 runs above average for the cutter and 10.3 for the change). His game looks rock solid to me and he continues to develop more and more tactics to increase his dominance. As he keeps refining himself, I expect he will gradually lower the walks without giving up the gains in ground ball rate. At that point, look out American League.
Opening Day Age: 32
2011 Bill James projection: 227 IP, 7.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 3.81 FIP
Analysis: Lackey is another player whose 2010 I analyzed in a separate post. I am quite optimistic on his prospects this year as his peripherals showed continuous improvement throughout 2010, even as his ERA did not. While many came to scoff at Lackey’s frequent claims of bad luck or having pitched what he felt was a good game, he did suffer from several months of terrible BABIP. Some positive regression there should be on his side. Lackey also seemed to finally figure out the AL East during the last third or so of the season, pushing his K rate back to strong levels and reducing his walks. While it is true that many of his opponents during this span were of mediocre quality, keep in mind that those were the same teams that were successfully using him as a punching bag earlier in the year. I noted in my piece on Lackey that his year-end improvement coincided with a strong rebound in the effectiveness of his slider and change, allowing him more offspeed options, especially against LHB who had tormented him all year. He posted double-digit whiff rates for all three of his breaking pitches (slider, change, curve) during his strong August-September, even as his fastball types remained feeble at best. Given Lackey’s experience and the benefit of having a year in the division behind him, I am optimistic he can incorporate the lessons of 2010 into his approach this year and maintain his progress against lefties. The effectiveness of his offspeed pitches against LHB will in my opinion be the predominant factor in his success for 2011.
Opening Day Age: 30
2011 Bill James projection: 168 IP, 8.3 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 3.78 FIP
Analysis: You can put me in the camp that believes Beckett was never at 100% in 2010. Undoubtedly he was hampered by a horrendous BABIP and strand rate, but the blame must also be laid on his own pitching. His ballooning HR/9 and walk rate were painfully similar to his meatball-tossing 2006, while he posted a negative run value with the fastball for only the second time in his career, the other (surprise) being 2006. Many have intimated that his myriad problems could be traced to poor conditioning, which may have aggravated (or caused) his back injury. Fire Brand AL’s piece on Beckett, which I recommend as great reading, noted how his opponent OPS by pitch groups (e.g. every 25 pitches further into the game) skyrocketed with pitches 75-100, a trend not seen in the previous few years. Beckett himself also told media that he felt the injury hampered his ability to fully finish his delivery, presumably affecting his fastball effectiveness and leading to the cringe-worthy HR massacres he served up several times. On the positive side, none of his other indicators suggested physical decline, and Beckett is by all reports completely healthy and physically prepared for a productive 2011. He still kept a good GB/FB ratio, missed bats, walked few, kept his fastball in the mid-90s, and become more comfortable with his cutter. These are all elements of a successful starter, and if his motivation to redeem himself after a poor season is anything like we have seen in the past, I have aggressive expectations for a rebound from him.
Opening Day Age: 26
2011 Bill James projection: 193 IP, 7.83 K/9, 3.45 BB/9, 3.71 FIP
Analysis: Where Buchholz goes after his breakthrough 2010 seems to be the subject of much hand-wringing among Red Sox Fans. Another low to mid-2’s ERA is almost certainly not happening, but I would still not hesitate to label a 2011 season with a mid-to-high 3 as an “improvement” if he cranks up the K’s. His contact peripherals, pitch-type run values, and raw stuff all easily support much more strikeouts than he posted last year; Buchholz’s fastball alone rated a staggering 20.8 runs above average in 2010 with a 94.1 average velocity, one of the hardest among AL starters. He posted a strong 1.61 GB/FB ratio and has never had a problem getting grounders, so adding more K’s to the mix will make his true performance level a lot more worthy of a 2.33 ERA than his numbers last year indicate. Priority #2 for Buchholz is lefties. As he features a quality changeup, I was surprised to see how much he really struggled against them last year, with a 5.63 K/9, 3.88 BB/9 and 4.14 FIP, more than a full run higher than that against RHB. Thanks to that helpful G/F ratio, he escaped any significant harm from these otherwise poor peripherals, but I would still prefer more whiffs. There is no risk of a lucky hit when the ball never leaves the bat to begin with. So admittedly, my personal criteria for Buchholz “improving” is rather light. If he can keep his groundball rate and walks the same while raising his K rate up to the high 7’s or low 8’s, I will be very pleased. He has the raw talent and stuff to match up with anybody in MLB, is still very young, seems to be getting physically stronger, and with a successful season in the rotation under his belt, I am optimistic that he will continue getting better.
Opening Day Age: 30
2011 Bill James projection: 173 IP, 8.22 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 3.94 FIP
Analysis: I freely admit to being as snide as anyone when it comes to deriding spring training stats, but if it turns out that Curt Young’s innocent change in Dice-K’s routine was the big secret all along, I will gladly eat humble pie. Bill James is certainly optimistic that something will click, as an 8+ K/9, sub-4 walk rate and sub-4 FIP would make him by far the best fifth starter (and likely fourth) in the majors, as well as his best season so far. As always with him, it is difficult to get an idea of where he is headed when his results vary so wildly from season to season and even start to start. Dice-K has been crippled mainly by his penchant for walking lefties, who enjoyed an eye-gouging 5.78 BB/9 against him in 2010 and 5.54 career, contrasted to 2.94 for righties. This massive split indicates to me that for whatever reason, he cannot get lefties to chase the pitches that he can get righties to. I am therefore willing to toe the most cautiously hopeful of lines, that Young’s arrival may bear fruit for him. Matsuzaka’s passivity with the fastball early in the count, and his inability to control/command his offspeed pitches against lefties, seem to me his most glaring obstacles to sustained success. One would imagine that splitting up his long toss and side sessions would reduce his overall fatigue, thus leading to a few positive ticks in his command. Young’s strike-aggressive philosophy is by all accounts rubbing off on Dice-K as well. If he can make headway on both of these issues, I think he has some real sleeper potential. It’s no secret he still has the raw stuff and talent to dominate any opponent on any given night, and I have always believed that there is no more thrilling starter to watch than a locked-in Dice-K. Yes it’s spring training, and yes we have all seen him tease before, then revert to his old ways. So I freely admit my optimism is built on the most tenuous of grounds. All in all though, there are worse problems to have than fretting over whether or not your fifth starter will perform like a fifth starter.
So this concludes my 3 part series. To sum it all up, I feel this is the most balanced and talented Red Sox team to ever step foot on the field during Theo Epstein’s tenure. This team features an offensive core in its prime with a mix of speed, power, and defense that has not been seen here in years. It will roll out a strikeout and groundball heavy pitching staff with five starters capable of dominating any opponent on a given night, and an extremely versatile bullpen stocked with power arms. The bench is well constructed with players who would be starters on many other MLB teams, capable of covering multiple positions and whose skillsets perfectly complement the weaknesses of those they will sub for. While Duquette-era Sox teams were defined by a handful of larger than life superstars and a bunch of random names, I feel the 2011 team is the most representative of Epstein’s vision: one that will relentlessly attack opponents with a barrage of 4 and 5-WAR players capable of winning games at the plate, in the field, and on the mound. Adrian Gonzalez and Jon Lester may not be as exciting as Manny and Pedro (who ever could be?) but they will fill the same role, and with a far better supporting cast.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to the 2011 season on OTM.