Toronto Blue Jays Pitching and John Farrell's Ability to Fix the Boston Red Sox

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

John Farrell is the great hope for fixing the Boston Red Sox rotation in the eyes of many fans. So, how much should we worry about his failure to fix the Toronto Blue Jay's pitching? Not much, it seems.

John Farrell is now the Boston Red Sox manager after two seasons leading the Toronto Blue Jays. It is probably safe to say that a major reason that the Red Sox were willing to send Mike Aviles north for the manager is pitching. The Red Sox had the third highest starting pitcher ERA in the American League in 2012. Jon Lester, who was a Cy Young contender as recently as 2010 was 12 percent worse that league average by ERA-, and Clay Buchholz started the year so badly that even after two straight months of an ERA under 3.00 he could not top league average. With John Lackey and Felix Doubront also under team control, four of the five rotation spots for Boston could be set for 2013. That rotation does not inspire much confidence, though. Even if talent is brought in via trade or free agency, the Red Sox will need a few players in that group to turn things around if they hope to compete in 2013 or even 2014. They are hoping John Farrell, who has worked with all four pitchers in the past, can make that turnaround happen.

However, critics of Farrell are quick to point out that his tenure in Toronto contradicts that narrative. The 2012 Blue Jays 4.82 starter ERA was fifth worst in the league and their rotation was actually worse than Boston’s by FIP and xFIP. The Blue Jays bullpen was also a problem for them, with the worst ERA and FIP in the American League. All of this appears to be terrible news for those of us hoping that John Farrell is the man to fix Boston’s pitching problems. Don’t take it from me, though. Even an anonymous Red Sox player is worried about that.

"And what happened to [The Blue Jays} pitching staff? Isn't that [Farrell's] strength? He can't make 'em make the pitch, but isn't that the expectation here?"

Speaking on The Big Show, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons offered a more direct example of John Farrell’s failures with the Toronto pitching staff: Ricky Romero. The hyperbolic Simmons has no love for Farrell after his two seasons with the Blue Jays, but on the surface, he does appear to have a valid point. Ricky Romero was expected to be the Blue Jay’s ace and instead he put up a 5.77 ERA for the season, the worst for any qualified starting pitcher. That isn’t exactly improvement.

There you have two pretty strong arguments against Farrell’s magical abilities to fix pitching. However, before you buy stock in Sam Adams and Prozac in preparation for another season of pitching-inspired depression, it is probably worth noting that these arguments are not all that solid.

The Blue Jays under Farrell did not have great pitching, that can’t be denied. They also didn’t have very good pitchers to start with. Their innings leader in 2012 was Henderson Alverez, a rookie who posted 3.8 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 rates. Alverez is a ground ball specialist who has never posted above average strikeout rates at any level and who also, unhappily, had his worst walk rate at any level in 2012. This man pitched more innings than anyone else and he is basically a Nick Blackburn clone. Romero (who we will get to in a minute) was second, and you have the intriguing Carlos Villanueva (125.1 IP, as both RP and SP) Brandon Morrow (124.2 IP), who was great for a short time, Aaron Laffey (86 IP) and Kyle Drabek (71.1 IP).

Five other pitchers were forced into starting duties thanks to a near-record number of pitcher injuries. Drabek was lost to Tommy John surgery, as was Drew Hutchison. Sergio Santos, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litch also suffered season-ending arm injuries. Morrow, who was a bright spot in the rotation for a time, missed over two months with oblique issues. Even Alvarez had arm issues during the year. The Blue Jays rotation was extremely fragile, and apart from Romero and Morrow, completely devoid of upside. As depressing as 2012 may have been, this is not true of the Boston Red Sox starting four.

Still, Ricky Romero might be seen as a serious black-eye on Farrell’s record to some degree. Few would have predicted he would be the worst starting pitcher in the game by any measure coming into 2012. But how much is Farrell responsible for that? The issue with blaming Farrell for Romero’s 2012 is that it completely ignores the fact that Farrell coached him for two seasons and 2011 was perhaps his best effort to date.

In 2011, Romero has his lowest ever ERA (2.92), his second best xFIP (3.80) and his best ground ball percentage (54.7 percent) under Farrell’s watch. He pitched 225 innings in 32 starts. At 26 years old, Romero seemed to be a young star on the rise. Thanks to that ERA under 3.00, many people overestimated the young lefty. Like many ground ball specialists, Romero is home run prone when he elevates the ball, and without high strikeouts or low walks to temper that, he can get killed by a big inning. He is also highly dependent on defense. Toronto was average in the field by defensive efficiency rating, but UZR found them -17.9 runs worse than average, with first and second base being major issues. Romero had a batting average on balls in play against him that was 20 points worse than average in 2012.

Looking beyond his quality 2010 and 2011 seasons, it is easy to see that Romero was probably being overrated. He has never had premium strikeout ability nor good control. In the high minors, he struggled with command and never posted a strikeout to walk rate over two in any full season. His best rate at any level since high-A came under Farrell in 2011 (2.2 K/BB). Romero’s command falling apart is not a big surprise, given his track record. It is not great that Farrell couldn’t correct it, but it is extremely unlikely that he had any role in causing it. That is who Romero is, essentially: 2012 was a worst case scenario for Romero, but 2011 was probably close to the best case. The expectation that the Toronto lefty would ever be comparable to Jon Lester, David Price and CC Sabathia was simply unrealistic.

The situation in Boston is very different. Jon Lester has been as durable as almost anyone else in baseball over the past four seasons. Prior to his elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, John Lackey was a good bet to throw 180-plus innings every year. Clay Buchholz has had some injury issues, but he has also had two seasons over 180 innings (including his minor league starts) and one just short, at 173.2, over the past four years.

The Red Sox staff has far more upside as well. Even in Lester’s dreadful 2012 season, where he posted his lowest strikeout rate since 2008, he still had better K/9 and BB/9 numbers than Romero’s career averages. Felix Doubront has the elite strikeout ability that Romero lacks to off-set his control problems.

John Farrell is probably not going to instantly transform the Red Sox rotation into a clone of the 2004 team, but even without considering possibly free agent signings or the impact of Rubby De La Rosa and other young arms, he is starting from a much better place than he was ever in with Toronto. Tempering expectations is fine, but the dismal performance of Toronto’s starters doesn’t really mean much in assessing Farrell’s ability to help the Red Sox staff.

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