Signing Ryan Dempster is a start, but where else can Boston's starting five improve?
The Red Sox had awful starting pitching in 2012. If succinct isn't your thing, then there is plenty of information to corroborate this statement. Nine different starters took the mound for Boston in 2012, and those nine combined for a 5.19 ERA and 928 innings. Those innings were below the league-average rate for starters, and the ERA was a full run, or about 20 percent, worse than the league-average ERA. They struck out nearly a full batter fewer per nine than your league-average starter, handed out more free passes than this hypothetical pitcher, and allowed more homers per nine than average.
In short once more, Boston's starters were awful in 2012. But there's reason to believe much of it was temporary, and the parts that were not are now dismissed. It's not a given that the 2013 rotation is going to be a strength, but it's not crazy to think it's going to be far less of a problem than it's been in the last couple of seasons.
Three of last season's regular starting pitchers are back: Jon Lester, Felix Doubront, and Clay Buchholz. The primary replacement starter for 2013, Franklin Morales, was part of last year's club as well. This group was the least of 2012's issues, so we'll leave them for later. Josh Beckett, Aaron Cook, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Daniel Bard, and Zach Stewart, on the other hand, are all either departed, or in Bard's case, no longer starting. This quintet was the main issue with the 2012 rotation, as the group combined for 62 starts and a 6.08 ERA, allowed 1.4 homers per nine, struck out under five batters per nine innings, and managed just a 1.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio because of it. That's not to say the other four are off the hook, but there's a huge difference between how far away Lester and Co. were from a league-average ERA (4.70 against the league's 4.19) than these five managed.
Those 62 starts represent what is expected out of the back-end of the 2013 rotation. Let's do a very rough projection of what that might mean for Boston. To keep things organized, let's make those starts the property of newly-acquired Ryan Dempster, as well as the returning John Lackey. Let's say Dempster is able to replicate his three-year rates for ERA and starts, putting him at around 4.04 and 32, and 197 innings. That leaves 30 starts for Lackey, a figure that might not be out of reach, given his Tommy John surgery occurred in November of 2011 -- he'll be nearly a year-and-a-half removed from the procedure by the time Opening Day comes around. We'll assume 6-1/3 innings per start for him, as that's less than what he accomplished in 2010, but more than what he pulled off while dealing with his elbow injury in 2011. That would put Lackey at 189 innings over 30 starts.
We'll also be conservative about what Lackey will produce now that he's healthy. Let's not go crazy, and put any kind of pre-Boston numbers in for him. Instead, let's roughly split the difference between his 2010 ERA and Fielding-Independent Pitching figures of 4.40 and 3.85, and put him at at around 4.20. That might be hard to believe if you've still got the taste of 2011 in your mouth, but remember: Lackey's elbow has been surgically repaired. In 2011, he was pitching with an injury that led to said surgery. It's not even the same ligament, never mind the same pitcher.
Just by adding these two in (and assuming a similar version of Morales once again picks up the missing handful of starts), Boston has hypothetically reduced their team ERA from 5.19 to 4.47 for 2013. That's without accounting for any kind of regression or improvement in Lester, Buchholz, and Doubront. Let's tweak further.
Once again, we'll be conservative, and not pencil Lester in as an ace. Let's assume, instead, that he produces at the kind of level he did post-disaster start against the Blue Jays. That was the point the mechanical issues were not only addressed, but began to see some improvement. Lester's strikeouts were down in this stretch, but his command was the best it had been all year, and he was inducing ground balls to get outs to make up for some of the difference. It's a believable stretch, and about the only positive from Lester's entire campaign. With that in mind, let's pop Lester's last third of the 2012 season in, prorated for a full season's worth of starts and innings. That would be a 3.92 ERA, rather than 2012's overall 4.82 figure. Doing this drops Boston's five plus Morales down to a 4.28 collective ERA, starting to creep up on last season's league-average.
Then there's Clay Buchholz, who posted a 4.56 ERA for the year, but outside of the early season, was far superior to that. He was just so horrific in his first half-dozen or so starts, largely because his change-up, his best pitch, wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. Once he got it working, and could throw it for strikes and as a consistent swing-and-miss offering like it's supposed to be, though, Buchholz was Boston's best pitcher, and not even in the depressing relative sense you might think that entails. In Buchholz's last 150 innings and 22 starts, he posted a 3.59 ERA and struck out 2.6 times as many batters as he walked. His home run rates had stabilized to their norms, and Buchholz also reduced batting average on balls in play, as he tends to do.
Let's fairly assume that, given he didn't miss months and months of pitching due to a stress fracture in his spine, that he'll begin the 2013 season without the rust of 2012, and therefore be able to pitch like that all year long. If that -- meaning an ERA around 3.60 for the year -- were the case, then Boston's team ERA slips all the way down to 4.09, a tenth-of-a-run better than the 2012 average for starters.
That leaves Doubront, who will be in his second year of starting full-time in the majors. Doubront showed flashes of being more than just a fifth starter throughout the year. Efficiency has been an issue, though, with Doubront throwing a full season's worth of pitches in far fewer innings than that. He ended the season on a few high notes, after a rough couple of starts to begin the season's final month. In his last four starts, Doubront posted a 3.08 ERA while striking out 31 batters in 26 innings. Now, we're not about to go overboard and pop a 3.08 ERA in for Doubront for 2013. But, it is fair to believe that Doubront should improve from his 2012, as young pitchers tend to do with more experience. Let's give Doubront a season closer to his 2012 FIP than his ERA, putting him around the 4.40 mark.
That would drop the club's ERA as a unit down to an even four, putting them about five percent better-than-average without adjusting for park or league difficulty. While that might not seem huge, contextually, it's about 25 percentage points better than the previous season. And, even if there are injuries and the like, Boston's depth is in the best place it's been in years, and can likely handle the load better than previous iterations. Plus, we're already assuming that Morales gets involved to a degree in this rough sketch of what 2013 could look like.
Things could certainly go wrong here. Lester might not rebound completely, even to the conservative point above. Lackey might take two months to shake off the rust, like Buchholz did last season. Dempster could struggle in his conversion to full-time AL pitcher. Doubront might not show any growth at all, and remain a fifth starter at best. Then again, maybe Lester gets back to normal under the dual tutelage of former pitching-coach-turned-manager John Farrell and brand new pitching coach Juan Nieves. Maybe Clay Buchholz continues to improve his command, and propels himself closer to the top of the rotation. Maybe Lackey surprises everyone and repeats his 2009 instead of his 2010, because his elbow was just in that much trouble before. Many things could go many ways, but chances are good that Boston's 2013 rotation is going to be markedly better than last season's, even if not everything breaks their way. And that's going to be important if the Red Sox are to compete next year.