Lessons From 2012: The Importance of Competent Starting Pitching

Elsa

We'd all rather forget 2012 but there are some lessons that lie in the wreckage of a lost season. Here are a few of them.

Last week there appeared an article on these here virtual pages authored by yours truly with the partial title "Lessons from 2012." While most of us would rather anything with the words "baseball" and "2012" crawled into a hole and died, maybe after being beaten with whatever heavy items were lying about, there are worthwhile lessons to glean from the unfortunate experience that unfolded last season. The front office has surely gone over the wreckage with a fine tooth comb (maybe not unlike this) and as fans it may behoove us to do the same.

In that vein I explored Boston's on-base percentage last week. This week it's starting pitching. We're all pretty well versed around these parts with the problems the Red Sox have had in that department over the last season and a month. Without putting too fine a point on it, here are some quick numbers.

Last season...

  • The Red Sox finished 22 in fWAR (that's Fan Graphs) by starting pitchers. They were closer to the last place Twins than to the first place Tigers or even the sixth place Rays.
  • Baseball Prospectus's VORP puts them 22 among starting pitching staffs, as well.
  • Boston finished 27 in quality start percentage at 44 percent. (The leader was the Mets at 62 percent, surprisingly enough. The Rockies finished last at an utterly astounding 17 percent.)

So if you didn't know the Red Sox had a starting pitching problem before, now you do. The question then becomes what to do about it, or more specifically for the purposes of this article, what information did the Red Sox learn in 2012 that they can use to help them avoid these problems in the future?

There are four things the Red Sox took from last season that they can implement in order to become a better club this season.

1. League average pitching is important

There were many reasons not to sign Ryan Dempster. His age, his short stint with the Rangers at the end of last season, the mileage on his arm. Those all worked towards depressing his value on the open market, but the one thing that Ryan Dempster can offer the Red Sox, to the extent that any starting pitcher can promise anything, is league average or above production.

Totalling his time in Texas and Chicago last season, Dempster threw 173 innings while putting up an ERA of 3.38. That production would have led the Red Sox by a long shot. Only one Red Sox starter finished with an ERA under 4.00 and that was Franklin Morales who did it in nine starts. Since he began starting games again in 2008 with the Cubs, Dempster has thrown three short of 1,000 innings with an ERA of 14 percent better than league average. That's why he's in Fort Myers right now. Not because he's a sure thing. No starter is a sure thing. No pitcher is a sure thing. But because he's as sure a thing as the Red Sox could get on a short term deal.

Boston needed stability and dependability at a position that famously offers neither. Dempster was as good a bet as any to provide both and on a short term contract.

2. Fix the Guys You Got

The Twins didn't have anything resembling success from their starters last season, but that wasn't entirely unexpected. The same is true for the Indians who had a few pitchers pitch particularly badly, but on a starting staff of which greatness was not expected. The Red Sox were in a different boat than those two teams at the start of the year, even if they ended up in the same craft together by the end of the season.

Boston went into the year with three starters who had pitched like aces in the very recent past in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz. Mere decency was a minimum requirement. That none of them had even a decent season strains credibility, and yet that's what happened. Beckett is now in Los Angeles, but Lester and Buchholz are still here. For the Red Sox to succeed in 2013 in whatever manner you take that word, Lester and Buchholz must pitch closer to whatever the word "well" means than they did last season.

Given last season's results, Boston could have just blown the whole team up, Lester, Buchholz and all. And surely there was some discussion of doing that or some version thereof. But that's not what happened. There are many reasons for that but likely one of the prime reasons is that Lester and Buchholz are still thought to be good pitchers, just good pitchers coming off bad years. They may not be David Price but they can be reliable top of the rotation (2? 3?) guys.

The organization decided that the easiest way to upgrade the rotation was by fixing what was already here, and the best way to do that was by jettisoning last season's coaching staff and bringing in a new one headed by former pitching coach John Farrell. There are many reasons to think John Farrell was a good choice as manager, but perhaps the most important one, at least as far as this season goes, is his experience and (presumed) positive effect on Lester and Buchholz. Much will be written about the 2013 Red Sox, here at OTM and elsewhere, but almost all of it will come down to these few words: John Farrell was brought in to fix Lester and Buchholz. If he can the Red Sox will win lots of games. If he can't, they'll win far fewer.

3. The Importance of Providing Your Own

It's been a few years since the Red Sox brought up any pitching prospects of note. It was a big part of why they had to hand so many starts to retreads during the past few seasons. It was a big part of their decision to move Daniel Bard to the rotation. The Red Sox surely had chances to deal this off-season and undoubtedly a number of those deals would have required them to move minor league pitchers. But the Red Sox resisted. They kept Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, Drake Britton, Pat Light, Ty Buttrey, and Chris Hernandez.

It's not so much about what they're going to be able to do this season, though that's part of it, but about what this depth of starting pitching means for the organization going forward. It means they can say no to the Aaron Cooks of the world, no to the John Lackeys of the world, and no, if they want to, to re-signing players on their current roster, the Josh Becketts of the world. In short it means flexibility and readily available arms. It means the organization can overcome in-season injuries.

* * *

Nobody likes losing. But while it's no one's first choice, that isn't to say nothing positive can come out of it. Lessons can be learned and on that basis improvements can be made. Last season has, if nothing else, yielded some valuable teachings on how to build a team. Let's hope those lessons lead to fewer instructions and more wins on the field.

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