The inversion of the Red Sox rotation

Otto Greule Jr

The Red Sox rotation has been turned upside-down and while not ideal, it's not that bad of a thing.

A starting rotation is a bit like a batting order. Essentially what you're doing is laying out playing time. Yes, the guy who hits third might be your best hitter, but in the end he's probably only going to come to bat third in an inning once. After that, things get jumbled up. The pertinent piece of information is that guy who hits first is going to hit first every time the lineup turns over and thus, over the course of the season, he will gradually come to bat more times than everyone else. You'd like the guy that hits the most to be the best hitter, right? For some reason baseball lore says batting orders don't work that way, but starting rotations do.

There is no saving the best pitcher for third. The best pitcher goes first, the second best goes second and so on down the line. The difference in playing time between a first and fifth starter isn't the same as the difference in at-bats between a lead-off hitter and the ninth place guy, but there is still a difference, and like the batting order, a team is going to want their best starter starting more games.

But what if you don't know who your best starter is?

Coming into the season the Red Sox knew two things about their starting rotation. They knew who would be in it and what order they would be deployed. Jon Lester got the Opening Day start, Clay Buchholz would follow him, newly signed Ryan Dempster would man the three spot, and then John Lackey and Felix Doubront would be deployed in some order at the back end. It didn't really matter who went first anyway because, after 2012, yuck. The pitchers were arranged in terms of how valuable they were projected to be. Yes, there was some nod to seniority and tradition (there was plenty of reason to believe Buchholz would be better than Lester, for instance), but for the most part, this was a straight ordering of prospective value.

It occurred to me while watching Doubront gently dispatch the Mariners on Wednesday night that we're roughly half way through the season (depending on how you measure these things) and the rotation has essentially been flipped on its head. By Baseball Prospectus's pitcher WARP, a measure of a pitcher's total value, the order goes like this:

1. Buchholz
2. Doubront
3. Lackey
4. Lester
5. Dempster

By Baseball Reference's WAR the order is slightly different but essentially the same:

1. Buchholz
2. Lackey
3. Doubront
4. Dempster
5. Lester

Photo credit: Jim Rogash

I'm not making the argument that WAR (or WARP) is the be-all-end-all stat (though I do like them), but I think it does show how upside-down the Red Sox rotation is compared to both our and the team's expectations. But even if you don't subscribe to WAR (or WARP) you would probably agree that, after Buchholz, Doubront and Lackey have been the two best starters in the rotation while Dempster and Lester have been the two worst.

In fact, if you account for Buchholz's injury and count what his replacements have done in his stead, Lackey jumps to the front of the pack by bWAR and Doubront becomes the Red Sox ace by pWARP. It's not necessarily Buchholz's fault that Allen Webster has been a hot mess, but sometimes life isn't fair.

This change is both good and not good. It's not good because it means that Lester and Buchholz haven't been having the healthy, productive campaigns the team envisioned them having. But it's good because it means that the team has developed, to whatever extent they can take credit for this, two back of the rotation starters into top of the rotation guys. I'm aware that it is premature to write Doubront's name into the second starter slot come playoff time, but we've got three and a half months of data on this season and that's pretty clearly what it's saying.

Nobody is arguing it's good for Lester to struggle, but the fact that Lackey and Doubront are pitching as well as they are, good enough to front a rotation, is impressive and gives the Red Sox the two front-of-the-rotation guys they wanted to this date in the season. This is the kind of thing that didn't happen last year, when Josh Beckett wasn't at his expected best, and it helped to torpedo Boston's chances.

When John Farrell was hired, it was in no small part because it was thought he might be the guy to get Lester and Buchholz back to the productive top-of-the-rotation guys they were in recent seasons. Giving one guy who is not that player, be it the manager or pitching coach or whomever, credit for the way a player performs on the field is risky territory. Farrell may provide the best possible advice and coaching but it may not matter because the guys on the field aren't executing their pitches or what have you. Conversely, he might give awful advice and the guys may be good enough to overcome it. In any case, Farrell's hiring indicates the Red Sox thought they would need Lester and Buchholz, two top starting pitchers at the top of their rotation, to be a successful team. Here we are in mid-July and they were wrong about one of the names, but so far, they've got the production just the same.

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