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Putting the Season Into Context

It was going to be a revelation. After months of rehab and hard work, Smoltz took the mound, embodying the expectations of thousands of Sox fans. He would bring honor, dignity, and the ability to throw strikes to the clubhouse, and forever excise our memories of Dice-K's struggles.

And then he actually started pitching. UGH. Before the night was out, people on this website were already talking about bringing up Buchholz, and moving Smoltz to the pen. An outside observer would think, from the reaction of Sox fans, that the team has a huge problem with pitching, and that desperate measures were necessary to address it.

But the reality is that this is a very good team: a team that is 44-28 and has a four-game lead atop the toughest division in baseball. At their current rate, the Sox are on pace for 99 wins. Although some of these wins might be attributable to luck (Pythagorean record is 42-30), the Sox have strong fundamentals. The offense is 3rd best in the league, and the pitching is 2nd only to the Mariners (!) in allowing the least runs. The only part of the game that the Sox struggle with is fielding (28th worst in baseball by UZR).

On the Smoltz front, I am not especially surprised by his performance. Expectations across Red Sox Nation were sky-high, largely because people ignored that Smoltz is 42-year-old coming off serious injuries. Brad Penny, almost a decade younger, is probably the better bet to produce going forward than Smoltz, simply because of his comparative youth. Regardless of his bad start yesterday, it's too still too early to count out the hall-of-famer.

People forget that most of this discussion is over the fifth starter. Early on, the whole rotation was a mess, but in the month of June the starting pitching came around. Lester's ERA* fell from 5.40 and 5.86 in April and May to 2.33 in June. Beckett's improvement started earlier: he posted a 2.38 ERA in May and an awesome 1.88 ERA in June, after being combustible in April (7.22 ERA). Penny's ERA fell from 8.66 in April to 4.17 in May, and again to 3.22 for June. Wakefield is the exception: his best month was April (1.86), and he was bad in May (6.82) and mediocre in June (4.26).

The biggest obstacle to getting into the playoffs is not going to be the fifth starter. Between Smoltz, Buchholz, and Masterson, someone should be able to adequately fill the role. I am far more concerned about the continuing poor defense behind all of our starters, which could potentially sabotage the entire rotation (not to mention the pen). Another worry is that the Rays may start winning as much as they should be: by Pythagorean record they should be 44-30, not 39-35 and six games back. Much of this can be attributed to their bullpen, which has regressed substantially since last year.

Despite these issues, the Sox are in a really good position. It will be a battle to retain control of the top spot, but not as much as it will be for the Yanks, Jays or Rays to take it. Another reason for optimism: the Sox have dominated the division in head-to-head competition. They are 20-8 against the AL East, with a losing record against only the Rays (4-6). With all the West road trips and some of the toughest opponents behind us, the Sox have great shot at the playoffs.

*I'm using ERA rather than FIP because I can't find monthly splits for FIP.