With John Lackey back, the Red Sox only need one of their backup starting pitchers to stick in the rotation in order to fill in for Daisuke Matsuzaka. Manager Terry Francona had mentioned that Tim Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves would be used with match ups in mind, but both are right-handed, and neither has major platoon splits, so the how of that was somewhat up in the air.
Last night, though, we may have seen a glimpse of what Francona was talking about. Wakefield threw 91 pitches over 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs in that stretch. Once he got into trouble in the middle of the game, Francona called for Aceves... and no one else. Aceves has been stretched out, as he has started three games for Boston and two in Pawtucket, so if he is pitching well, there is no reason he can't go 3-4 innings every five days. He pitched better than Wakefield last night, even, going 3 2/3 frames with four strikeouts against one walk, one run allowed, and four hits using 59 pitches, 63 percent of them strikes.
If Aceves can be something of a dedicated reliever every fifth day, then the rest of the Red Sox bullpen can get an extra day to rest (or, at least, pitch less often than relievers do following a team's fifth starter). Fresher versions of Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, Matt Albers, and the other arms in there could mean a lot to this team--remember how fatigued Bard was down the stretch last year, when the entire weight of holding leads was thrust onto the shoulders of he and Jonathan Papelbon?
This isn't a new idea by any means. Grady Fuson has used tandem starters in the minors for years, rather than relying on minor league relief arms to finish out games, but it is not an idea that has caught on everywhere in the majors. It also isn't entirely necessary everywhere in the rotation (or possible, given the lack of quality arms league-wide) but in the fifth spot in the rotation, where you aren't taking innings away from a more productive pitcher, it has merit.
Plus, there is something to the idea of a "hangover effect" for knuckleball pitchers. Hitters tend to perform worse the day after facing a knuckleball pitcher, according to research by Ben Lindbergh last year:
If a moderate knuckleball "hangover" effect exists, this is essentially what we’d expect it to look like. After facing Wakefield, strikeouts go up, homers go down, and overall performance suffers, with rates rebounding on the second day of release, and returning to near-normal levels by the third day of deliverance.
Batters have also performed worse following Wakefield's exit from the game, though, as Lindbergh notes, that may simply be due to the nature of high-quality relievers coming in after the starter.
This does lend weight to the idea that Wakefield should be the fifth starter, though, and not Aceves, as Aceves may see a boost to his own performance by virtue of being a non-knuckler following Wakefield, in addition to the extra rest afforded the other relievers. Let's hope that this is something Boston is doing intentionally, and that they will continue to toy with this fifth-starter experiment.