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A Little Optimism: On Pitching and the Road Ahead

Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during the second inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE
Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Clay Buchholz (11) throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers during the second inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

With last night's weather and umpire assisted win over the Verlander-led Tigers, the Red Sox have now won four straight and taken five out of seven from the division leading Yankees and Tigers. That's no small accomplishment, though one that would surely be heightened had the team not imploded against Toronto and Texas. But I digress.

The point is, the team is making strides. There are reasons to be optimistic, should one choose to look for such things. Boston is back above .500, two games above in fact, and is two games from passing both Baltimore and Tampa in the Wild Card race. The Yankees are seven and a half back, which is a lot. But! Just four days ago their lead was 11 1/2. Yes, the Red Sox have made up four games on New York in four days.

With the trade deadline (mostly) behind us, we can stop bickering about the roster and focus on the task at hand: winning games. In that vein, here's something you may not know: the Red Sox have scored more runs than any team in baseball. That's with meteors falling from the heavens and hitting All Star center fielders in the shoulder. It's with players who were expected to contribute unable to do so. Impressive, right?

But there's something you should know about that piece of information. Here are the top ten Red Sox in batter WARP (BP's offense-only stat):

1. David Ortiz ... 3.0
2. Adrian Gonzalez ... 1.6
3. Cody Ross ... 1.5
4. Jarrod Saltalamacchia ... 1.4)
5. Mike Aviles ... 1.3
6. Will Middlebrooks ... 1.3
7. Daniel Nava ... 0.8
8. Kelly Shoppach ... 0.6
9. Scott Podsednik ... 0.5
10. Dustin Pedoia ... 0.4

More than half the players on that list were either back-ups on opening day or have joined the roster since. In other words, the team's offensive production has come from a bunch of players who weren't expected to provide it. It all makes me think of this tweet from old friend Patrick Sullivan:

Like usual, Sully nails it. The stars haven't performed, David Ortiz exempted of course. But the funny thing is that, relative to the league, the results have been there. With Crawford, Ellsbury, a healthy Pedroia, and a productive (if oddly so) Gonzalez, this is an imposing lineup. Add the presumably healthy Ortiz to that mix and the Sox can hit with anyone if they can't out-hit them.

You may have noticed that something is conspicuously absent from the above discussion. Pitching. The Red Sox have the highest scoring team in all of baseball and yet are only two games over .500 on the year. Why? Because their pitching has been, charitably, bad. Boston's 4.25 team ERA is 22nd in all of baseball, sandwiched between the Mets and the Cubs. Boston's starters have been particularly atrocious, ranking 26th out of the 30 teams with a 4.84 ERA. That's worse than the Cubs, Astros, Blue Jays, and Orioles. It's bad.

Recent splits haven't been too kind either giving the unfortunate implosions from Jon Lester who's ERA since the start of July is above 9.00. Josh Beckett hasn't helped with a 6.00+ ERA in the same time frame.

But here's the thing. I think this can happen. Oh, sure, I'm not putting actual money on it (I'm a blogger, I don't have actual money), but I think this team can go on a run and grab one of those extra lame play-in Wild Card spots. Heck, maybe they can even catch the Yankees.

What gives me this confidence? Well, three things.

1. Beer.

2. The starting pitching just can't be this bad. Jon Lester isn't an 11 run ERA guy. He's may not be a 2.50 ERA guy either, but his natural talent level is much closer to 4.00 than he is to 11.00. It's easy to look at a guy when he's failing and think that he'll continue to fail. I fall into that trap time and again. "How can he possibly succeed? Did you see that pitch he just threw?!" But things change, and often quickly. Lester's last start looked like he had maybe moved beyond the shell-shocked phase and into the "Caution: Pitcher under Construction" phase.

Josh Beckett, say what you will of him, but he's a good pitcher. You may not want him at your kid's fifth birthday party, but he can get major league batters out, even with a 91 mph fastball. He did it yesterday to a good hitting Tigers team before his back started acting up on him. He can and likely will be an asset going forward.

Felix Doubront had hit a rough patch, no question, but since July began the man has a sub-4.00 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 28 innings. Sure, he has 17 walks in there as well, but if he can keep minimizing damage he can win a lot of games pitching in front of this offense. Remember, we don't need good. We need decent.

Finally we get to Clay Buchholz. The other day, someone on twitter said Buchholz was the Red Sox ace and was immediately rebuked. Look again, rebukers, because ol' Clay has a 2.45 ERA since July 1st and only seven walks in 29 1/3 innings. The man is dealing. In his last 15 innings against Texas and Detroit, two strong hitting teams, he's given up three runs.

Those are the guys who, as Sully noted, are going have to step up for this team to go anywhere. And look, they're kinda stepping up. Buchholz is leading the way, Lester is taking baby sized but positive steps nonetheless, if he can stay healthy (and as long as it really is only a back spasm he should be fine) Beckett can be a better than league average pitcher, and Doubront seems to be over his dead period. Morales and/or Cook will fine in a fifth starter role and if they aren't there is always Tazawa and Mortensen to pick up where they left off.

League average is a 4.20 ERA. The Red Sox have scored a shade under five runs a game. This team could go on a run if they can get some consistently league average pitching, and don't look now, but they just may be getting it.

3. 2004. I know it's corny. I'm sorry. Stick with me, we're almost done.

I know every time anyone does anything that is remotely like an improbable comeback the '04 Red Sox are cited. But corny be damned. Flash back with me, if you will. October, 16, 2004. Down two games to none to the Yankees, the Red Sox returned home to Boston to endure one of the great butt-kickings of this modern era. The Yankees won 19-8, effectively ending the series with a three games to none lead. I watched every second of that interminable game, rooting just as hard (if far more angrily) in the eighth with Boston down 17-8 as I did in the first.

After they lost, I rollerbladed 40 blocks west and eight blocks south to my girlfriend's apartment. It hurt so bad, as badly as I know it did for most of you. But that pain was founded in the very same disappointment we are all feeling now, if a much more muted version of it. It was that pain that helped elevate that year to epic levels. If the Sox rolled through the Yankees it would have been wonderful, granted, but it wouldn't have quite meant as much. The way it happened mattered. The same can be true of this season.

I'm not saying this team is going to win the World Series. I am saying that just like in 2004, there is a chance. There is a chance to turn things around and make something of this season. It might not happen. Just like in 2004, the odds are decidedly against us. But I'm not giving up. The Red Sox have talent and now they've got health and they can pull it out one more time.