Three weeks ago, we began spring training with quite a bit of trepidation surrounding the starting rotation. Can Jon Lester rebound? Will Clay Buchholz be the pitcher he was in 2012, or the pitcher he was in the second half of 2012? Can Ryan Dempster cut it in the American League? Has Felix Doubront learned how to pitch, or will he suffer from the same problems as he did last year? Are we really still relying on John Lackey?
Today, you may be feeling somewhat better about things. While television and radio broadcasts alike have been fairly scarce, what we have seen of the rotation has been very good. And, for those following along on MLB.com or elsewhere when the team is absent from the airwaves, you're probably noticing more good outings than bad from the starting rotation.
In fact, the first three weeks of spring training have been even better than you might imagine. Through 18 Grapefruit League starts, the Red Sox sit second among all teams (Cactus League included) in starting ERA. That number sits at an impressive 2.66, with 37 strikeouts, 14 walks, and just one homer allowed in 47 innings of work.
Individually, the story is a little bit messier. The good news is that the top three are looking very much like the top three we had hoped for. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Ryan Dempster have allowed just four runs between them in their 10 starts. All three of them have seen more outs come on the ground than in the air. In actually watching the pitchers in question, Lester seems to have some of the command he lost last year back. Clay has induced the weak contact that he needs to get by. And Ryan Dempster, frankly, has just been unreasonably filthy at times.
Felix Doubront is a bit of a trickier case, given that he's only pitched a couple of games, and those outings have been a bit odd. So far, though, while Doubront is still getting strikeouts and giving up walks, they seem to come at a quicker pace than they did last year--an important thing for a young pitcher whose inefficiency on the mound left him out of gas early on last year.
Unfortunately, the good feelings end with John Lackey, whose first four starts have seen eight runs come in. His best outing, oddly enough, came against an impressive Puerto Rico lineup, but outside of that game he's looked sloppy, living too high in the zone for comfort and struggling to control his pitches. Still, this is the first time he's pitched in a year and a half, and while his last outing wasn't good, his second two performances have looked better than his first. Perhaps the best way to think about this is that anything even slightly positive from Lackey shouldn't be taken for granted, and that as a fifth starter the negatives just don't seem too important.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that it's based off a very limited number of spring training innings. That's a double whammy right there, since spring training comes with its caveats and small sample sizes come with theirs. If you're looking to make any real statistical arguments based on this then, well, you're barking up the wrong tree I'm afraid.
Still, positive signs are just that, and actually watching some of these guys when given the opportunity, it's hard not to feel pretty good about the starting pitching. Ryan Dempster might be the most encouraging of them, since it's hard to watch him pitch the way he has and still wonder if he can cut it in the American League. But Buchholz and Lester have offered plenty of positive signs as well. If you're not going to let three weeks of spring training get you excited, at least let them temper your fear the slightest bit.