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Why are the Red Sox winning? It's the starting pitching, stupid.

The Red Sox are back and the reason why is simple: starting pitching

Jim Rogash

Okay, before anyone misunderstands, the title is a reference to an old political catch-phrase coined by James Carville. It's meant to point out the obvious. So please, don't think I'm calling anyone stupid. Except stupid people. Stupid people are stupid. So stupid. Anyway. Back to your regularly scheduled posting.

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Stats are wonderful things. Or they can be. Or at least they can be descriptive as all heck when they're not blatantly lying to your face. They're like your boss that way. For example, take this stat. Please! Last season the Red Sox starters combined for an ERA of 5.19, good, if I can be permitted to use that word here, for 27th in baseball. Except I shouldn't use that word here because there are not 100 teams in baseball. There are 30 teams in baseball so 27th isn't good, it's bad. So bad that it only bested the hideous Twins, the structurally deficient Indians, and the Rockies, a team that may as well play its home games on the Moon for all the baseball skill and gravity their rotation possesses.

That was last year (motto: a year to forget!). This season, Red Sox starters have a 2.30 ERA, almost three runs off last year's number. That places them behind the Braves and nobody else. Unless you count the Cardinals as a professional baseball team which I see no reason to do, but if you want to get all cute about it, then fine, Boston is behind the Braves and Cardinals. The amazing thing about that is that the Braves and, fine, yes, Cardinals both had excellent starting pitching last season. And the year before, too. And probably the year before that. They essentially churn out starters with 3.50 ERAs. It's like a starting pitching factory farm over there. It's effective, but probably not sanitary.

The Red Sox aren't so lucky, or smart, or innovative, or disgusting. They rely on old-fashioned methods to provide good pitching. Actually, let me stop right there. You remember good pitching, right? You've probably seen it on highlights before and read about it in magazines. To refresh your memory, that's when pitchers go into a game (or start one even!) and get batters out without allowing lots of runs. Strange, I know, but the 2013 Red Sox are doing what they can to get us used to the concept again. Per Peter Abraham at the Boston Globe, the 10-4 Red Sox have yet to have a starting pitcher allow more than three runs in an outing this season. I'm not going to look up how many times it happened last year, but rest assured on a team with a starting ERA over 5.00 it happened a lot. Certainly more than none.

If there is anything that can be odd about a 14 game sample of baseball games, it may be this: the Sox are getting this kind of performance from guys who were either abjectly awful, injured, not members of their roster last season, or some combination of the above. Looking ever so slightly deeper, it's worth noting that the Red Sox haven't simply cycled through their rotation three times and been done with it. They've had John Lackey go down and Alfredo Aceves step in, both in the game in which Lackey got hurt and into Lackey's place in the rotation. Aceves isn't a great pitcher, and I think you could make an argument that his roster spot should be used elsewhere, but the counter argument to that is the games yesterday and April 6 (when Lackey got hurt).

Photo credit: Jim Rogash

Elsewhere, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have been Hall of Fame caliber at the top of the rotation to start the year. I say Hall of Fame as a superlative to illustrate how incredibly good they've both been, but also to note that this stretch is unlikely to continue in it's present form. There are indicators (left on base percentage, BABIP, etc) that indicate, because that is what indicators do, that there is some regression coming for both pitchers. But, the good news is, if they continue to pitch well, even with some regression, both are still top of the rotation starters, as they've been in the past in forgotten, non-2012 days.

Lester has improved a lagging strikeout rate to 2011 levels, but mostly he's cut his walk rate in half. Lester has never been particularly stingy with the walks, but he's been so good at striking hitters out that it hasn't mattered (much). But as the strikeout rate has dropped over the seasons, so has his productivity. At least through three starts that has changed. There are 30 more starts to put the lie to all of this, but for now, this is what's known in the industry as a great start.

I've been yapping for a while here but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Buchholz before shutting my yapper. Buchholz is a simple case of striking out a ton of hitters. Since he came up through the Sox system Buchholz was a big strikeout pitcher. His strikeout rates in the minors were (2005-2008): 9.8, 10.6, 12.3, 9.4 (a numbers expressed as Batters Per Nine Innings). Then he came up and no-hit Baltimore in his second major league start. Then he had some growing pains and when he came back from the minors a year later he was a better pitcher, but the above average strikeout rate was gone. Buchholz's strikeout rates from 2009-2012: 6.7, 6.2, 6.5, 6.1. This season (through three starts) it's 9.4. That's a 50 percent jump in strikeout rate. If he keeps throwing the ball like he has, we Sox fans aren't going to have to argue with other fans about whether or not Buchholz is a top half of the rotation starter. They'll all know he is when he strikes out 10 of their guys.

I'm 1,000 words into this and I've barely touched on Ryan Dempster, but then that's why the Red Sox signed Dempster. He's isn't supposed to be great. He's supposed to eat innings with jam, be above league average, be seen every fifth day, and be as worry free as possible. So far, mission accomplished. I've now talked about Ryan Dempster.

With Dempster and Felix Doubront providing innings at a league average level or just above and Buchholz and Lester limiting the free passes and hording the strikeouts, this team is set to do some damage. So when looking at that sparkling 10-4 record and that beautiful perch high atop Mount AL East, remember the simple reason why the team is up there. It's the pitching, nice person reading this article.

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