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What can ground balls do for the Red Sox?

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The Red Sox have a plan: keep the ball on the ground. Will that plan work?

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

At 48.6%, Wade Miley has the lowest career ground ball rate of Boston's five starting pitchers. At 48.8%, Clay Buchholz is a close second, with Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello coming in around 52%, and Justin Masterson on a whole different level at 56.6%.

Some context seems necessary. In 2014, the PIttsburgh Pirates were the most ground ball heavy team in the league. They came in at 50.5%. The Dodgers were second at 47.8%. Yes, if Wade Miley, the low man on the ladder in Boston, had been a team unto himself, he would have been second only to the Pirates when it comes to keeping the ball on the ground.

To say that the Red Sox have a plan for their rotation seems like an understatement. With Jon Lester having gone to Chicago, the traditional method of adding expensive, high-octane arms was no longer on the table, forcing the team to turn instead towards synergy. The pieces were already in place behind them, with Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, and Mike Napoli providing more than enough infield defense to make up for any deficiencies Xander Bogaerts might display at short (hopefully fewer than he did in his time at an unfamiliar third).

And so the Red Sox set out once again in search of the undervalued asset. It's what they've done in their most successful seasons, from the days of OBP in 2004 to Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli in 2013. It doesn't always work out, but when it does the results are magical, and when it doesn't the price paid is often fairly small and contained to one or two years.

If there are two centerpieces to this strategy, they are Wade Miley and Rick Porcello. It's odd to say so, since the two are on opposite trends--Miley started strong before having a rough 2014 season, while Porcello had what might be called a breakout in 2014--but both are good pitchers who have been victims of BABIP. For Rick Porcello, it's been years of Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder/Nick Castellanos holding him down. For Wade Miley, the situation might have slightly more to do with variance, and the fact that he also saw a spike in both walks and strikeouts last year makes it hard to say exactly what the Red Sox will get from him in 2015. But in the proper environment, both should have the chance to thrive.

Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski

Less certain are Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson, whose issues were less about the players around them and more about injury. To be sure, the Indians infield was an absolute dumpster fire in 2014, but that doesn't excuse Masterson's time in front of a strong Cardinals infield, or the dramatic loss of control he displayed. Both pitchers have proven strong options when healthy, however--superlative, even, in Clay Buchholz' case--and will have the help they need behind them if they can just manage their end of the bargain.

So what does this combination of ground balls and good defense get the Red Sox? The aforementioned Pirates seem to be the model for this. While the Dodgers' rotation featured plenty of ground balls, that was secondary to the fact that those ground balls came from the likes of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who also happened to be striking out a batter an inning (or better) and walking approximately nobody. Instead, the Red Sox will be looking to replicate the success of the likes of Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley last year, who combined for a 3.37 ERA despite a pedestrian 7.3 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. And unlike the Pirates they'll be doing so in a park which should disproportionately reward them for keeping the ball on the ground while punishing visiting teams that are not built to do the same.

Unfortunately, the nature of this strategy does tend to lead to some significant game-to-game variance. Even good defenders have spots on the field they can't get to, and when a pitcher can't just take over the game on his own, as ground ball pitchers simply do not, they leave themselves open to get burned by bad luck. Thinking about this in the context of, say, a Wild Card playoff game is what gives credence to the idea that the Red Sox really need to add an ace (though, if he race is close, there's a very good chance the ace will not be available for said game).

There's also the fact that with more necessary pieces the Red Sox open themselves up to taking a big hit from injury. They might have a slightly easier time getting pitching help when all they need is someone who can keep the ball on the ground. But any long-term injuries to the infield could threaten to derail the rotation. Make no mistake, this is a fragile strategy compared to the "good stuff" plan employed by the likes of the Dodgers.

If this isn't Plan A, however, it's at least one that should work with a little luck. The American League is still the American League, of course, and Fenway is still Fenway. The Red Sox will not be finishing the year with a 3.50 team ERA like the Pirates did in 2014. They will, however, very likely be respectable when it comes to keeping runs off the board. And with a lineup that goes eight deep, only sacrificing a bat to provide a catcher like Vazquez who can help to implement this sort of plan, the Red Sox should be able to back up any respectable effort with more than enough offense to win quite a few games.