The Red Sox have had a relatively tough start to the season, and while things could be worse, they could be a whole lot better. Since it’s May, that’s okay, but after the team fired pitching coach Juan Nieves and continued to drop games, manager John Farrell hinted that further changes were coming. It’s time to make some of those changes a reality.
These are simple fixes designed to help the Sox maximize the roster they have and could have, without shaking up the team too much. They are designed to help the Sox get back on track for the playoffs this year. It’s not even Memorial Day; it can easily be done. These moves would make it easier.
1. Replace Justin Masterson in the starting rotation
Masterson has had a much longer run as a big-league starting pitcher than anyone would have guessed, given his complete inability to get left-handed batters out. It’s a problem that has dogged him his whole career and this year is no different.
With the news the Red Sox are sending Masterson to the disabled list, it appears they’re clearing out his space in the rotation for young knuckleballer Steven Wright. It’s probably the right move even if Masterson isn’t really injured, which he’s not. As Farrell said before Thursday's game
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"There’s not one specific area to the arm or shoulder that is a cause or reason why we’re seeing reduced velocity, reduced action. There’s some fatigue that’s involved. I think it’s important that we allow this to calm down."
There has been a lot of talk recently about potentially returning to a 154-game season to deal with issues like excessive fatigue, but I don’t think Masterson is a good example, because I’m not sure he’s really hurt. This is a simple demotion. Masterson isn't happy, but he knows his 6.37 ERA isn’t going to cut it in this environment, as he told the Boston Globe:
"It’s one of those if we’re doing great I probably get a little more leeway. The last two starts have been different than the first five. I can’t deny that fact."
This is true, but not the whole truth: the whole truth is that Masterson wasn’t really a viable starter heading into the season without some serious adjustments. From all accounts, he’s a nice guy, but with the Red Sox scuffling that doesn’t mean a whole lot. As Marc Normandin wrote here yesterday, Wright is the right choice even if he isn’t a good one: "Justin Masterson is less reliable than an unproven knuckleballer," he said, "and that is a frightening prospect the Red Sox can't afford to live with any longer."
2. Swing earlier
On Tuesday, Baseball Prospectus’ Matthew Trueblood posted an article that said the Red Sox were being too patient at the plate in a league where that approach doesn’t work as well as it did 10 years ago. The 2004 Red Sox could afford to take pitch after pitch after pitch and let the big boppers clear the bases, but Trueblood says that type of baseball is, systematically, a thing of the past.
What changed? Pitchers got better. As Trueblood writes, "the Sox are swinging at the first pitch just 18.4 percent of the time, easily the lowest rate in MLB. And they're doing so in the worst era to do so: If the 2015 season ended today, it would break the 2014 season’s record for best aggregate performance by batters who swing at the first pitch, relative to those who don’t."
So what gives? Why stick with something that doesn’t work? Well, when it works, it works really well: the Sox are pounding the ball when they see pitchers a third or fourth time. The problem, Trueblood notes, is that the relievers who replace starters are no longer pushovers. Opposing managers no longer face a false choice late in the game of sticking with a talented-but-exhausted starter or replacing him with a sacrificial lamb, and the Red Sox no longer get the benefit of winning through sheer attrition.
Not that it has stopped them from trying, but at some point the team might be throwing good at-bats after bad. Trueblood concludes that "the Red Sox have a fundamental problem on offense that isn’t captured by reading their individual stats or nodding toward the usual peripheral indicators," and I’m inclined to agree, with the caveat that this is an eminently fixable problem – unlike, say, having a pitching rotation based on getting ground balls that can neither induce ground balls nor field them, which is a bigger fish to fry. Swinging earlier is as simple as getting the green light, and for the good of the Sox, it’s time to flip that switch.