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Go ahead, panic about the Red Sox rotation if you want to

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The Red Sox rotation is off to a terrible start, but it is more baffling than just plain bad.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the Red Sox rotation. It lacked an ace, people observed. It was filled with questions marks, they said. It could be a disaster, some opined. Then the season started and the offense looked so wonderful that it seemed like the Red Sox might survive mediocre pitching and win on the strength of their bats. Yet, here they sit, one day past Star Wars Day, having been crushed by the Empire over the weekend and beaten by Tampa Bay in an ugly game that cost the team it's hottest bat. Worst of all, those pre-season fears have come true and we are left staring at a team ERA that makes the performances in Attack of the Clones look Oscar-worthy.

The Red Sox rotation is last in baseball in stopping runs from scoring, but plenty of people out there will tell you there is hope. By both FIP and xFIP, the Red Sox starters don't look quite so inept. What Craig Edwards of Fangraph's wrote back on April 30 remains true. This rotation has wildly under-preformed its peripherals.  Before you jump to the old standby dismissal of fielding independent analysis and tell me that the Red Sox pitchers are offering up cheese-ball pitches that opposing hitters are crushing, recall that just a week ago Ben pointed out that is not the case. A few days later Bryan Joiner reminded us that "it's too early to panic about the Red Sox rotation." Objectively, that is true. It's May 5th, not June 30th. Two games under .500 now is not a reason to panic about anything.

And yet, it feels like time to panic.

Getting swept by the Yankees and having to see NYY at the top of the division standings is probably adding some fuel to this fire. A bad loss to the Rays that included Hanley Ramirez getting hurt tosses a bit of gasoline into the mix as well. Reminding myself that most of the Yankees' lineup is at the age where they will soon become eligible to collect social security benefits doesn't take the sting out it, either. Knowing that the rotation is going to be better, that bad luck is as much, if not more at fault, than bad pitching, somehow can't calm the fear that the Red Sox season will be sabotaged by that rotation. Show me the baseball fan who can calmly sit and wait for regression and I'll show you a happy man (or, more likely, cyborg).

At the heart of the problem for the rational Red Sox fan today is our own preconceptions. Even if you had dismissed all of the pre-season talk about how the Boston rotation would be its demise (as we here at Over the Monster generally did), you couldn't help but hear it. And this wasn't just some storyline being pumped by Boston beat writers hard up for material in the narrative no-man's land of February and early Spring Training. Michael Bauman at Grantland was asking "Can the Red Sox Survive Their Crap Starting Pitching?" on April 1. Writing about Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, Marc had this to say on their projections for the rotation:

Buchholz is the only Red Sox starting pitcher that PECOTA doesn't actively hate, and even then that's questionable, as it only projects him for 144 innings of 3.83 ERA ball.

If you are determined to be pessimistic, you don't have to try all that hard to explain away much of the expected regression.  Clay Buchholz has always had ace potential, but he has never managed a K/9 over 8.00 over the course of a season, and it has been three years since his groundball rate was over 50 percent. He almost certainly won't sustain his 5.76 ERA, but his 11.9 K/9 rate and 52 percent groundball rate are just as unlikely to stick around. Rick Porcello is not going to allow 15 percent of his fly balls to leave the park forever, but he is probably not going to keep his BABIP around 30 points below the league average either. Conversely, HR/FB rate has been extremely generous to both Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. Has Joe Kelly finally found the ability to strike guys out with his mid-90's velocity and his slider? Could be, but if that new ability comes with a 42.5 percent groundball rate and 1.3 HR/9, is it that really progress in the right direction?

That is the side of the story that spells panic, but it isn't the whole story. Clay Buchholz's fantastic strikeout and groundball rates haven't looked particularly anomalous and those numbers are quicker to stabilize than others. His control remains strong even with his increased Ks and bad ERA. It isn't hard to imagine that he will settle in and make this the season where the stuff actually reaches its full potential. Porcello took a step forward last season and while his BABIP and strikeout rate are likely to regress some, improvement in both would be a logical next step in his evolution and a return to his normal groundball rates is probably on the horizon as well. If more home runs are on the way for Justin Masterson, so is a higher groundball rate and more strikeouts. And hey, even Wade Miley can't really be this bad, right? Overall, the Red Sox rotation has the second highest strikeout rate in the American League, which should tell us more about this group's true talent than ERA just a few weeks into the season can.

So, as Bryan said, it isn't time to panic about the Red Sox rotation. But then again, maybe it is. Or maybe we should be cautiously optimistic. Or maybe we should be slightly pessimistic but not over-react. Or maybe we should take the whole thing on an inning-by-inning basis, allowing the last thing that happened to dictate our every thought and feeling on the subject, which works out well, since that is what I am doing anyway.

Former commissioner and Red Sox fan A. Barlett Giamatti famously said, "baseball will break your heart." Before 2004, that seemed to be the case, at least for Sox fans. These days, we have had enough success to handle the occasional heartbreak. It's our minds we have worry about. This whole last-to-first-to-last pattern flies in the face of rationality. It mocks pessimism and optimism in equal measure. The Red Sox rotation cannot possibly be this bad. Things will get better. Unless they don't. But they will. Probably.

Take whichever side you of the issue you want. You will have ample evidence to support you. The only thing that we can safely say about the 2015 Red Sox rotation is that it will drive us all crazy. It seems determined to be the mirror image of its ace [Editor's note: Oh God, Matt, do you not realize what madness you invite by using that word?] Clay Buchholz. It is talented and disappointing, it is on the verge of a breakout and heading for a complete collapse. It has the stuff to dominate, but it can't put it together. It will radically out-perform its peripherals one day and horribly underperform them the next. It is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, deep-fried in baffling oil and topped with our secret WTF sauce.

The Red Sox rotation was full of questions when the season started. Just over a month in, those question marks are even further from being answered. At this rate, by October, this group should blossom into the kind of deep mystery found only in mysticism or quantum physics.