It is far too early to say the Red Sox or their rotation are doomed, but it's not too early to be concerned enough to consider that they might be. Luckily, a closer look at the five men in the rotation should give you hope with this much of the season left, rather than feel dread for the many, many games to come. Yes, things have been ugly in the first month-plus of play, but there are reasons to believe that, for most of Boston's five starters, better times are coming.
Let's go through the starting five one at a time to see what we've learned from their first five-to-six starts of the 2015 season.
Buchholz has an ERA of 6.03, which mostly means he is the pitcher whose actual and measured performance have the largest gap in between them. You can't just make terrible starts vanish, but you can note that they are anomalous, and that's what we're going to do with Buchholz's 3-1/3 inning, nine-run start against the Yankees. If you chop that from his season, Buchholz's ERA is 3.86 -- it wouldn't be ace-like, but it's far, far more tolerable, and productive.
It's also a little easier to do that when you see that Buchholz is carrying around an FIP of 3.00 on the season, thanks to inducing grounders 48 percent of the time while striking out an American League-leading 11.5 batters per nine, and punching out four times as many batters as he's walking. He's not giving up more homers than usual, but an absurd number of his balls in play have gone for hits. This has led Buchholz, who normally posts low batting average on balls in play, to a .407 BABIP, and has pushed his normally better-than-average strand rate to depressing depths.
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What Buchholz might need more than anything is just more starts to help his performance level out and to distance him from that one horrific outing. The other starts haven't all been perfect, of course, but much of that seems to be more on every grounder having eyes than on Buchholz being an ineffective pitcher. Some of this might be on Buchholz needing to hit his spots a bit better, maybe by sacrificing a strikeout here and there in order to try to induce weaker contact, but that's a thing we know he can do, since it's what drove his performance in the past.
Shorter Buchholz: his performance has been unfortunate, but there isn't much of anything to worry about here.
The concern with Porcello came from the homers he was giving up in the early going. For a ground ball pitcher, homers are just not supposed to happen with regularity, but Porcello allowed five of them in his first three starts. The problem might have been with Porcello's reliance on his cut fastball (per Brooks Baseball), which he threw nearly 20 percent of the time over those three starts. Hitters basically didn't swing-and-miss on the pitch, and while he induced grounders with the pitch, it wasn't as effective at that as his sinker, and opponents slugged .500 with a .188 Isolated Power against it.
Now, his change-up and curve weren't perfect in this stretch, either, but they were used less often, and at least they serve an entirely different purpose that his sinker cannot. Through his last three starts, he dropped his cutter usage to about eight percent, which has helped make the pitch a more effective surprise instead of an oft-used and ineffective tool, started to rely more heavily on his four-seamer. The result? Porcello has a 2.25 ERA with one homer allowed over his last three starts, and has averaged 6-2/3 frames per outing in that time.
These are both small samples, but if more four-seamers and fewer cutters helps Porcello keep the ball in the yard and on the ground, then that's the strategy he should stick with. Even with that issue, he was only a problem on the mound in one start, where he allowed eight runs -- in the other five combined, he's given up just 11, which would be a 2.91 ERA. Like with Buchholz, there's not really anything to worry about here, so long as Porcello keeps on utilizing the right pitches from his repertoire.
Miley has been a serious issue, and there is no getting around that. Whereas Buchholz and Porcello have both just had the one terrible start each, Miley has only had one great one, one good one, two disasters, and one where he was lucky to escape unscathed. While it's not as simple as waiving away the bad and expecting good to come from Miley, there are reasons to believe he'll be better from here on out.
The lefty dealt with uncharacteristically bad control problems in starts two through four, walking nine batters in just over 10 innings, and against just four strikeouts. Coming into 2015, Miley had walked fewer than three batters per nine in his career, and had struck out 2.6 times as many batters as he had walked. While he did hand out free passes to 3.4 batters per nine in 2014, that's not a worrisome number, so much as one where you remember how important grounders are for Miley in order to escape any potential damage the walks could cause.
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It was fair to wonder if Miley was hurt, given he wasn't hitting his spots -- and therefore wasn't getting strikeouts or grounders at the rate he needed to -- but it might have just been a rough patch that shows up way more in April than it would have in the middle of the season. It also might have been part of the "book" on Red Sox pitching being out, to use manager John Farrell's term for it. In Miley's first start after the Red Sox changed their approach to pitching, he went seven innings with no walks, 14 ground balls, and just three runs allowed.
One start doesn't mean Miley is fixed, but given his overall track record and the timing of the start, it does give reason to hope that he's also finally where he needs to be, or at least close to it.
The kind of hope that surrounds Miley is not anywhere near Masterson. His velocity is down, his control is erratic, and it's easy to assume that he could be the first pitcher to get bumped from the rotation should he not figure out how to curb the latter issue and live with the former as many 30-year-old starters before him have had to do.
It might be odd to say Masterson is in a rougher position than Miley given his ERA is almost two runs lower, but unlike with the rest of the staff, who seem like their ERA should be lower either now or going forward, Masterson's performance suggests he's been lucky. He's topped out at 96 pitches on the season, as Farrell is always seemingly trying to get him out of the game as soon as possible before his luck runs out. He threw seven innings once, and is averaging under 5-2/3 frames per start. He's had a couple of decent starts, but they were against an awful Phillies' lineup and an injury-ravaged Orioles' team.
He's only given up two homers on the season so far, and while he's normally not one for dingers, he's also normally not throwing 88 mile per hour slop -- just two years ago, when Masterson was healthy in 2013, he was 93 mph on his four-seamer and 91 on his sinker. Now he's at 88 and 87, respectively, and has tried to rely on his slider to compensate.
The Sox don't have an in-house replacement for Masterson just yet -- Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson might need a couple more starts to get to that point -- and he deserves a chance to work with whomever the next pitching coach is, at least briefly. But unlike with the three pitchers before, hoping for Masterson to do better seems like a good way to end up disappointed.
Kelly hasn't wowed with his performance, in spite of the gushing that the Sunday Night Baseball crew was doing this past Sunday. His fastball is impressive for its velocity, but it's relatively straight, and he doesn't have the secondaries or the command to make himself much more than a back-end starter. You might notice his FIP is 3.76 while his ERA is two runs higher, but unlike with Buchholz, you shouldn't consider Kelly to be as good as that adjusted number.
Kelly's issue is the big inning. He can get through a lineup easily enough for innings at a time, but if his command falters, or his opponents have seen that he's mostly a fastball for long enough, the hits and runs start to pile up. His entire profile screams reliever in the American League -- a wonderful reliever capable of missing bats at high speeds, mind you -- but a reliever nonetheless. The Red Sox don't have the luxury of making him into one right now, not with Masterson struggling and no real alternatives at the ready, but that's not the end of the world. Kelly can be a solid five, better than he's been from an ERA standpoint, but not quite as good as his FIP or the hopes pinned to his velocity suggest he could be.
Buchholz and Porcello seem like they are already where they need to be, even if their ERA disagree. Miley isn't quite there yet, at least in terms of our ability to trust that he is, but the quality and timing of his last start combined with his history of success suggest he's close and not as large of a concern as you would think with that ERA. That's three out of five rotation spots in a good place.
Masterson is possibly a lost cause, though, as getting his health back didn't seem to do anything for his velocity, and his control has been all over the place. The Red Sox need to find a replacement for him, whether it's Eduardo Rodriguez after a few more starts or someone they trade for. There is some urgency to that, too, as Joe Kelly isn't looking like he's going to be much more than a fifth starter -- to Kelly's credit, that was all he was ever supposed to be, but after 90 innings of being that kind of pitcher for the Sox, we can say with more certainty that's what the 27-year-old is.
The rotation is better than it's looked. There will likely be a new member in it at some point, whether from the minors or a trade, and maybe whomever the new pitching coach is can help tighten up the performances of the pitchers who stick around. There is a whole lot of season left, and while the Sox are in a rough spot now, there is plenty of talent and time to change that.