“Do they leave it there during the game?”
That famous line from one-time Red Sox lefty and Hall of Fame-level raconteur Bill Lee sums up Fenway Park’s reputation with respect to southpaws. Yet, despite this literal barrier to success for lefties in Boston, the 2017 Red Sox rotation could potentially be one of the most left-handed rotations in history as well as the best in baseball.
The Red Sox traded for Chris Sale on Tuesday, adding one of the top arms in baseball to an already strong and deep rotation. The Red Sox roster already included 2016 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello and 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price. Sale has yet to win the Award, but he hasn’t finished lower than fifth in the voting since his first full season in 2012, when he finished sixth. As Grant Brisbee points out, the trade makes the Red Sox rotation young and talented and potentially devastating.
Brisbee sums the potential up nicely:
Pick the fourth and fifth starters behind Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and David Price. Before you start, realize that the Red Sox have the reigning Cy Young winner, and he’s probably the third-best pitcher on the team.
If you haven’t been playing the “who starts behind our three aces” game, I don’t quite understand the form your Red Sox fandom has taken. There are so many fun options here. You can dream up four or five different scenarios that all have the Red Sox with the best rotation in baseball and they would all be different and they all have a realistic chance of happening. There are also, at least for the moment, several ways to draw up the Red Sox rotation that would make it historically left-handed.
Let’s play the “who’s starting…” game and consider a few way this could go. The Red Sox’ big three includes Porcello, a righty who happens to be the defending Cy Young winner. He is not going anywhere unless it is on the DL and since he is a pitcher, we can’t ignore that possibility. That is just one righty though and that is where the locks for the rotation end. For the fourth spot, righty knuckleballer Steven Wright is the obvious choice in my mind. Wright was an All-Star in the first half of 2016 and missed much of the second half and the playoffs with an injury that should be resolved for the 2017 season. We can assume he is not a top trade candidate since not every team embraces the knuckleball as the Red Sox do. With Wright, Boston would have two right-handed starters. However, Wright is far from a lock. 2016 was a breakout season for him and it was control of the knuckleball that made that possible. Should his command regress, he could easily drop from the fourth starter spot to the swingman role. Such is the life of a man who throws the knuckleball.
That leaves just one other righty in the conversation for the rotation and that man is Clay Buchholz. Buchholz is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, buried in uncertainty in the great garden of Entropy. He could out-pitch the rest of the rotation and win his own Cy Young, he could start bleeding from his throat again, he could be traded, he could be awful, he could become a position player and win the starting job at third base over Pablo Sandoval. I’m done guessing at what will happen with Clay Buchholz. It’s all possible where he is concerned.
The good news is that the Red Sox rotation not only has three potential aces, it has remarkable depth at this point. The strange news is that all of that depth is left-handed. Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz could easily win the last two rotation spots on merit alone. Pomeranz was one of the top prizes on the market before the trade deadline after 102 innings with a 2.47 ERA for the Padres in the first half. His second-half struggles may have been caused by injuries or late-season fatigue, so a healthy Pomeranz in the rotation could be the optimal outcome here.
If he wasn’t also a lefty, you could reasonably say that Eduardo Rodriguez was the mirror image of Pomeranz in 2017. E-Rod started the season on the DL and struggled when he finally returned. He landed in the rotation for the stretch run, however, and he was more than serviceable with a 3.24 ERA and a strong 2.82 K/BB ratio. He is certainly one of the top trade chips the Red Sox have at the moment, but getting value that matches the upside of a soon-to-be-24-year-old who is still pre-arbitration, who has done what he just did in the majors is not easy. It is more likely that he starts for Boston than somewhere else. Even if Rodriguez or Pomeranz do not win the starting jobs out of the gate, unless they are dealt, they are the first line of defense should anyone fall to injury or falter performance-wise. Keeping both might be unlikely, but neither is at their peak in value right now. What’s more, even if one of the two does get traded, two of the next options in line are lefties as well. Right now, Henry Owens and Brian Johnson represent the break-in-case-of-emergency options. Both look as likely to bust or wind up in the bullpen as they are to have careers starting games in the majors, but for 2017, they are in the conversation at least. That gives the Red Sox nine options at starter and six are lefties. Lefty Roenis Elias is still around as well, but he is still Roenis Elias so I am not going to think about him right now.
Writing about the 2015 White Sox rotation, which featured four left-handed starters, ESPN’s Doug Padilla noted that only two other teams in history have ever featured four lefty starters who made at least 20 starts a piece, the 2013 White Sox and the 1954 Washington Senators. You don’t have to dream up insane scenarios to have Boston join that list in 2017. This is all just on paper at this point, but the presence of so much left-handed pitching is a fascinating byproduct of Dombrowski’s recent dealings and something to watch as Boston moves through the winter and towards opening day.
If the Red Sox end up with a historically left-handed rotation, it would be a shocking turn of events given Fenway’s reputation. It may not be a bad thing, however.
Despite leaving the Monster up during the games, Fenway’s reputation as a rough place for southpaws is more superstition than statistical fact. Fenway is a hitter’s park by any measure. Fangraph’s park factors lists it second only to Coors Field for offense. The Green Monster is a major part of that. It turns many fly outs into singles and doubles. That is true for hitters from both sides of plate and thanks to both the Monster and the expansiveness of right field, lefty hitters get the bigger advantage in doubles and triples. Where Fenway kills left-handed pitchers is with home runs. While lefty hitters actually see their home runs go down in Fenway, right-handed hitters get a four percent boost in homers. That is bound to make pitching in Fenway a little more nerve-racking for a lefty. David Price could probably attest to that. He set a career high for home runs allowed in his first year on the Red Sox and 17 of those came at home. At best we can say that some of Fenway’s reputation for hurting lefties is real, but the total impact on their numbers is not that much different from what righties have to endure.
The Red Sox rotation is not set at this point and both logic and Dave Dombrowski’s recent comments on the matter suggest a trade on the horizon. Just based on the number of options, it is likely that a lefty will be traded, but it is not imperative. The Red Sox under Dombrowski have acquired three lefties—Sale, Price and Pomeranz—but there has never seemed to be a strategy behind targeting those players that went beyond getting the best arms possible. The best arms available were lefties, so that is what he acquired. The same logic should rule when it comes to deciding who starts in 2017. Boston could have one the most heavily left-handed rotations in baseball history this season, or it could work out that only two starters are left-handed. Either scenario could produce one the best rotations in baseball. It may be shocking if the Red Sox are historically left-handed but that doesn’t mean it won’t be effective. Dealing a pitcher is probably necessary, but that pitcher doesn’t have to be a lefty just for the sake of balance.