Since the season started in April, the Boston Red Sox have displayed polarizing qualities that might leave a fan a little bewildered by their day-to-day performance as a ball club. While they lead all of MLB in runs scored, batting average, hits, slugging percentage and OPS, Boston maintains around a 4.27 team ERA, which has the Sox ranked 19th out of 30 total pitching staffs.
What makes this stranger is how the Red Sox have gotten to this point. Heading into the season, the expectation was that the Red Sox would struggle to find the arms to combine with David Price to put together a legitimate rotation. But so far, Price has (or, perhaps, had) actually been part of the problem.
Although David Price has presented Red Sox Nation with two quality starts that remind us why Dombrowski went out and got him, it might be a mental tussle for Price in a city that scrutinizes failures as much as Boston. Price admitted after Wednesday's 5-2 victory against Kansas City, that [last night was] "the best I've commanded all my pitches from the beginning until I was taken out." He pitched seven and a third innings surrendering five hits and two runs, lowering his ERA to 5.53, which is still an anomaly for the five-time All-Star.
It has definitely been reassuring to see that tips from Dustin Pedroia regarding Price's delivery have begun to make an impact, and the isolated instance between the second baseman and Price suggests a greater cohesiveness and trust within this 2016 squad. But, returning to Wednesday's victory, it was clear that Price still wasn't hitting some of Christian Vasquez' targeted spots. There were a couple of instances where it appeared that Vasquez was calling for an off-speed knuckle curve, but Price's control waned and the pitch came in way upstairs.
Two recent solid starts from the former Cy Young winner have allowed Red Sox Nation to breathe a bit easier, but until Price maintains his success for a while, it shouldn't come as a shock to see some question the value of his contract in relation to his output.
For all that Price has struggled, though, the Sox have still had not just one, but two pitchers producing at an ace-like level. As a Rick Porcello fan from his humble beginnings with Detroit, it has definitely been refreshing to see the New Jersey native begin the season strong. With Porcello, traditionally a ground ball pitcher reliant upon a solid defense behind him, it was in no small part a tricep injury that prevented him from putting up numbers in 2015 comparable to his 3.43 ERA during his last season with Detroit in 2014.
With pitchers especially, they try to play through their injuries rather than taking some time to rest and recover, and that in turn ruins their performances. Although Porcello gave up a season-high four runs against the Royals on Tuesday, he still maintains a WHIP of 1.08, which has him within the league's top-20, trailing teammate and additional unlikely hero Steven Wright by all of 0.1.
Wright originally wasn't even supposed to have a spot in the Sox's starting rotation, but after Eduardo Rodriguez's spring training knee injury, it was the knuckleballer's turn and a chance to prove himself, which he "Wrightfully" has. [Editor's note: I am sorry.]
After receiving specialized instruction from the most successful knuckler in team history and new Red Sox Hall of Famer, Tim Wakefield, Wright has settled in not only with his knuckleball, but with a steady curve as well. Although the knuckleballer picked up the loss in a tight 3-2 victory for Kansas City, Wright threw a total of of 101 pitches in eight innings, proving his ability to maintain a stable and relatively low pitch count. Wright leads his team in not only ERA, but WHIP and batting average against as well, so there's more to his season than just the runs he's allowed.
Even if we give Price the benefit of the doubt, though, that's still just three spots. But as tempting as it might be to try to rush to find answers for the other two, it is crucial for Boston to ease the remaining and recently inactive portions of their pitching arsenal back into the organization.
After a scoreless 6-1/3 inning outing in Triple-A Pawtucket, Joe Kelly is expected to start against the Indians on Saturday after battling a right shoulder impingement. That much, at least, is progressing according to plan.
On the other hand, Eduardo Rodriguez's return to this Red Sox rotation has been halted due to more soreness in the knee that was injured during spring training. It's possible that the Sox were too ambitious with his original rehabilitation regimen and his underwhelming 4.23 ERA in Pawtucket along with his fastball's drop in velocity might be due to the accelerated initial schedule. The recent setback forces management to allow E-Rod a looser recovery period now, which may be for the best if they intend to have him at 100 percent at any point this year. As mentioned previously, pitching struggles are oftentimes caused in part by an injury that wasn't allowed to heal properly.
How many slots the Red Sox need to fill is not entirely clear. Clay Buchholz is a bit of an enigma. We will have to see how he does against Cleveland on Friday, but another thought is to try him out in the bullpen. The veteran probably would see such a move as a demotion, but if we look at Buchholz's strengths and weaknesses, this might be a way for him to provide effective innings, which as of late he has not.
An original scouting report on Texas native revealed (rampant "headcase" narratives notwithstanding) that he's been known to "pitch well under pressure." Additionally, Buchholz seems to overstretch himself when successful, or in other words has issues with endurance. The greatest stretch in his career came in 2013 when he went 9-0 and maintained a 1.74 ERA. But this streak, like others, was ended when he was beset by a neck injury that didn't resolve itself until the postseason of that year. This could do him well in a high-intensity situation and could allow him less opportunity to stretch his endurance. This seems like a long-shot, but it might be worth a try, particularly if he continues to give the Red Sox nothing in the rotation.
The bullpen, too, hasn't gone perfectly according to plan. The unlikely stylings of Heath Hembree and Robbie Ross Jr. have given Boston some quality innings of relief when starting pitching has been inconsistent (namely Price and Buchholz) or simply injured (Kelly and Rodriguez). In 16 and 15 innings of work so far respectively, Hembree and Ross have produced ERAs of 1.76 and 2.81. On the other hand, closer turned set-up man Koji Uehara's age has continued to catch up with him as on Tuesday night he allowed three runs, two on a homer and another on a throwing error from the Osaka native himself. Through his first five appearances in May before Tuesday, Uehara had only surrendered one run. It is crucial for the 41 year old to be used sparingly throughout the season in order to keep him viable into the late months of the year.
The relief corps also has an ongoing injury saga much like Rodriguez' with Carson Smith, who was acquired for Wade Miley from the Seattle Mariners during the off-season. John Farrell reported that Smith was suffering soreness in his right flexor muscle and stated that another DL stint "remains a possibility, but not necessarily a probability." Both young pitchers should be handled delicately instead of being pressed to join Boston's staff. Anyone would rather get the return of a starter or a reliever a month later if the alternative is a poor performance preceding a return to the DL.
One thing that's gone exactly as expected: when needed, Craig Kimbrel has proven to be effective. His numbers haven't been historic (yet) for Boston. But he's tied for 7th amongst closers in saves and has only blown one opportunity, converting 11-of-12. So far, this Dombrowski deal has proven effective for the Red Sox.
It's crucial to remember that the types of teams that are resilient and prove the most successful in October are those who have consistent pitching. Whether that stems from the starters (the Mets) or the bullpen (the Royals), cohesion on the mound is a must. So far, for having had terrible starts from Price, Buchholz, and Kelly, the Red Sox are actually performing remarkably well in the standings, and are perhaps not quite as far from having that cohesive staff as one would expect. But they are still at least one big step away from having the sort of unit that they can count as a strength. It will be interesting to see how they try to take that step.