Think back to the beginning of last year, when the Red Sox employed an interesting strategy to put together their rotation, relying heavily on inducing ground balls. They got Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley, making the common thread rather obvious. It wasn’t an overly talented group, but keeping the ball on the ground would help limit the damage. So went the logic, at least. Well, it didn’t quite work out as planned as the pitching staff finished 23rd in groundball rate by Baseball Prospectus’ measure and tied for 21st by Fangraphs’ measure. The staff’s overall performance may not have been as atrocious as some would have you believe for the whole season, but there’s no denying that it played a role in the disappointing season.
This year, things are undoubtedly different in terms of strategy and most likely different in terms of results. Boston sort of ditched their ground ball plan with Masterson and Miley gone and David Price replacing them. Thus far, the pitching still hasn’t been great, though to be fair it hasn’t been anything close to a disaster, either. As of this writing, the staff is 17th in ERA- and 19th in FIP-, putting them squarely in the bottom half of the league. However, BP’s pitching stats like them quite a bit more, as they rank 10th in DRA- and 14th in cFIP. This staff could definitely be worse, and they have shown they can help win games. Still, everyone would be happier if it took just a slight step forward.
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Thought it wasn’t the focus coming into the season, the lack of ground balls in coming into play again. It’s not to the same extent, but it’s an issue that becomes increasingly clear the longer you look into the team’s home run numbers.
Now, let’s mention a few things about these home run numbers before we get back to the ground balls so as to not be misleading. For one thing, it’s not as big of an issue as some could have you believe. Their 1.16 home run per nine innings rate isn’t ideal at all, but it’s roughly a league-average mark that puts them 16th in all of baseball. They also play Baltimore and Toronto a whole lot, and those teams are super good at hitting the ball over the fence. Of course, they’re not going to stop playing the Orioles and Blue Jays no matter how nicely they ask.
The interesting — and slightly distressing — thing about all these home runs is they way they are coming. The Red Sox pitchers aren’t just giving up a bunch of long fly balls that always go over the fence. Only one team above them in the HR/9 standings has a lower home run to fly ball ratio, and they find themselves just outside the bottom-third of the league. The real issue has been the sheer volume of fly balls. Those are going to leave the park with some regularity, especially against some of these AL East lineups in some of these AL East ballparks.
Basically, it would be super helpful if they could get some more ground balls. While we acknowledge it wasn’t a major part of the plan like it was last year, I think one would’ve still expected them to be better than this. Through Monday’s action, the pitching staff is second-to-last in both BP’s and FG’s respective ground ball rate leaderboards. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but I wanted to particularly highlight the two most egregious offenders relative to their respective track records in this department.
The first is Rick Porcello, who has looked like a resurgent pitcher for much of this year but also owns overall numbers that don’t reflect that fact. The issue has clearly been his last few starts, and the issue in those starts has been the long ball. For the second straight year, Porcello is inducing a disappointing lack of ground balls, with another 47 percent rate. The strange thing is that he’s gotten back to his former pitch mix, relying much more heavily on his sinker than he did last season. It’s roughly the same usage as his pre-Red Sox career, which one would think would lead to those 50+ percent ground ball rates. The issue has been the placement of his sinker, which has left much to be desired.
The above gif compares his zone profile on his sinker from this season to those of his Tigers’ career. The issue, clearly, is that he is not getting on top of the ball and is leaving it up in the zone as well as out over the plate instead of in on right-handed bats. Again, this hasn’t been a consistent issue persistent over the whole season, but it’s still troubling and needs to be fixed. Right now, Porcello has an even higher home run rate than he did in 2015. If he can start getting that sinker back down in the zone, he’ll be right back to the guy he was just a few weeks ago.
The other player is Clay Buchholz. With him being out of the rotation, this is more about the past than the future with him, since we don’t know if there is any future as a starter. Still, possibly the biggest issue for Buchholz this year was the lack of ground balls. Typically at least around 50 percent in ground ball rate, he fell all the way down to 40 percent this season, per BP. Unsurprisingly with a fall this large, there was no one pitch to pinpoint, as they all induced fewer grounders than ever. All of that culminated in a career-high 1.7 HR/9. The hope has to be that he figures out what’s ailing him in shorter stints and can carry that back into the rotation if they need him there.
There is also Eduardo Rodriguez, but we’re dealing with too small of sample to be concerned about right now. He’s made just two starts, and the last one is the one that really killed him with home runs. We don’t want to see that again, but it’s too early to panic or anything.
I want to reiterate that it’s not time to panic with this rotation just yet. Overall, things are fine if also underwhelming. Still, the home runs issues are creeping up lately and that can be devastating to an AL East team. The pitchers can offset that by giving up fewer fly balls and, conversely, inducing more ground balls. Specifically, Porcello needs to keep his sinker in check and Buchholz needs to use shorter stints to get back to his old self. Grounders weren’t emphasized like they were last year, but a few more still couldn’t hurt.