Everyone knows the Red Sox have the best offense in not just the American League, but baseball as a whole. The second most prolific team is 90 runs short of Boston’s 845, and even when adjusting for the league and the parks they play in, the Sox are far ahead of the second-place Cubs and Mariners. The Sox can mash, and they can mash better than anyone else, no contest.
The question, though, has always been whether or not they can pitch. Fans had to live through the dark days of Sean O’Sullivan, Joe Kelly, and the still-broken Eduardo Rodriguez and Clay Buchholz getting starts by the handful. David Price was an early-season bust and only the miracle of Steven Wright was keeping them afloat. Then there were the weeks where no lead seemed safe as the bullpen imploded time and again, leaving the starters in eight-innings-or-bust territory.
And yet, when we throw all the bad together and mix it up, we come out the other side with...a top-10 staff by ERA in the majors. Top-4 in the American League, and top-3 by FIP. And one of those teams ahead of them are the Indians, who are left with a three-man rotation for October and even then have to go with some less-than-desirable arms due to injury.
Every team has something like Cleveland’s late-season injuries which will make the numbers appear to “lie”, if you will. For the Red Sox, you can point to current Eduardo Rodriguez vs. Eduardo Rodriguez’ season line as easily as you can to the current absence of Steven Wright from the playoff picture. You can’t get a perfect idea of where a team’s pitching staff stands looking only at whole-season numbers, but the lies tend to even out except in the most extreme cases (as in Cleveland).
Still, these Red Sox don’t have the feel of one of the better staffs in the playoff picture. The bullpen’s historic month has certainly helped their image, but their rotation? Even if Wright’s absence is balanced out by Rodriguez’ deceptive numbers to give a fairly genuine look at the rotation, we’re still talking about a group that heavily features multiple pitchers with ERAs well over four (taking into account Pomeranz’ time with the Sox only). How do they end up that high on the rankings?
A lot of this has to do, I think, with expectations, and our understanding of the environment. It’s been a long time since the height of the Steroid era saw teams averaging up around five runs per game. And we’re not back to that point by any means. But we also saw the trend drop from the heights of offense down to the depths. In 2014, that number fell all the way to 4.07 runs per game. That’s the lowest total this league has seen since 1981, and most of the lower-scoring seasons come from the dead ball era.
As the league changed, so too did our expectations. A 3.75 ERA stopped being good, and a 4.00 ERA stopped being average. But the way these things work, there’s a certain amount of lag. It’s hard to see that the big picture applies to everyone, and it’s not just your team that’s suddenly giving up more runs. We all get there, certainly, it just takes a bit.
So no, the Red Sox don’t have a particularly good rotation or bullpen or pitching staff by 2014 standards, or even 2015. But 2016? In 2016 the average team has an ERA nearly half-a-run higher than in 2014, up at 4.19 even with the NL mixed in. The Red Sox’ rotation drops off heavily after the first arms? They’re going to have to pitch a Clay Buchholz or a less-than-full-strength Drew Pomeranz? That just makes them normal. Everyone has flaws this year. Big flaws, even. The Sox, it turns out, are actually less flawed than most teams.