Drew Pomeranz takes the mound on Wednesday to continue what has been a very strange campaign for the lefty. This was a big season for the perception of him around this city and around the league as a whole. He came in trying to prove that his first half in San Diego last year was legit and the Red Sox weren’t insane to trade a prospect as valuable as Anderson Espinoza for his services. The year obviously didn’t get off to a great start, as Pomeranz started his season late thanks to an injury. Now that he’s back on the mound, it’s been the ultimate roller coaster ride. At times he’s looked like a borderline major-league pitcher, at other times he’s looked like someone you wouldn’t mind handing the ball to in an early playoff game, and there have been times when he’s looked like something in between.
We’re now coming up on a year since he joined the Red Sox, and I don’t think anyone can confidently say they know who he is at this point. He’s been a little bit of everything depending on the day. This is sort of a big deal as the Red Sox need to figure out what they have in their rotation ahead of the trade deadline. Obviously, Pomeranz isn’t the only question mark in the group, but the others (read: Rick Porcello and David Price) have mostly just been bad, and the question is whether or not they are going to get back to their normal level of performance. That can be an easier question to answer than when you have someone like Pomeranz with whom you can’t even figure out the general area of his true-talent level.
In the end, it all comes down to consistency. The Red Sox need Pomeranz to be the efficient version of himself almost every time out instead of, like, one out of every three starts. Fortunately, there seems to be a relatively simple — at least on the surface — solution to the consistency conundrum. Pomeranz needs to be a three-pitch pitcher. More specifically, he needs to start leaning more on his cutter.
If you’ll recall, this was a major reason for the southpaw’s breakout in San Diego last year. The fact that there was a tangible explanation for his uptick in performance was one of the factors in the Red Sox being willing to pay so much (in prospects) for the lefty. Then, for much of this season he’s abandoned the pitch.
Lately, though, he’s been throwing the offering much more often and the results have been positive. In fact, when he’s pitching well you can pretty much guarantee he made the cutter a bigger part of his repertoire. After throwing the cutter over 11 percent of the time in 2016, Pomeranz has only had three starts in 2017 in which he’s thrown the pitch at least ten percent of the time. Those three starts? May 25 against Texas, May 31 against the White Sox, and June 16 against the Astros. As it happens, those have been arguably his three best starts of the season.
Even when he’s using it, the cutter is never Pomeranz’ top pitch. His fastball generated plenty of whiffs, particularly up in the zone, and his curveball can be truly special at times. With that being said, his cutter is extremely effective when it’s used. And after having so much success with it last year, it’s been even better in its sparing use in 2017. We’re dealing with a tiny sample of only 68 pitches, so take these numbers with a grain of salt, but it is inducing whiffs on nearly 40 percent of swings and ground balls on half of balls in play. For context, last season the pitch induced whiffs about a quarter of swings and grounders on about 40 percent of balls in play.
So, why isn’t he using it more? The answer almost certainly comes down to health. While every pitch comes with an unnatural movement that can lead to injury, the cutter lends to more strain on the arm. It’s the reason he opted not to throw the pitch early in his rehab, and likely why it took so long for him to utilize it this season.
The Red Sox need a consistent Pomeranz moving forward, particularly with the struggles from Porcello and Price of late. There are many factors in the lefty’s performance, but lately it’s all come down to the usage of his cutter. When he throws the pitch, he has success. Keeping him healthy is obviously a priority, but the Red Sox and Pomeranz need to find a healthy balance to figure out a way to work that pitch into the mix more. It doesn’t have to be a ton, but if he can throw it between ten and fifteen percent of the time in any given outing he’s proven that he can get strong results.