Generally speaking, the Red Sox rotation is in tremendous shape as we speak. Chris Sale has probably been the best pitcher in baseball this year and has put himself firmly in the MVP discussion, never mind being atop the Cy Young race. Drew Pomeranz has been a huge boost and will could very well garner some down-ballot Cy Young votes himself. Eduardo Rodriguez is still searching for a bit of consistency, but his last start against New York was a massive step in the right direction. Rick Porcello isn’t and almost certainly won’t be back to his 2016 level, but he’s been much more acceptable of late and is at the very least giving his team a chance to win the game. It’s hard to be upset with the pitching staff at the moment.
That being said, the fifth spot is still up in the air. David Price is still working his way back from his elbow injury, and at this point it’s unclear when he’ll be able to return. In fact, there’s still no guarantee he returns at all, though based on comments by those in positions of authority it seems much more likely than not that we’ll see him in 2017. In the meantime, Doug Fister has been taking his spot in the rotation. Since coming to Boston, the former Tigers and Mariners starter has been a bit of a roller coaster. He got off to a rough start, then immediately following Price’s injury put forth a couple of great efforts. Unfortunately, his third start following the injury came on Monday night, and it did not go well.
In the start against the Indians at Fenway, Fister only made it through 4 1⁄3 innings and allowed five runs on on seven hits and four walks with five strikeouts. Cleveland obviously has a very good lineup and they’ve beaten pitchers much better than Fister. That being said, the Red Sox fifth starter was markedly and noticeable worse than he’d been in his previous two starts, one of which was against that same Indians lineup.
Most noticeable on Monday was his lack of command that resulted in hard contact and walks. Fister has never really been the type of pitcher to rely solely on his stuff, and that’s especially true now that he is reaching the end of his career. When he was succeeding in that little two-start run, it was because he was painting the edges of the zone consistently. So, after that rough outing on Monday, the question becomes just how much longer the Red Sox can keep running him out as their fifth starter as they continue to wait for Price’s return.
I have a feeling that I know on which side most people reading this will be, and I can’t say that I blame people if they do feel like it’s time to move on from Fister. That being said, I think there is one point that needs to be brought up with regards to the righty’s merits in the rotation. After his two very good starts (which, I should probably mention, included five runs being allowed over 14 innings of work against the Indians and White Sox), there was plenty of talk from John Farrell about a mechanical change made by Fister. The change supposedly tweaked his delivery a bit and helped him with a more consistent release point. A consistent delivery is the key to pitching and is especially important for a pitcher who relies on command over stuff. Using my untrained eyes, I didn’t notice a change between Fister on Monday and his previous two starts, so it could be worth giving him more chances to show that the mechanical changes did indeed make a difference and that Monday was more the outlier.
On the other side of the coin, the biggest argument in favor of moving on from Fister is that they have the extra depth to justify it. Since taking Fister out of the rotation would likely mean designating him for assignment — I’d be somewhat surprised if they kept him in the bullpen, though I thought the same thing earlier in the year when he was originally bumped from the rotation. There’s some inherent risk in this kind of move because any team is always just one injury away from needing to dig deeper into the depth chart, but the Red Sox are uniquely suited to get through that kind of worst-case situation. Beyond Fister, they have Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez, both of whom have shown they can succeed at the major-league level and both of whom have been performing well at Triple-A. They also have Jalen Beeks, who only reached Triple-A halfway through this year but has real talent and is better than most (pretty much all?) teams’ break-in-case-of-emergency option. Justin Haley provides yet another option after recently being returned from the Twins after Minnesota took him off their 25-man roster.
In the end, I think I come down on the side of giving him one more start. It’s entirely possible that I’m being naive, but I think there’s a chance those mechanical changes made a real difference for Fister and I don’t believe one bad start is enough to throw that possibility out the window. Additionally, the team’s cushion atop the American League East gives them a little more leeway. That being said, I’d also try to find a way (optioning Robby Scott, for example) to call up Johnson or Velazquez as a piggyback option in case it’s clear from the jump that Fister doesn’t have it. More than anything else, I think this situation tells us just how important Price is for the perception of this rotation and how much better this roster appears when the lefty is healthy.