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One Big Question: Can Drew Pomeranz continue to shut down right-handed hitters?

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It’s been a key to his past, and is huge for his future

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Drew Pomeranz

The Question: Can Drew Pomeranz continue to perform so well against right-handed opponents?

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this at all over the course of this long winter, but the Red Sox should have a very good pitching staff. If everything goes to plan, it will be this staff — and specifically the rotation — that carries them to postseason play. It’s very talented and very deep, a combination that is rare throughout this league. Drew Pomeranz is a big part of that, just as he was a big part of the reason Boston won the American League East in 2017. As the roster stands now, assuming health for everyone, the lefty is pegged as the number three starter in the rotation. In fact, if everything goes according to plan, he could very well be among the top number three pitchers in all of baseball. With all of that being said, some still seemingly view Pomeranz as something of a wildcard whose performance could go a variety of ways. I suppose this is true of just about every player (particularly every pitcher) in baseball, but it seems like a strange designation for Pomeranz.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Apparently it’s flown somewhat under the radar for whatever reason, but he’s been essentially the same pitcher for two years running, and that is a very good pitcher. In 2016 he posted a 3.32 ERA and he followed that up with an identical ERA in 2017. In 2016 he posted a 3.80 FIP compared to a 3.81 mark in 2017. He was 21 percent better than league average by DRA in 2016 compared to 18 percent better in 2017. He posted a cFIP (the more predictive counterpart to Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing and descriptive DRA metric) of 88 in both seasons. He pitched in 31 games in 2016 and 32 games in 2017. These aren’t the numbers of an ace, of course, but this is a well above-average pitcher who has been eerily consistent for two years running.

A big reason for that consistency, and the crux of what we’re going to explore today, has been his success against right-handed pitching. Really, this is something that pretty much any successful left-handed starter is going to have in common, since opponents can generally load their lineups with right-handed platoon players when a southpaw takes the mound. Still, it’s been a difference-making quality for Pomeranz. In 2016, right-handed opponents hit just .209/.281/.381 and in 2017 they hit .240/.311/.383. Back-to-back sub-.700 OPS’ for a left-handed pitcher against righties in an offensive environment that continues to get more hitter-friendly is an impressive feat, and the continuation of that is key for Pomeranz moving forward.

This isn’t just important for the obvious reason that there are more righties in baseball than lefties, either. We’re in a period of time in baseball where righties are dominating the offensive landscape of the game, particularly in the American League. Just think about all of the righties that the Red Sox are going to be dealing with at the top of the American League in 2018. In New York alone they’ll have Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez in the middle of the order. The Astros boast a lineup with George Springer, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman. The Indians are a bit of a break in this regard, but they do have Edwin Encarnacion sitting in the middle of the lineup. The Angels (who I think belong in this tier of teams, though I’m sure others disagree) have Mike Trout and Justin Upton. That’s a crazy number of truly elite hitters from the right side, and they’ll be in the middle of the lineup in all of the big games the Red Sox play in 2018. Pomeranz (and the rest of the rotation) needs to be effective against them.

So, now the goal is to figure out why Pomeranz has been able to succeed against righties and see whether or not it is sustainable moving forward. To answer the first question, the numbers don’t really point a ton out, at least in terms of peripherals. His strikeout and walk numbers are fine, but really no different than you’d expect looking at his overall line. He has also given up a decent number of home runs without allowing it to break him, just like he has overall through his career. Instead, it’s been weak contact and a lack of hits on balls that stay in the yard. He allowed a .256 batting average on balls in play against righties in 2016 and a .285 mark in 2017.

It’s easy to look at those low BABIPs and call it good luck for Pomeranz. There’s a chance that’s true, but the southpaw’s repertoire also plays a role in this. The key for any pitcher to succeed against opposite-handed opponents is, generally speaking, a good offspeed pitch. Fastballs, cutters and even harder breaking balls are a little easier to recognize from the other side of the plate, but slower pitches can alleviate that advantage. Changeups are most associated with negating a platoon advantage, and it is the best pitch with which to offset such an advantage. Pomeranz doesn’t really throw a changeup, but he does throw a big looping curveball that he really leans on against righties. Sure enough, it’s paid off plenty with the offering generating a whiff on 30 percent of swings and generating ground balls on 65 percent of ground balls.

So, to get back to the original question, it seems that Pomeranz should indeed be able to continue this performance against right-handed powers. I won’t say that he definitely will because, ya know, I’m a coward, but there’s no good reason to believe he won’t. Pomeranz has been the same guy for two years, and there’s no reason to expect him to stop throwing his curveball or to expect the pitch to be any less effective. The loopy pitch is a huge weapon for Pomeranz, and as long as he keeps leaning on it when he can he’s going to have another strong season and likely get himself a fairly sizeable contract heading into 2019, whether it’s with the Red Sox or not.