The Red Sox are obviously in great shape to start the year, but there is still a long way to go in this season and they’ll need to stay vigilant and avoid complacency. There’s no real reason for concern, of course, because this team is wildly talented and there’s no reason to expect complacency from anyone on the roster. The rotation in particular should be a weapon, as when they are at full strength the expectation is that they are one of the best units in all of baseball. On the surface, the rotation is already at full strength as their five best starting pitchers are on the active roster. Of course, it’s hard to say they’re really at full strength as they haven’t gotten peak performances from everyone just yet. Most notably, Drew Pomeranz has not been encouraging since returning from the disabled list, despite it being just two starts.
In a way, it’s not terribly surprising that the lefty is struggling have just returned from injury. He didn’t have a spring training — the forearm injury came one inning into his first Grapefruit League start and caused him to miss all of camp — and he made only two rehab appearances. That’s not a lot of time to build up arm strength, and that is showing in a big way early on. Of course, that’s also not me making an excuse for him or the team, as there’s no reason to rush him back if he wasn’t ready.
Based on the numbers and the ol’ eye test, it’s pretty clear that he has not been ready. He’s made it through only 8 2⁄3 innings combined over his two outings and has an ERA of 7.27 to go with 11 strikeouts and four walks. The K/BB ratio isn’t too bad, but it also doesn’t come close to telling the entire story because he has just been incredible hittable.
The underlying numbers and pitch data do not paint a pretty picture, and they back up the concern that has been hard to avoid while watching the first two Pomeranz starts of 2018. First and foremost among those issues, of course, is the fastball velocity. This was the most noticeable portion of his starts so far, and the biggest reason for concern. Pomeranz has obviously never really been a fireballer, but over the last couple of years he’s been able to consistently sit in the low-90s and could get it up to 93-94 when needed. Early on this year, he’s been sitting in the high-80s and when he’s dialing it up he’s getting to 91-92. That’s....well, it’s not going to work.
One bit of positivity that has come from this from some is to point at last season, which got off to a similar start to this one. Pomeranz also missed some time to begin the 2017 campaign, and he had some issues with the long ball and hard contact in general when he first returned. As we know, he turned it around fairly quickly and was a key component to a division-winning club. That’s all well and good, and it’s some reason for optimism, but it wasn’t the same thing. There were different issues he was overcoming beyond the fastball velocity, which was sitting safely in the 91-94 range he should be living.
It’s not just the fastball velocity that is hurting Pomeranz this year, either. While that is certainly a major issue and something to monitor, it’s also being combined with the lefty not showing much confidence in his secondaries. He’s thrown his fastball — which, again, is a solid 3-5 mph slower than it should be — about sixty percent of the time (counting both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs) in both of his first two starts, per Brooks Baseball. Last season, he averaged a usage in the low-50 percent range with these pitches, and when he was at his best it was below 50 percent. For Pomeranz to succeed and really pitch to his potential, he needs his curveball — which he’s throwing just 25 percent of the time in 2018 compared to just below 40 percent last year — along with at least some token confidence in his cutter and/or changeup. That has not been the case this year, and it’s led to predictability with a subpar fastball.
All of that, unsurprisingly, has led to a major downturn in terms of pure stuff and swing-and-miss ability. This may sound surprising considering that he has 11 strikeouts in his 8 2⁄3 innings, but that is more of a batter of small sample size than anything. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he is missing bats at a rate below 20 percent for the first time since his first taste of major-league competition. Perhaps even more telling is that most of those issues have come on pitches in the zone. I’ve always look at contact rate on pitches in the zone as the best indicator of pure stuff, as the top of that leaderboard is generally made up of the top arms in the game like Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel, among others. Below, you can compare how often opponents are making contact at various points of the strike zone last year versus this year.
Obviously, we’re dealing with a really small sample size and, like we talked about before, a pitcher who didn’t have a spring training. None of this is indicative of a pitcher who is doomed to fail for the entire season or someone who should be written off completely right now. That being said, it’s hard to have any confidence in Pomeranz until he gives us a reason to change our tune. Wednesday’s start is an opportunity to do just that. Maybe it is just a matter of building arm strength, and maybe he’s there now. If he comes out throwing in the 90s right off the bat and is working in his curveball, we can have some faith that the lefty is ready to get back to his 2017 self. If the velocity still isn’t there and he’s still not showing faith in the secondaries, well, maybe it’s time to shut Pomeranz back down and let him build himself back up somewhere other than a major-league mound. The Red Sox are in a position where they can afford to give up a little now to make sure they are set up well for later, and making sure Pomeranz is at his best is a big part of that.