It is definitely unfair to be putting any amount of pressure on Rick Porcello heading into Sunday afternoon’s game in Seattle as the Red Sox look to salvage a series split to begin 2019. It is his first start of the season and it’s not even April yet. Every game counts the same, of course, but this is essentially an extension of spring training for the starters. Porcello tossed just 12 innings over three starts in spring as Alex Cora has eased his pitchers into the year. Major league pitchers are competitive enough that they feel pressure to perform every time they take the mound, but given all of the context around this start it’s not really fair to add anything extra onto Porcello’s plate on Sunday. And yet, it feels somewhat important for the righty to get deep into the series finale and give the bullpen a breather.
As you probably have noticed, the Red Sox rotation has had a really rough start to the season through three games. Obviously, the “three games’ portion of that last sentence is the important one. We’re not going to suggest there’s any reason to panic or anything like that, and I don’t get the sense that many people are actually doing so. That said, it’s still not fun to watch performances like this, and they can have real effects. Specifically, they create a whole lot of work for a bullpen that was ideally not supposed to be a major factor in as many games as possible. West coast trips are hard enough, and forcing an undermanned (by talent, not by number of pitchers) group into a larger workload isn’t going to help anybody.
Consider the three outings we’ve seen from the rotation thus far. Chris Sale made it through just three innings, allowing seven runs. Nathan Eovaldi made it through five innings allowing six runs. Eduardo Rodriguez only lasted 4 1⁄3 innings allowing six runs (five earned). All of them had some real concerns — Chris Sale’s command was disastrous, Nathan Eovaldi couldn’t get whiffs and Eduardo Rodriguez again tried to be too crafty instead of attacking hitters — but all of that can be fixed and/or chalked up to a one-start sample. The rotation is supposed to be a major strength for the Red Sox in 2019, and three bad starts isn’t going to change that outlook.
At the same time, these bad starts did still happen and they do still have some consequences. Specifically, all of these short outings have to be made up by the bullpen. Theoretically, at least, the arms in the bullpen are fresh right now since these are the first three games of the year. And, to their credit, this group that has had so much (legitimate) concern around them heading into the year have looked really solid in these first three games. Still, these west coast trips are always a drag even when things are going well. There is an argument to be made that having this eleven-game trip through the pacific time zone right at the start of the year is the best time to do it, but even if you acknowledge that it’s still eleven days in a row with games, all far away from home and family. These trips have a way to drain players, as is human nature, and putting extra work on the bullpen isn’t going to help anyone.
Consider that through just three games Boston relievers have thrown 12 2⁄3 innings. That puts them sixth in the league behind Seattle, Oakland, Arizona, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. The first two teams have played two more games than anyone else while Arizona and L.A. played a 13-inning marathon the other night. That just leaves Milwaukee as a fair comparison, and even they just generally have more of a bullpen-heavy strategy. The point being, they’ve been worked a lot. That can be fine over a three-game stretch, but if it continues it’s going to catch up with the roster one way or another. Either pitchers are going to start to be overworked and watch their performance drop, or someone like Colten Brewer and Hector Velázquez, both of whom have options, will be sacrificed to Pawtucket for fresher arms.
All of that brings us back to Porcello, who takes the mound for Sunday’s start. Like I said at the top, it’s not really fair to put added pressure onto the righty for his first start of the year. The Red Sox do need a long start at some point soon, and Porcello is a good candidate to get it done. Alex Cora said before Saturday’s game he wanted one from Rodriguez, but Porcello is much more likely to pound the strike zone and challenge hitters. There’s always a risk this red-hot Mariners lineup will be able to jump on him, but Boston would sure love to see some sharp stuff from Porcello and have him get through seven innings of solid pitching. The coaching staff would thank him, the relievers arms would thank him and most of all relievers with options like Brewer and Velázquez would surely thank him.