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Rotation health was the engine that drove Boston’s surprising success

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It was the biggest surprise and provided key stability.

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American League Championship Series Game 6: Boston Red Sox v. Houston Astros Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’m not sure if you heard the news, but the Red Sox were a much better team than anyone expected before the season. The projection systems largely saw this team maxing out their win total somewhere in the mid-80s, and speaking personally I was even lower, predicting they would finish the season below .500. We know what happened instead, and there were a lot of reasons for it. We’re surely going to dig deeper into some specific points where real life diverged with the projection systems for the 2021 Red Sox, but to me there was one big picture quality that led them to their heights above all else.

The starting pitching health for this team was both the biggest surprise for this roster as well as the most important factor for their surprising overall success. Even before the season with my low prediction, it was with the specification that there was no way this rotation was going to stay healthy. That is not to pat myself on the back because my prediction was still extremely wrong, but rather to illustrate how it was essentially a foregone conclusion that this team was going to suffer blows to their rotation hitting the injured list. Instead, none of their main five starting pitchers hit the non-COVID injured list.

Boston Red Sox vs Houston Astros Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

The idea that they were going to be suffering from injuries to their rotation certainly didn’t come out of left field, in fairness to myself and most others who were worried about this back in March. Nathan Eovaldi hadn’t thrown as many as 150 innings since 2015 and hadn’t started as many as 30 games since 2014. Eduardo Rodriguez had thrown 200 innings and started 30 games just once, and was of course coming off an entire missed season as well as myocarditis as a result of COVID. Garrett Richards hadn’t thrown as many as 80 innings since 2015. Neither Nick Pivetta nor Martín Pérez had done much in recent years to prove their performance would be worthy of staying in the rotation for the whole season.

That group had no business staying healthy all year, with three of them starting all year. Eovaldi is going to get Cy Young votes. Rodriguez’ performance was all over the place all year, but him taking the ball every five days is an incredibly improbable accomplishment. Pivetta had his own rollercoaster, but the good outweighed the bad by a large enough margin that he not only stuck in the rotation all year, but it wasn’t really ever a consideration to take him out. Richards and Pérez did pitch themselves out of the rotation, but were able to maintain their space until some of the other depth was able to get healthy.

Now, it should be clear that it is a different thing to say that the rotation health drove their surprising success than saying their rotation itself was the reason they were able to win 92 games. For the most part, the rotation was never the best part of the roster, though I do think that was true for some stretches in the first half. But even if they weren’t always carrying the performance on the field, they provided an unexpected stability.

And that was especially key because, while the major-league roster remained mostly healthy on the pitching side, the same couldn’t be said of their depth. They entered the year with Tanner Houck and Connor Seabold as the expected sixth and seventh starters, but both were out for most of the first half. If the big-league rotation had suffered an injury or two during that stretch, they would have been left scrambling, likely would have stumbled a few times in those first couple of months, and that early-season momentum is never gained. Houck ended up staying healthy in the second half, and Chris Sale ultimately came back, leaving Richards and Pérez out of the picture, but their mere presence in before losing their rotation spot was sneaky important.

In looking at things with more of a long-term view, this surprising health may not really factor in as much. From the outside, it’s hard not to look at this as luck. Pitching injuries happen all the time, and the best predictor of injury is previous injury. Given that, the Red Sox were due for injuries and they didn’t come. It’s hard to count on that repeating year after year. That being said, there should be some credit given to coaching and training setting up offseason programs and getting their pitchers ready for an unprecedented season after the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

On the other hand, that certainly is not a reason the team can care a little bit less about starting pitching depth, something that presumably would not enter their mind. It’s hard not to give the organization some credit here for succeeding where so many other teams did not in 2021, and where they really didn’t have any right succeeding given the injury history of the pitchers in question. But even if it was just a lucky year, at the very least it played a major role in giving us much more entertainment than we were expecting in the late summer and into the fall.