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The groundball conundrum

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The Red Sox shortcomings affect their offseason plans.

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Miami Marlins v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox entered this offseason needing to shore up their rotation, whether that meant simply bringing back Eduardo Rodriguez to remain in the middle of the starting group or find someone from outside the organization. Rodriguez quickly eliminated that first path by signing an early deal with the Detroit Tigers, and the Red Sox have yet to find a replacement unless you count the Michael Wacha signing, which I do not. The good news is that there is still a lot of offseason left, though exactly how much is unclear given the coming lockout and the time missed that will result. The bad news is the market is moving extremely quickly right now, both speaking generally and about the starting pitching market specifically.

With many of the top starting pitching free agents already signing news deals, including arguably the top two on Monday with Max Scherzer heading to the New York Mets and Robbie Ray to the Seattle Mariners, the “it’s still early in the offseason” rebuttal means less and less with each passing day. Still, it’s not meaningless in the literal sense and there are some solid pitchers available. In terms of projected WAR from FanGraphs, the top two names left are Carlos Rodón and Clayton Kershaw. Each would look great in a Red Sox uniform, but come with big price tags (most likely) and major injury concerns. With Kershaw, there is the added consideration that it seems like he’ll either be in L.A. or Texas.

I do think Rodón is a name worth considering, but we’ll save that conversation for another day and instead take a look at the next tier of pitchers, which are the guys who are not stars but are solidly above-average. Given the presence of Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Sale at the top of the Red Sox rotation there’s an argument to make that this is exactly the tier that the Red Sox should be targeting. That tier right now just includes Marcus Stroman and Yusei Kikuchi, with Alex Cobb also being included as recently as Monday night before reportedly nearing a deal with with San Francisco.

Boston could have been in on Cobb, and in a vacuum these pitchers all make sense. Stroman has been at least 25 percent better than league-average by park-adjusted ERA in three of the last four seasons, and has pitched in big markets as well as the AL East. Cobb has been very solid the last two years and had elite peripherals in an injury-shortened 2021. Kikuchi misses bats and has pitched to an ERA much worse than his FIP in each of his three major-league seasons. None of these three are starts, but each is projected for over two wins, which is a quality big-league starter.

The issue for the Red Sox is that we do not exist in a vacuum. (I mean, I suppose that’s not an issue in the sense that we’d all die if that was the case, but you get my drift.) Besides being projected as solid pitchers in 2022, the other thing all three of these pitchers have in common is that they lean heavily on the ground ball. Both Stroman and Cobb consistently put up ground ball rates over 50 percent, while Kikuchi sat at 48 percent in 2021 and was over 50 percent in 2020. In this era of launch angle, the league-average ground ball rate was a tick below 43 percent in 2021.

Los Angeles Angels v Seattle Mariners
Yusei Kikuchi
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

While keeping the ball on the ground is conventionally a good thing for a pitcher to aim for, it’s not the kind of thing that translates into any situation. With the Red Sox, it is particularly a problem. It is no secret that the team has problems on the infield with their defense, and they are among the worst in the game at defending ground balls. Statcast has their Outs Above Average metric which measures defense compared to the plays they make compared to those they are expected to make, and by that measure the Red Sox infield was the worst in all of baseball. They finished off with a -35, “beating” out the Brewers, who finished with a -31. Looking elsewhere, Boston also allowed the highest batting average in baseball on ground balls.

This situation leaves them in a tough spot with this particular free agent market, and with Stroman in particular. In terms of true talent level and what the Red Sox are looking for, he feels like the perfect fit. The righty, as mentioned above, has pitched very well in recent years, and will cost just money as he does not come with draft pick compensation attached. I certainly won’t be upset if the Red Sox sign him given those reasons. On the other hand, he, as well as Kikuchi and the now-signed Cobb, relies on ground balls. It seems incredibly unlikely the Red Sox see a facelift with their defense on the dirt this year, and thus it feels as though it’s impossible for Boston to get the kind of value they’d be looking for from Stroman or any of the other similar pitchers in his free agent tier.