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2021 Red Sox Positional Preview: Major League Starting Pitchers

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A look at what the rotation will look like in 2021.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, and all the rest of the prospects for each position. Today we look at the starting pitchers, starting here with the major leaguers, with the minor-league portion coming later today.

Overview

When PECOTA came out last month, I was pleasantly surprised by the Sox’s projection. It was an 80 win projection, a far cry from the 65-win pace of last year’s team. Combine recency bias with my general frustration with the team’s new organizational ethos and you get a skeptic. So I took a deep dive into PECOTA looking for an explanation for what I thought was a rosy projection and learned a lot (subscription required and recommended.) Without giving up the goods, here’s some things I found.

The Red Sox are going from terrible to average

There was an episode of For All You Kids Out There during the 2018 where Jarrett Seidler was talking about the Angels’ terrible third base situation. I forget the specifics of the conversation, but the lesson was that the easiest upgrades to make are from terrible to average. You cut the bad player and replace him with one of the many readily available average players at that position and wallah! You’ve instantly made a multi-WAR jump with minimal capital surrendered. Much easier than trying to upgrade something that’s already a position of strength where there aren’t as many upgrades available and where the cost will be higher.

The Red Sox did this with their rotation. Now, some of this is minimized by Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez opting out of 2020. It wasn’t their plan to go into the season with Ryan Weber as their third starter, but good teams have the depth necessary to combat injuries and this team did not. Their opening rotation last year was Nathan Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, Weber, Josh Osich, and Matt Hall. This year, they’re getting back Rodriguez, bringing back Eovaldi and Pérez, and are replacing Weber and Osich with Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta. Granted, Pivetta doesn’t have a good track record, but they don’t have to pencil him in for 160 innings because they signed Richards, Matt Andriese, and acquired Connor Seabold in the same deal with Pivetta. The Richards and Andriese signings along with Seabold and Pivetta have given this team some much needed depth, which is good news because…

PECOTA doesn’t project a single pitcher to throw 135 innings

This is not a durable rotation. Rodriguez has thrown 170 innings only twice in his pro career. Pérez has missed parts of three seasons with injuries. Richards spent several seasons trying to fight off Tommy John surgery before his UCL finally tore in 2018. Eovaldi has two Tommy Johns on file and last threw 160 innings in 2014. This stable isn’t going to stay healthy all year long and there’s a big chance several of them get hurt at once, depleting the depth they’ve accumulated. It’s not a matter of if, but when, Connor Seabold and Tanner Houck are making starts for this team. Chris Sale returning smoothly from his own Tommy John would do wonders, but they are in some trouble if they have to dig any deeper than Seabold and Houck before he makes his way back.

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Starters

Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, Nick Pivetta, Chris Sale

  • You might’ve forgotten, but Rodriguez was in the midst of breaking out as one of the best starters in the American League before the pandemic hit. The stuff was always there for Rodriguez, but injuries — and right knee injuries in particular — have plagued him since his days as a prospect. Last season, Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 and now has myocarditis. I have no idea how this will affect his performance on the field, but it makes me happy knowing that he’s seemingly doing well and able to play again. When things are cooking right (as we’ve seen this spring), he makes for a great number two starter perfectly capable of fronting a rotation.
  • Richards is the most viscerally fun pitcher on this staff. The delivery is violent, he throws wicked hard, and it moves. Richards, like most of this rotation, has a laundry list of injuries throughout his career ranging from a torn patellar tendon in his knee — which some might remember as it came against Boston at Fenwa y — to Tommy John surgery in 2018. He signed a two-year rehab contract with the Padres with the hopes of being back to full strength for the 2020 season, but the pandemic got in the way and he ended up throwing only 51 13 innings.

Richards was pedestrian out of the rotation and was shifted to the bullpen for the playoff stretch. The Sox aren’t paying him to come out of the bullpen, so we’ll get a chance to see if Richards can throw a full starter’s workload. Temper your expectations, however. Richards is 33 this season and has been in the bigs for 10 years.

  • The way you feel about Pérez depends on what your preferred pitching metric is. FanGraphs has Pérez as a career 10.9 WAR pitcher, Baseball-Reference pegs him as a 6.9 WAR pitcher, but Baseball Prospectus with their DRA model has him worth a ghastly -8.3 WARP with DRA’s of 6.34, 6.32, and 7.31 in the last 3 seasons. If you’re a BP loyalist, you’re bewildered and maybe even angry that the Sox insisted on bringing Pérez back when other, similarly priced pitchers were out there like Jose Quintana or James Paxton.

To be fair to Pérez, Baseball Reference’s WAR metric based off the simpler RA/9 (runs allowed per nine innings) had him worth a full win above replacement in his 62 innings last year. If you think he’s a true talent three-win pitcher, 1 year/$5 million is a steal and you run to the bank with your winnings. But Pérez’s archetype is riskier now than it’s ever been in the history of the game. Out of all pitchers since 2019 with at least 220 innings pitched, Pérez’s strikeout rate is the fifth worst in baseball, and he’s not extracting ground balls like prime Derek Lowe. Putting him in Fenway Park again is a big risk.

Speaking of risks, Pérez had Tommy John in 2014 and broke his right elbow in an incident involving a bull in 2017. In case you forgot, Pérez is an absolute savage and devoured the bull. I had forgotten all about that and it’s convinced me that this was actually a good signing.

  • Eovaldi used to be a confounding pitcher who threw as hard as anyone in baseball but couldn’t strike hitters out. That changed since his return from his second Tommy John surgery in 2018. I don’t know the exact reason for why this change occurred but here are some things that changed about his profile: He started throwing his cutter more, he put the slider in his back pocket, and in 2019 he solidified the curveball as a legitimate out pitch. If he can carbon copy his 2020, he’d be a solid middle rotation starter which is about as much as you can ask for out of the guy.

On the other hand, as Matt has written about before, Eovaldi struggled with his control for the first time since his rookie season in 2019 and 2020 was abbreviated. As of now, 2019 is the clear outlier so the odds are in his favor of retaining his control. The other thing about his control is that it’s not command. Similar to Nick Pivetta below, Eovaldi throws a lot of strikes but is shaky in the zone and that leaves him prone to hard contact. This is how you get someone who throws hard, doesn’t walk a ton of people, but still gets hit hard because they don’t have the ability to spot their fastball on the edge of the zone.

Of course, Eovaldi is a big health risk who hasn’t thrown anything close to a full-season’s worth of innings since 2015, but even 120 good innings would be a boon for this rotation. In a rotation full of high injury risk, Eovaldi is the riskiest. 120 good innings would be a positive outcome for him this year.

  • People have been trying to make Nick Pivetta happen longer than fetch. Despite a 5.50 ERA, he was coveted by this organization in trade last season coming over with Connor Seabold in the Brandon Workman deadline deal. For as long as he’s been a pro, he’s had big velocity and struggled with his secondaries. When he’s on, the fastball sits mid 90’s and the curve is plus. The fastball control is there, but even when he’s on the command is iffy. He’s never been able to get a third pitch to stick and his command isn’t good enough for “fastball high, breaking ball low” (for as much as that’s a real strategy anyways) to fly in the rotation.

Barring a dramatic change, his best spot will be in the bullpen. The Sox clearly think there’s something here, and they’re not wrong. The issue is that he’s 28 and four years into a big-league career, not some 21-year-old prospect in Double-A. I guarantee you the Phillies tried everything they already could with him and it’s not like they’re a dumb organization. It’s up to Boston to try and teach him some new tricks or else he’s a fringe major-league reliever. If he suddenly gets a two-grade command jump on the fastball, or more realistically a serviceable third pitch, he might be a good mid-rotation starter but with the amount of time he’s been in professional baseball that seems unlikely. Here’s to hoping it happens!

  • Despite only being projected for 81 innings, Sale projects to be the most valuable Red Sox pitcher per PECOTA. Now, PECOTA only knows that he’s supposed to miss a chunk of time coming back from Tommy John. We still don’t have any idea what Sale is doing to look like after recovery. While a strong, strong majority of Major League pitchers come back to pitch from Tommy John, command can lag behind. Being that one of Sale’s most outstanding skills was the ability to drop a breaking ball into a teacup, a downgrade in command could have effects that cause him to underperform his projection.

As an example, Stephen Strasburg came back from his Tommy John and was a great pitcher, but his stuff didn’t have the same bite it had in 2010 until several years later. There’s certainly an outcome where Sale comes back, still throws hard, but loses a bit of a feel for the breaking ball and loses a grade of command. He could also come back and be the same old Cy Young worthy ace that we all adore.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Depth

Ed. Note: Guys like Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock could factor in here as well, but they’ll be covered Tuesday among the bullpen arms.

Tanner Houck, Ryan Weber, Connor Seabold

  • Houck was demoted to minors camp on Wednesday, failing in his quest to make the Opening Day rotation. Despite his success in his big-league debut last year, there’s still questions as to whether he can last as a starter in the bigs. It’s a four-seam/sinker/slider mix with a splitter that he came up with just last year so he could have something to attack lefties with, but he only threw the pitch six times. Without that offering to get lefties out, his likeliest destination is the ‘pen. As mentioned above, this rotation is being held together by scotch tape so he’s going to get a chance to start at some point this year, but this is a good sign for the team that he’s their depth this season as opposed to last year where Ryan Weber was their when starter.
  • Speaking of Weber, he is going to be your “in case of emergency” starter, which is where he should be if he’s going to figure into your major-league plans at all. If this were a proper playoff team, he wouldn’t figure into their plans at all, but I digress. I like Weber, but I’d like him more if he wasn’t on my team. He had some good appearances in mop-up duty last year, but the stuff just isn’t there to be a good big-league pitcher.
  • Seabold is exactly the kind of arm this team needs at this point and his addition to the system is welcome. Acquired last deadline from Philadelphia in the Brandon Workman deal, Seabold is a major-league ready back-end starter. He typically sits in the low-to-mid 90’s and has a wicked changeup. His other secondaries are lacking at present but after a year in which we watched Chris Mazza, Zack Godley, and Weber throw significant starting innings for this team last year, I’ll welcome a depth option with at least one plus pitch. He was demoted to the Alternate Site on March 13th.