For a little peek behind the curtain that really nobody asked for, when I do the Daily Links in the morning I have a bookmark folder of a certain set of sites I check every day for stories. They’re the sites you’d expect, and if you read the Daily Links every morning then you probably know which ones specifically they are. I bring this up because every once in a while there are days on which every one of those sites is leading with a story on the same topic. It doesn’t happen quite as often as you’d think, but it is certainly a thing that gets noticed.
This morning, Monday morning, was one of those mornings. The Red Sox were just coming off a beatdown at the hands of the Blue Jays on Sunday, dropping that one 18-4 and marking yet another tough day for the pitching staff. That staff has been struggling for a couple of weeks now, and this was just the exclamation point on this recent run. Everyone is looking for answers, and there was one logical direction in which to point, and it was a common question after the game.
You may have heard that over the last couple of weeks MLB has made it known that they are going to start cracking down on pitchers using “sticky stuff” to manipulate the baseball, add to their spin rate, and make it all that much harder for opposing batters. Right around the time this came to the public is when the pitching went downhill for the Red Sox. It wasn’t unfair to at least think that there could be some connection here, although it was best left to curiosity before being able to do the research rather than throwing it out into the ether without a care in the world for checking up on accuracy.
Speaking of that research, I’m not going to do it for you today either. That’s not because I can’t or even (mostly) because I don’t feel like it, but rather because it’s already been done. Chad Jennings over at The Athletic tackled this question and research, and frankly did so better than I probably could have myself, so it’s easier to just link to his work. The conclusion Jennings came to was that, while he was (wisely) unwilling to definitively say everything was above board and there were no sticky substances in use by the Red Sox pitching staff, it’s hard to point as that for the reasoning behind the recent downturn.
As alluded to above, these substances are most often associated with spin rates on the rise, and Jennings didn't find anything funny going on with those spin rates on Boston’s pitching staff recently. And so it’s reasonable to at least say it’s inconclusive as to whether or not this crackdown is what’s affecting the Red Sox. It may be, but there is no evidence to say that with any certainty.
And so after moving on from the scandalous theory, there’s still a void left in wondering just what is going on. The team’s pitching was a major reason they’ve been at or near the top of the division pretty much all season, so it’s downturn is a big deal for the rest of the season. They need to figure out what is going on. Well, it’s my opinion that this can all be explained by Occam’s Razor.
For those unfamiliar with this concept, it is a philosophical idea that can be boiled down to (though perhaps not totally accurately): The simplest explanation is generally the correct one. There is a little more nuance to it than that, but in practical terms that’s the best way of thinking of it. In relating back to the topic at hand, it’s possible that there is some malfeasance going on with the Red Sox, and the league’s sudden desire for a crackdown is the reason for their struggling. But to me, there is a simpler and more likely explanation: They had been pitching above their heads all season, and some sort of fall from grace was to be expected.
Granted, even if there was some sort of step back to be expected, it probably wasn’t to this extent. We are not even halfway through the month of June yet so we are obviously dealing in small sample sizes here, but the team’s rotation has a 6.26 ERA in the month, which is the seventh-highest in baseball. They’re also in the bottom third of the league this month in FIP and walk rate, and in the bottom half in strikeout rate. The bullpen has been a little better in terms of results, but the FIP is still in the bottom third of baseball.
So this has been a little extreme, particularly over the last week or so, but at the same time pitching was always supposed to be a problem. Coming into the season, the general expectation around this team was that they would go as far as the pitching took them, and many didn’t expect them to be taken very far. And looking at the group, it’s not some massive surprise there’s been a bump in the road.
Is anyone surprised Martín Pérez, who hasn’t been more than three percent better than league-average by ERA since 2013 (by ERA-) and has usually been worse than average, had two bad starts in a row? Is anyone surprised that Garrett Richards, who hasn’t thrown anything close to a full season since 2015 and already had a rough stretch this year, is finding himself in trouble nearly every inning? Is anyone surprised that Nick Pivetta, who had almost pitched himself out of the bigs altogether before joining the Red Sox, is starting to get hit around a little bit more? I would argue the answer to all of those questions, especially considering they’ve also been playing very good offenses nearly every day, should be no.
And to be perfectly clear, reiterating what Jennings said in his piece linked above, this is not to say the Red Sox pitchers are definitely not using any substances. I have no idea if they are, but my understanding is that the use is widespread enough that my base assumption is that everyone is using something until I learn otherwise. And when you add in the fact that they are managed by a guy involved in the 2017 Astros scandal, and that they had their own smaller scandal the following year, these accusations are going to come. Whether or not it’s fair I’ll leave for others to decide, but to not expect it would be naive.
But at the same time, I don’t think you have to dig so deep to find an explanation. I think the pitching was just never as good as we had seen over the first two months, and now they’re taking their licks. It’s not to say they will be this bad for the rest of the year, because I don’t believe that either. There were tangible changes for everyone in arsenal and approach and other areas to help them get to where they were, and Dave Bush has proven competent in making those adjustments this year. They can do it again.
But specifically regarding this recent stretch? Maybe the crackdown on sticky substances is to blame here and there’s a major story on our hands. But to me, especially with the data shown in Jennings’s breakdown, there’s a much simpler explanation.