Chris Sale will make his triumphant return to the mound for the Red Sox this Saturday, and with the team currently on the verge of collapse he’s being looked at as a potential savior for the season. Such hype is warranted. Sale has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball for just about his entire career, placing in the top 10 in AL Cy Young voting every year from 2012 to 2018. He’s been especially excellent with the Red Sox, posting his first career 300-strikeout season with them in 2017 and following that up with a 209 ERA+ in 2018.
However, over the last few years, injuries have hampered his efforts, causing him to miss a chunk of the 2019 season and the entirety of the 2020 campaign. He’s been on the comeback trail for most of this year, pitching in mega hype-inducing rehab assignments across the Red Sox’s farm system for the last month or so, which has only increased the expectations for when he is back at the MLB level. All signs indicate that Sale will be pretty close to his former self, but it will take time to get him back to full strength.
Even when he is 100 percent and able to pitch without innings or pitch count limits, he can only do so much while pitching every five games. That means he can’t really save the season all by himself. For the Red Sox to really avoid letting the success of the first half of the year slip through their fingers, they’ll need the rest of the rotation to step up around Sale as well.
As you might expect, the bottom of the rotation is where the most progress has to be made. Nobody is expecting the Red Sox’s three, four and five starters to be aces, but they could really use some improved work from this part of the staff. One of the easiest ways to do that would be to add a pitcher with great stuff who has really excelled this season and swap him in for someone underperforming, and what do you know, the Red Sox can do just that. That’s right, it’s time to unleash Tanner Houck as a permanent member of the rotation.
If it were up to me, Houck would have been in the starting rotation from the beginning of the season, but it’s not too late to give him a full run at the job for the rest of this year. With the requisite small sample disclaimers thrown in, Houck has been nothing but dominant at the MLB level, although he has largely been held back from going deep into games. The right-hander has a 190 ERA+ this season and has struck out 36 batters in 25 ⅔ innings, which is good enough for a 34.3 percent strikeout rate. Despite such a small workload, Houck’s performance has already yielded 1.1 fWAR, which tops the combined marks of regular starters Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards.
Now that Pérez has been sent to the bullpen after a few too many miserable starts, there is a spot for Houck to occupy in the rotation full time. If that’s the plan (and it should be), the Red Sox will need to give him a bit more leeway. Thus far, they’ve been quick to pull Houck, who has only pitched five full innings once this season.
If Houck is to take Pérez’s spot, then someone else has to move to the bullpen to make room for Sale. Richards is the obvious choice there and with Pérez and Richards both out of the rotation, that should give the Red Sox a boost. Richards’ ERA sits comfortably above 5.00, and his expected ERA is even worse. Meanwhile, before being demoted, Pérez had made it through the fifth inning just once in his last six starts. While both have had moments of effectiveness this season, their prolonged stretches of poor performance aren’t sustainable on a team still hoping to contend.
Elsewhere in the rotation, Eduardo Rodriguez may hold the key to how the group performs as a whole the rest of the year. The 28-year-old left-hander has the peripheral numbers on his side, but at some point, they need to translate to actual production. Through 22 starts, Rodriguez has an ugly 5.24 ERA, but his expected ERA (3.61), FIP (3.37) and expected FIP (3.31) are all in very solid territory, In addition, he is on pace for the highest strikeout rate (29.3 percent) and lowest walk rate (6.9 percent) of his career. Rodriguez has looked the part in his last couple starts, striking out 10 over five shutout innings against Detroit last week and producing 5 1/3 solid innings with eight strikeouts against Tampa Bay Tuesday night, but his outcomes have usually been far too up and down. If he consistently looks like the pitcher the more advanced metrics project, it will help take the load off of Sale to save the rotation and the season.
While Houck needs a larger role and Rodriguez needs to live up to his expected production, Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta can do their part by pulling out of recent slumps to do what they’ve been doing for most of the season. Eovaldi has been hit around multiple times over his last few starts, but we’re still talking about an All-Star starting pitcher who has a 2.76 FIP, leads all qualified starters in home runs per fly ball rate (6.5 percent) and is tied with Gerrit Cole for the highest mark in fWAR among qualified AL starters. Pivetta doesn’t have as many accolades on his side, but he has been relatively solid for most of the season. He did hit a rough patch in July and his first start this month, but he bounced back with six innings of shutout work against Toronto this past weekend. Breaking out of a pitching funk can be difficult, but Pivetta just did it and Eovaldi is certainly capable of doing so as well.
With Sale only days away from getting the chance to help the Red Sox down the stretch, the entire burden of stabilizing the rotation can’t be his responsibility alone. Rather, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach for the Red Sox to pull out of their current nosedive.