When it comes to high-end pitching donning the home uniform and toeing the rubber at Fenway Park, a pair of opposite, yet unmistakable truths have managed to coexist since at least the turn of the century:
- The Red Sox have repeatedly managed to get some of the best arms in the sport, helping power them to multiple championships.
- The Red Sox absolutely SUCK at developing their own high-end pitching.
It’s a counterintuitive conundrum. You need high-end, elite pitching to win the World Series, and yet the Red Sox, who are among the worst teams in all of baseball at developing their own high-end, elite pitching, have won more World Series than any other teams over the last 20 years.
From a distance, it feels like a clever prank. A magic trick that makes World Series banners appear, but it’s all been made possible by one simple fact: The Red Sox are arguably the best team in baseball at importing high-end, elite pitching. Or at least, they were until the last few seasons.
Following the colossal acquisitions of David Price and Chris Sale during back-to-back Decembers in 2015 and 2016, and the trade for Nathan Eovaldi to ramp up for the stretch run in 2018, the highly efficient conveyor belt of major moves, ballsy trades, and scorched Earth strategy to ensure the team always had at least some supply of quality, front-end pitching, quietly vanished. And like a lake that relies on a grand river to fill its soul, the Red Sox ability to play meaningful baseball deep into September steadily evaporated in the annual summer heat as soon as its essential tributary stopped functioning. Simply put, when you can’t develop your own pitching, you better be able to import it!
To fully comprehend the recent rotation rot that’s ruined the Red Sox relevancy, you must understand how reliant they’ve been on bringing in prized arms from outside of the organization. All four of their championship pitching staffs in the last 20 years have been at least partially fueled by high-end, imported arms; and two of them (2004 and 2018) were completely fueled by high-end, imported arms. Going back throughout baseball history, it’s hard to find World Series championship pitching staffs who leaned harder on bringing in arms from outside of the organization than the 2004 and 2018 Red Sox.
To dig into the numbers further, below is a table displaying the top 20 Red Sox pitchers by fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) over the last 30 years and then a note on how they were acquired.
(The only other stipulation I put on is that I only included pitchers who were acquired in the last 30 years (post 1993). So, Roger Clemens isn’t here even though he put up a decent WAR in the mid-90s because he was acquired well before the cutoff period.)
The last column is the one that really matters here for this exercise. The Red Sox can’t develop pitching!!! Almost all of it comes from outside the organization! Over the last 30 years, only three of the 20 most productive Red Sox pitchers have been drafted and developed within the organization. It’s a minor miracle they’ve won as many championships as they have in this stretch considering how important pitching is to both making it through a 162-game season, and when battling on the post season stage of October. In short, the Red Sox have won more World Series than they’ve drafted and developed great pitchers over the last 30 years. An almost impossible feat to pull off!
Now, against the backdrop of the 2023-2024 offseason, all of this is coming to a head. The Boston pitching machine desperately needs to be refueled with octane, and the imbalance of rich teams who need high-end pitching vs. the amount of high-end pitching that’s available on the market is comically out of whack. It’s a bit like watching the Titanic go down with the top pitchers acting as the lifeboats. The ship is sinking and there’s not enough pitching. A lot of teams with a lot of money are going to drown no matter what happens at this point, and the Red Sox are to drown even faster than everybody else if they don’t get a lifeboat because they can’t swim.
Which brings us to the prized free agent coming across the other ocean: Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The overwhelming sentiment among Red Sox fans is that the team needs to get this guy, and well, it’s pretty much as simple as that. Until the team proves it can develop its own aces on a consistent basis, they will forever be reliant on financial and / or prospect capital to import the goods.
Fortunately for them, Yamamoto checks all the boxes they need:
- He’s a top of the rotation stud!
- He’s a guy who’s getting into the market at just 25-years-old, meaning you can go longer in years on the contract before getting burned.
- He won’t cause damage to the minor league system as he doesn’t require prospects to acquire, and he doesn’t have a qualifying offer that will result in a lost draft pick.
These things are true for all teams, but they are especially true for the Red Sox.
- They need to import their top of the rotation arms. As we’ve already discussed, it’s the only way they’ve ever been able to win championships in the last century.
- They need their top of the rotation arms to be younger. This is true of all teams, but it’s even more important when you can’t develop your own guys. This is a big reason why each World Series championship pitching staff from 2004 to 2018 looked so different. As good as the front office has been at getting these guys, the stars burn out faster with this method because they all tend to be older and closer to the end. With Yamamoto, he’s just started burning brightly.
- The Red Sox have the No. 12 pick in the 2024 MLB draft. If they get things right this winter, they hopefully won’t be picking that high again for a while. Ideally, you keep all the hard work you’ve done building the farm, allow it to marinate for the start of one more season as the big names approach the Major League roster, and then add one more big name by getting the No. 12 pick right this June. It’s a very delicate dance, but it’s a tightrope Yamamoto would allow you to walk.
There’s a chance I could be completely wrong about this. There’s a chance they already have the guy in Brayan Bello and he’s about to have his breakout season. There’s a chance Andrew Bailey is a pitching whisperer,and we just don’t know it yet. That he’s about to help revolutionize their pitching development and usher in a new era where the Sox can develop their own high-end arms. Black swans are always possible, but from where we sit right now, the most obvious and quickest fix that could provide a long-term solution is for this ownership to go out and do what it’s always done before it’s most successful seasons. Go and outbid other teams when bringing in high-end, quality pitching is on the line.