Red Sox starting pitching: it’s bad! You’ve probably noticed this already, because it’s pretty obvious. But just how bad is it?
Well, first we have to clarify that, in sports, the terms “good” and “bad” are relative. The Red Sox are currently in last place in their division, which is bad! But the 2023 American League East is, at this point in the season, historically strong. So while the Red Sox are bad relative to the rest of the division, they are perfectly mediocre relative to the rest of the American League, with seven teams ahead of them and seven below.
There are levels to being bad, is what I’m saying. A team can be bad, but only relative to high expectations, such that their poor performance isn’t actually all that poor, and to the extent that it appears so, it’s merely an issue of perception. That’s not a bad way of being bad, when you think about it! On the other end of the spectrum, a team can be historically bad, which is the baddest way of being bad there is! You don’t want to be historically bad.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox starting rotation is currently historically bad in one particular area, and that area is pretty damn important in baseball: giving up home runs.
As of today, Red Sox starting pitchers have given up 1.81 home runs per nine innings. That’s the second-highest home run rate in the baseball this year and (here’s where the historically bad part comes in) it’s the ninth-highest home run rate of all-time.
Now as a point of order, the phrase “highest home run rate of all-time,” is doing some pretty heavy lifting there. As we all know, home runs have been steadily increasing throughout baseball history, pretty much from the very moment Babe Ruth started jogging around the bases with that cute, jaunty little trot he had. And home runs have exploded in the three true outcomes era we currently find ourselves in. So in that sense, starting staffs all across baseball are historically bad at keeping the ball in the yard right now. In fact, instead of writing that “Red Sox starters have the ninth-highest home run rate of all-time,” I could have instead written that “Red Sox starters have the ninth highest home run rate of the past five years.” Both statements are true! Here’s the current top 10 list:
So a more pertinent question would be: can the Red Sox be successful as a team with starting pitching that gives up so many home runs?
In that area, there is some hope. No team has ever made the postseason with a home run rate as high as 1.81. But the 2019 Yankees, who won 103 games, came very close; their starters gave up 1.76 home runs per nine that season. Moreover, the postseason is now significantly watered down, with more teams making it in than ever before. So let’s think about this in a different way: can the Red Sox win 90 games with starting pitching that gives up so many home runs?
This is where things look a little bleak. Of the the top 50 teams on the all-time leaderboard for starting pitching home run rate, only one of them ever won 90 games: that aforementioned 2019 Yankees team. So in other words: if the 2023 Red Sox are able to win 90 games with starting pitching that gives up this many homers, it would be a giant historical anomaly (albeit, an anomaly that did in fact occur just five seasons ago.)
So then let’s ask one more question: is there any hope of Red Sox starters giving up fewer homers? Let’s start by looking at how we arrived at this 1.81 number:
Putting the small samples of Kutter Crawford and Garrett Whitlock aside, we can see that Corey Kluber and Nick Pivetta are the two pitchers who bear the most blame for the Red Sox’ currently historically bad home run rate. And in that sense, maybe there’s some hope!
As we’ve been discussing since spring training, the Red Sox have too many starting pitchers and not enough starting spots (when they’re all healthy that is, which, of course, is a bigger issue we’re not discussing right now. . . ) So with James Paxton back and Garrett Whitlock rehabbing, perhaps Kluber and Pivetta won’t be in the rotation for much longer. Take those two out of the picture, and the home run rate plummets to 1.55 homers-per-nine.
That’s better! But. . . it’s still the 45th highest rate of all-time. And, once again, we already know that the 2019 Yankees were the only team in history to win 90 games with a starting staff that finished with one of the 50 worst home run rates of all-time.
So, yeah. . . things don’t look great right now, and we haven’t even considered that (1) historically, home runs tend to increase as the season progresses, thanks to better weather and pitcher attrition, and (2) it isn’t clear yet that it will be Kluber and Pivetta who get bumped from the rotation if and when the Red Sox have a healthy contingent of starters.
All we can do at this point is hope that James Paxton builds on his strong start, Bello and Whitlock find some consistency, and the front office makes the right personnel moves going forward. Because one thing is clear: if the 2023 Red Sox are going to be competitive, the starting pitching has to get better. Much better.