Tough Times: The Rotation, Clutch Hitting, And What We Learned From This Hellish Weekend

Also notes on the draft as the signing period just officially ended

It’s 11PM here and I’m in my PJs sitting in my bed and I can’t sleep. I wasn't going to write anything tonight because I don’t feel like you’d want to read about what just happened. So if you don’t feel like reading or even thinking about the Boston Red Sox, I don’t blame you. I don’t either. What damn disaster of a week. But I’m up now so here goes nothing.

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Sunday morning I managed to cut myself shaving. It’s not a big cut but it just keeps bleeding. I’m standing in the bathroom dabbing myself with a tissue for a half hour, and finally it stops, I go downstairs to make some coffee, pass a mirror on the way and there’s a river of blood rolling down my face. That was this week for the Red Sox. No way to stop the bleeding. Everything that could go wrong seemingly went wrong. An endless stream of missed opportunities and ill-timed mistakes.

I’m not going to go through them all. I can’t go through them all. And even if I could go through them all, you certainly shouldn’t be subjected to it. But I’ll go through two because, well, I can’t sleep.

Starting Pitching

This is not a great offensive team. This is not a great defensive team. They’re above average offensively and below average defensively. So why have the Red Sox been in first place for most of the season when many people picked them to finish closer to last than first? Pitching, specifically starting pitching. It’s a pretty simple formula. When the starters pitch well, the Red Sox (and most teams) tend to win. When they don’t, well, they lose. The Red Sox are 1-5 in their last six games against Toronto and Tampa. Here’s the starting pitching lines from those games.

4 runs in 4 innings
1 runs in 4 innings (the only win!)
6 runs in 3.1 innings
6 runs in 4 innings
6 runs in 5.1 innings
3 runs in 4.2 innings

That works out to 26 runs in 25.1 innings, and 25 runs in 21.1 innings in the losses. That’s simply not good enough. It’s also only six games. Six icky, yucky, stinky games, but six games nonetheless.

So are the Red Sox starters bad now? I mean, maybe, but I don’t think so. Clearly Eduardo Rodriguez is having issues. His strikeouts are there, he’s just giving up a ton of hits. His BABIP is a I-can’t-believe-it .369. That’s the highest BABIP of any starting pitcher in baseball with 40 innings pitched. That’s not a lot of innings, so that’s including a lot of pitchers with a lot of fluke potential, and yet Rodriguez still tops them all. I’m not chalking this all up to luck. It’s not all luck. But a portion of it is. He’s still striking a ton of guys out (27.9 percent), he’s not walking many (6.5 percent), and while the homers are higher than you’d like, they’re not super high. The overall package should be better than it’s been, and I still believe it will be.

Nick Pivetta hit a rough patch over his last few starts, but he pitched a gem last night against Tampa. Alex Cora pulled him early, which made sense as Brandon Lowe who had homered off him previously was coming to bat, and Lowe is great against righties and terrible against lefties. Cora was trying to avoid getting swept (good try) and went to the pen for the lefty against Lowe, but normally he’d have left Pivetta out there, so I’m not docking Pivetta for a short start. Anyway, Pivetta isn’t Max Scherzer, but he’s fine. The walks and homers are a tad to high, but that’s Nick Pivetta and it’s always been Nick Pivetta. He’s a fine three or four in a good rotation, and I’d be fine starting him in a longer post-season series.

Garrett Richards and Martin Perez though… oof. This is where the problems are. These guys are just getting torched. Perez sports a 6.69 ERA over his last 10 starts. TEN! 6.69! Over that time batters have a combined OPS over 1.000 against him. That’s not good. In fact, it’s bad! But! Richards has been worse! Over that same time period, nine starts for Richards, he has an ERA of 7.19! AAAAHHH!!!

/gets in car
/drives to Iowa
/finds Field of Dreams
/backs into cornfield

That’s 19 starts since early June the Red Sox have pissed away. But you wanna know the really crazy part? The Red Sox are 11-8 in those games. Baseball: it’s weird!

Despite that record, the Red Sox clearly have a starting pitcher problem. You can’t keep pitching to a 7 ERA and expect to win the game, as the last six games have reminded us. Chris Sale should be back in a week or two, and that should be a balm to this red hot rash of lousy starting pitching. One of Richards or Perez is going to relinquish his spot in the rotation and head to the bullpen or off the roster. That’ll help but Sale alone isn’t going to fix this entirely. The guys still here need to simply pitch better. That’s E-Rod, that’s Eovaldi, that’s Pivetta, that’s whomever gets that fifth rotation spot.

There’s a version of this rotation that can win both the division and in October. Not single-handedly, but as part of a good hitting team. That version does not include Richards or Perez, and it does not include the BABIP’d Rodriguez or the homer-prone Pivetta, either. Toss Sale in there with Nate Eovaldi and a reasonable Rodriguez and a just slightly better Pivetta, and that doesn’t look so bad. It’s not Buehler-Scherzer-Kershaw-who-cares, but it’s workable.

To get there though, Sale has to come back healthy and effective. That’s the most important part. Until then, the Red Sox have to hope the offense picks up the slack when the rotation can’t, and that did not happen this weekend, which is why they got swept. Garrett Richards is going Tuesday so don’t expect much slack grabbing then either.

Hitting With Runners On Base

Sometime during yesterday’s game I tweeted this:

Then the Red Sox went and left the tying run on third base in the ninth inning. Fun times!

The always helpful @RedSoxStats twitter account tweeted this out after the game.

That’s an 0-for-14 for those of you who don’t feel like counting that up. That’s bad, but that wasn’t all. The badness was all weekend long. The Red Sox went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position on Sunday, 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position on Saturday, and 2-for-5 on Friday. That’s a combined 3-for-18 (and on one of those three Christian Vazquez got thrown out at second base). That’s atrocious. It’s also just a tiny sample of ABs and hey hey what can you say, that’s baseball, right? It’s not indicative of any personal failing on the part of the team, but my gosh it sure feels like it is in the moment!

You’d think, from that performance that the Red Sox would be one of the worst teams with runners in scoring position in the history of recorded time, but in fact, they’re in the top third of the league. With runners on second and/or third, the Red Sox are hitting .259, which is 10th in baseball. Sort by a better stat and the Red Sox have a wRC+ of 101 with runners in scoring position, which puts them tied for 16th, or about league average (which you probably figured out from the 101 part) with runners in scoring position.

So, no, this wasn’t something the team has been prone to this year, at least not really more than any other team. In baseball you get runners on and a lot of the time they don’t score. That’s just kinda how that goes. It’s not usually as painful and dispiriting as the rate the Red Sox did it this weekend - that was bad! - but on the whole they’re okay in this particular category.

What Did We Learn From This Weekend

We already knew the Rays were good, and that the Blue Jays could hit. The Red Sox ran into two teams playing well and on the whole they didn’t reciprocate that type of play. That doesn’t mean they won’t beat Tampa when they play them in two weeks though, or that they won’t beat Toronto when they play them next weekend.

I think beyond that, we didn’t learn anything we don’t already know about this team. The starting pitching is flawed, at least for now. The offense can be very hot and cold. The offense tends that way because they don’t walk (Boston is tied for 27th in walk rate). When the hits are falling and the homers are flying, they’re good. But when they aren’t, they’re not working the count and good starting pitchers tend to stay in a long time, longer than most. This is just who they are though, at least for this season. Not much to be done except hit better.

On the whole I still believe this is a good team. Their offense is struggling a bit right now and they’ve had a few too many blow-up starts from their starters. This should pass, and getting Sale back and adding Kyle Schwarber can only improve things. Whether they’re good enough to beat Tampa, to hold off Toronto and New York? That’s a tougher question and one that I’m not feeling particularly sanguine about at the moment. The Sox play the Tigers for three games starting Tuesday. Maybe that’ll improve the mood.

Off The Field

In addition to all the losing, the Red Sox failed to sign second round draft pick Jud Fabian. Fabian reportedly turned down somewhere around $2 million to return to the University of Florida and try his luck in next year’s draft. I’m certainly not advising the kid, and I hope things work out for him, but wow is that a lot of money to turn down. It’s unfortunate for the Red Sox too, as they lose out on adding Fabian’s immense potential to their farm system.

The news isn’t all bad though. Boston was able to take some of the money budgeted to Fabian and sign college catcher Nathan Hickey, their fifth round pick out of the University of Florida (the same school Fabian is returning to). Hickey is a promising power bat with the possibility of sticking at catcher. He’s not Fabian, but he’s a good prospect. They also signed college first baseman Niko Kavadas, who lead everyone in college in homers. Dude has crazy power, so he should be a fun kid to follow through the minors.

And because of the rules teams have set up for themselves to keep draftees from making what they should make, the 40th pick Boston used to select Fabian was a protected pick. This means if the Sox were unable to sign their draftee (check!) they get that pick minus one in next year’s draft. So the Red Sox will have pick 41 and its associated bonus money next year in addition to their normal slate of picks and bonus money.

Thanks for reading

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