Pitching struggles undercut Red Sox' offense, endanger playoff hopes

Despite boasting a prolific offense, the Red Sox are far from a lock for October because of a starting pitching staff that has been ineffective and inconsistent. 
Publish date:

Your teams. Your favorite writers. Wherever you want them. Personalize SI with our new App. Install on iOS or Android.

Over the previous two seasons, the Red Sox did not win a game in which they gave up 16 hits. On Monday, they did so for the second time in 10 days, beating the Rangers, 12–5. Get used to it, because this is the dangerous road that Boston must travel to get to October: It must outslug other teams.

The team was built on offense, yes, and that part has delivered as expected. The Sox lead the American League in batting average (.292), on-base percentage (.359) and slugging percentage (.476), as well as runs and hits. But Boston was also built on the premise that David Price would be the ace of an otherwise ordinary rotation that would be served by depth. Halfway through the season, it is painfully obvious that premise is broken.

Price is not pitching like an ace, and the depth has dried up. Clay Buchholz, a shell of his former self for years, has run out of chances again in the rotation. Joe Kelly is being reinvented as a reliever. Eduardo Rodriguez is the minors trying to learn how not to tip his pitches. Henry Owens is there, too, after major league hitters solved him the more they saw of him. Banished, too, was Roenis Elias, so bad was his one start. Hitters have mashed Sean O’Sullivan to the tune of a .518 slugging percentage over more than 300 career innings.

The Red Sox have tried six pitchers in the 32 turns in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation this year, and those pitchers are wearing down the bullpen. They have lasted an average of only 4.8 innings per start with a 7–12 record and a 7.22 ERA. Even with its superb offense, Boston is in second-place in the AL East at 45–37 and is just 1 1/2 games up in the wild-card standings. It won’t make the postseason if it punts 40% of its starts, so I asked manager John Farrell if he believed his team has the answers to fixing these two rotation spots.

“Yes—​if adjustments are made,” Farrell said. “I know this: There is no one we could acquire [through a trade] with the talent of Eddie Rodriguez.”

Rodriguez has a superb arm with a gift for throwing two types of changeups, but his talent has withered because of tipping pitches and the mental angst that comes from such a flaw. The issue is most apparent, as it was last year, with runners on: Rodriguez is a good pitcher out of his modified windup (.258 batting average against) but a wreck as soon as somebody reaches base (.371).

Is it the position of his hands? Where he stands on the rubber? His glove? The attempts to fix Rodriguez are too frequent. On June 11, he pitched from the third base side of the rubber with a black glove and brought his hands chin high as he kicked from the stretch. On June 16, he pitched from the first base side with a red glove and brought his hands only chest high. And on June 27, he was back to the third base side with a black glove and his hands chin high.

As season hits midpoint, which first-place teams are for real?

Buchholz’s problems are more acute. Over the past three years, covering 364 1/3 innings, he is 18–27 with a 4.82 ERA. He no longer seems to know what kind of pitcher he is. He spends the early innings fiddling through his many pitches, looking for what might be working that day and in what sequence, but he often puts his team behind by the time he figures it out. Before facing the Angels on Saturday, he warmed for 35 minutes—15 minutes beyond the norm—trying to avoid his usual slow starts. It didn’t work: Buchholz gave up seven hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings, setting the tone for a 21–2 punishing by Los Angeles.

“He likes to throw all of his pitches right away,” said catcher Sandy Leon, who has worked far better with Buchholz than Christian Vazquez, though oddly it was the recently demoted Vazquez who caught Buchholz in his last start. “I like that because that’s the way they pitch in Venezuela winter ball. There are so many veteran hitters you have to mix it up from the beginning. That’s what he does.”

• Subscribe to get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox

Hitters aren’t fooled by the assortment, however, especially Buchholz’s diminished four- and two-seam fastballs. They are hitting .341 off his heaters.

Price is an enigma: His stuff looks good, but the results do not—an indication that command and sequencing may be issues. His four-seam fastball usage in June (11.6%) was the lowest in his past 24 full months of baseball. Meanwhile, his cutter usage (20.8%) is at an all-time high.

The Red Sox have wondered whether Price is throwing too many strikes, which can make hitters comfortable, but he’s actually throwing fewer than last year (66.6%, down from 68.7%). The key seems to be what kind of strikes he is throwing: Price is throwing more pitches over the middle six inches of the plate (23%, up from 20%), and hitters are hammering the first or second pitches of at-bats (.411 with one homer every 12.4 at-bats, much worse than league average of .349 with one homer every 12.4 at-bats).

Let’s remember, too, that Price took free-agent money not only to remain in the AL but also to go to Boston, where the demands and expectations have led the Red Sox themselves to write off first-year performances as “break-in years.”

Next Tuesday, even with Clayton Kershaw on the DL, you will see a parade of elite starting pitchers take the mound for the National League in the All-Star Game. Mets manager Terry Collins, who will lead the NL team, may cover as many as the first seven or eight innings with starters, saving his own closer, Jeurys Familia, for the end. The AL can’t come close to matching the depth of elite starters in the NL.

The NL depth has been made possible by emigres from the AL. Five of the eight best ERAs in the National League belong to pitchers who were formerly property of AL teams: Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, Drew Pomeranz and Jon Lester. Others who also made the jump successfully include Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, Zack Greinke and Dan Straily.

The 30: Four teams that could see better things to come in second half

Arrieta, Cueto, Greinke, Lackey and Lester have all found the NL better to their liking on the other side of 30. Price, who turns 31 next month and who had the opportunity to sign with St. Louis this winter, did not choose the easier road.

It would be a mistake to suggest the Red Sox can’t make the playoffs with this rotation. The team they are chasing in the AL East, the Orioles, actually gets fewer wins (33 to 27), a worse ERA (5.15 to 4.82) and fewer innings (440 2/3 to 471) from their starters than does Boston. But look at the monthly winning percentage this year for the Red Sox and you’ll get an idea of what you’re in for: .583 in April, .643 in May, .385 in June. Such is the inconsistency you find when a team relies more on offense than on pitching.