• The Red Sox' season has been teetering for a while. How it ends up will depend on the performance of the starting rotation.
By Tom Verducci
June 03, 2019

So badly have the Red Sox floundered that the life raft they reached for Friday was a simulated game by Nathan Eovaldi at Yankee Stadium.

“Nate coming back will really help us out,” Boston manager Alex Cora said. “We rely on our starters, plain and simple. That fifth guy–not that he’s a fifth starter, but having all five starters–is critical for keeping everybody in their place.”

Eovaldi, who will throw another life raft game Tuesday, is about two weeks away from being major league ready.

Forget the grandstand narrative that Eovaldi is going to become the replacement for Craig Kimbrel at the back end of the Boston bullpen. The righthander has a frequent shopper card with orthopedists and until the World Series last year had never pitched back-to-back days in his life. He is going back into the rotation–a rotation that will decide the fate of Boston’s season.

Urgency has come early to the Red Sox. Having split the first 58 games of their season before a win Sunday night, they have exhausted virtually the entire margin of error allowable to get to 91 wins, the average win total for the 14 American League wild-card teams in the expanded postseason format. Their model now must be the 2017 Cubs, another defending world champion that suffered through an extended hangover (33-34) before waking up (59-26) to reach 92 wins.

The American League is thin, but the Yankees and Rays are legit postseason teams. Among other wild-card candidates, Oakland presents the biggest threat to keeping Boston out of the playoffs, with Texas and Cleveland looking like longer shots to get to 91 wins.

You can chirp all you want about how Boston misses Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, or whether Mookie Betts should hit first or second, or how the 7-8-9 spots are hitting .221, which makes them the worst collection of Red Sox hitters at the bottom third except those of the 1918 and 1968 teams.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Let’s be real, folks: Nothing will determine the fate of Boston’s season more than its rotation–and that’s the reason they’re in trouble right now.

Boston is spending $88 million on its rotation: Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Eovaldi. The Red Sox spent so much on the rotation they didn’t have the change to retain Kimbrel or Kelly. But the bullpen has been only marginally worse (15-7, 4.09 this year; 40-16, 3.72 last year). Boston is losing too many games in the hands of its Tiffany rotation. Check out the massive decline across the board in the Boston rotation:

Red Sox Starters

  2018 2019
Win-Loss 68-38 15-22
ERA 3.77 4.77
Slugging Against .395 .431
Innings Per Start 5.4 5.1

Boston took a calculated risk in spring training by slow-playing its starting pitchers. The idea was that they needed more rest after pitching a seventh month last season. Sale, for instance, was limited to nine spring training innings–half of his average workload from his previous major league spring camps. The risk the Red Sox took was to jeopardize the first month or two of the season while they built arm strength in order to have them strong down the stretch.

The injury to Eovaldi, who underwent elbow surgery, disrupted Boston’s plan. Hector Velazquez took seven of Eovaldi’s starts and lasted a total of 19 2/3 innings. Boston won four of those seven games, but at the toll of reliever usage.

“If one guy [out of five] doesn’t go deep you can withstand that,” Cora said. “But if you get two it can catch up to you. Then you need two multiple inning guys. Brian Johnson was huge for us last year, and now Hector, when he was in that role. The multiple inning guys help you stay away from the [high leverage] guys.”

But losing one starter (or more) is something every team must anticipate before the season begins. In the previous five years, only two among 150 staffs had five pitchers make 28 starts (the 2016 Cubs and 2016 Blue Jays). Full health is an anomaly. You don’t count on it. That’s why the loss of Eovaldi for seven starts is overrated.

The biggest enigma among the underachieving rotation is Sale. The Red Sox are 3-9 when they give him the ball. Sure, a lack of run support is baked into that record.

Sale is getting his strikeouts, and while his four-seam velocity in May (94.1 mph) still isn’t where it should be (95.6 last year) it’s an improvement over his glorified spring training in April (92.6).

But there’s something odd going on with Sale’s stuff. He is not maintaining it well, especially when it comes to command. His start Friday at Yankee Stadium typified his 2019 problems: he comes out of the gate mowing down hitters, but then makes mistakes with location. Here is the clearest view of Sale’s problems:

Sale 2019 by Innings

  ERA Average Slugging
Innings 1-2 2.63 .131 .298
After Second Inning 5.28 .256 .477

On Friday Sale zipped through the first two innings by facing the minimum six batters, striking out three of them. But then the Yankees capitalized on mistakes by Sale to touch him for four runs. The biggest mistakes:

Hanging 1-1 slider to D.J. LeMahieu for an RBI double.

Hanging 3-2 slider to Aaron Hicks for 2-RBI single.

Hanging 1-2 slider to Gio Urshela for double.

Missed location on 1-1 below-average fastball (92 mph) to LeMahieu for home run.

This was the second time in May that Sale allowed two extra base hits on his slider–he had no such starts last year. That’s a tough grading curve, but the Red Sox’s blueprint to be a playoff team requires Sale to pitch like an ace.

Sale is a fierce competitor and a standup guy. He didn’t run from his responsibility after the game or make excuses.

“It’s not where I want to be,” he told reporters after the game. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who I’ve ever been.”

Kimbrel and Kelly are bona fide power relievers. They gave Boston 128 innings last year, so, sure, any team would miss arms like that. But what Boston misses even more are the better versions of Sale, Eovaldi, Price (who needed two starts to get on track), Porcello (walks are up, strikeouts down) and Rodriguez (Cora must understand Rodriguez is the worst pitcher in baseball facing a lineup the third time around: .375).

There’s a saying around baseball that when it comes to grading pitchers’ stuff: “the hitters will tell you.” Last year Boston pitchers threw the toughest fastballs to hit in all of baseball (.238). This year they rank ninth (.261). The hitters are telling you this is not the same stuff coming from this staff.

The Red Sox are on the brink of trouble. They can’t afford another bad month. The good news for them is that with Eovaldi coming back, they already have on hand the way to get out of this mess: it’s their $88 million rotation.

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