An Historic Run

The Boston Red Sox' starters are smokin'.

With a 1.02 ERA in eight games, each a quality start (by game score), each allowing no more than two runs, each at least working into the sixth inning, the Sox are experiencing a run of starting pitching we haven't seen in decades.

In last night's game thread, Devine said:

It feels like this rotation's stretch of really good starts is starting to verge on historically good.

I would agree. The problem, as we'll see, is defining how we research these starts. While every Sox starter except one has allowed zero or one run in this stretch, Josh Beckett did allow two. Of course, Beckett went eight innings in that start, which makes it more impressive. Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz went only 5.1 innings in his — but allowed only one run and so it also felt more impressive than it otherwise might have been. That means we're reduced to looking for strings of starts with a minimum line of 5.1 innings, 2 runs allowed. That's nice, but not particularly impressive. Still, I'm not sure what else we can do. Game score isn't much of a help; Buchholz's start scored just 50, the bare minimum for a quality start.

So we have to concede the possibility that this stretch isn't as impressive as we think it is. But if it isn't, that should become clear soon enough, as we should find lots of eight-game stretches without too much trouble. And, as you'll see, it's been quite a long time since a Red Sox ballclub saw the kind of consecutive starting performances we've seen over the last eight games.

Working with the (admittedly flawed) weakest-link method, we can run a search to see how many times a team has had starters fulfill these three criteria: game score of 50 or better, innings pitched of 5.1 or more and runs allowed of two or fewer. We can then look through those results to find strings of consecutive games.

Doing it this way, however, means we run the risk of leaving out a start with three runs allowed and many more innings than 5.1 — a start we (and game score) would easily consider worthy of the past eight starts we've seen.

Nevertheless, with those caveats noted, the 1990 Red Sox have had the most starts matching our three criteria of any team, 77. And though their starters, like the rest of the club under the influence of Morgan Magic, had an incredible August, with 17 matching starts in 24 games, none came in strings longer than four.

Other Red Sox teams high on the list also fall short, with streaks no greater than four or five games: 1946, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010 (side note: that so many recent clubs are in the top 10 of this admittedly arbitrary category is a testament to both how poorly constructed past Sox teams were and how well constructed they've been in the Epstein era). In the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, even that club couldn't manage more than six. But there are two that bear further research:

The 2002 Red Sox had Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and a forgettable supporting cast in a transition year between Dan Duquette and Theo Epstein. Yet those starters twice managed to have formidable runs of excellence.

From April 10-19, the Red Sox posted eight quality starts in nine games, with only a Pedro start breaking the streak. Go figure. Martinez went 5.1 innings, giving up four runs, well below our standards. Nevertheless, the Sox' starting pitchers' ERA in those nine games was 2.02; in the eight matching starts, it was 1.54. While Lowe provided two starts and Wakefield and Martinez each provided one in those eight games, the other four were provided by, of all people, Frank Castillo and Darren Oliver. 

Likewise, that September, the Sox starters went seven straight games. From Sept. 17-22, Wakefield and Casey Fossum (!) each provided a pair of strong starts, while Lowe, Martinez and John Burkett (!!) provided one apiece.

The 1967 Red Sox, meanwhile, are better known for the offensive heroics of Carl Yastrzemski down the stretch and the Cy Young performance of Jim Lonborg than for a deep, steady starting rotation. Nevertheless, the '67 club featured some knockout performances from their starters.

Starting in the second game of a June 14 double header, the Sox' starters threw eight starts matching our criteria in nine games. Only Lee Coleman's performance in the second game of a June 16 double header breaks the chain, and in that appearance, he gave up three runs — in eight innings. It's a start that clearly merits inclusion, and if we include it, that gives the 1967 Red Sox an eight-game streak to match the one we're seeing in 2011, but with a slightly higher 1.23 ERA.

But that's not all, however. From Aug. 22-30, the Sox had a string of 10 matching starts in nine days, including at least one each day. Except the club played 13 games. Once again, two of the three "subpar" starts clearly qualify (one with a line of 7 IP, 3 ER, the other with a line of 8+ IP, 3 R, 1 ER). The third is borderline, a 6.1 IP, 2 ER performance from Lee Stange in the second game of an Aug. 29 double header that received a game score of 49. Count it, and the 1967 Sox have an incredible 13-game streak. Don't, and the mark is still 10 games with a 1.56 ERA, easily topping the 2011 streak. I'm inclined not to count it, excellent though it is, because no Sox starter in the 2011 streak has yet to allow so many runs in so few innings.

Without looking through all 91 available seasons, most of which are clearly not in the running, it seems safe to say from looking through the top 10 (as well as all seasons between 2002 and now and a couple of cherry picked Red Sox playoff teams with strong starting staffs, such as the 1986 squad) that we are indeed seeing something nearly unprecedented, at least for the Red Sox: It appears that only one other Boston squad has put together a streak of starting pitching this good for this long, and they did it twice. With a good start from John Lackey tonight, the 2011 version be one shy of the franchise record of 10, set in 1967.

[From a broader baseball sense, it's hard to tell without a lot of in-depth research how historic this is. The team with the most-ever starts matching our criteria is the 1975 Los Angeles Dodgers, with 92 such games. They had an eight-game streak May 5-13 with an ERA of 1.02 in that span.]

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