The Starting Questions

We're less than a week from pitchers and catchers reporting, which actually works out pretty well, given that the Sox' and Yanks' biggest questions regard their pitching and, to a lesser extent, their catching.

The Yankees enter the 2011 season with one sure thing in CC Sabathia and four question marks, though in Phil Hughes' case the question marks are the kind you want to have (how much will he improve from a solid season?). That leaves three slots with few seemingly good answers.


In the No. 3 spot is A.J. Burnett, who was atrocious last year, saw his fastball velocity nosedive and his once-dominant curveball lose its effectiveness. It's clear Burnett's problems are either physical, mechanical or mental. Which one is it? Can a new pitching coach fix whatever's wrong with him?

After him are the true question marks. We don't even know who will be there. Ivan Nova seems likely to get a chance to prove he's for real after posting a league-average line in 42 innings last season (though his ERA as a starter was near 5). PECOTA reportedly projects him negatively, Bill James has him slightly worse than in 2010, and Marcel sees significant improvement. So no one knows. 

Sergio Mitre is even trickier to project. As Fangraphs notes, he's a ground ball pitcher, which is good, but he gives up a lot of home runs on the fly balls he does allow, which is bad and pretty much cancels out the benefits of his ground/fly ratio. It doesn't help that his home ballpark has ranked first and third in the majors in home run park factor since it opened. The freely available projection systems all see him spending most of his time in the bullpen with an ERA more than a run worse than the nice 3.33 he posted in 2010.

Then there's Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. They're both "why not?" signings, but Colon didn't pitch at all in 2010. Countering that, there's the 115 ERA+ he posted in 101 innings with Boston and Chicago in 2008-09. Of course, 101 innings over two years accompanied by a WHIP topping 1.40 isn't that great, and let's not forget his epic flakeout when the Sox had the temerity to ask him to relieve in the postseason.

Garcia, on the other hand, did pitch last year, and he wound up with 28 starts and 157 innings at an ERA of 4.64 (94 ERA+, not bad for a fifth starter). Of course, that exceeded his innings total for the previous three seasons combined, and he's going to be 36 this season. Bill James and Marcel both project improvement, however, but Fangraphs writer Jesse Wolfersberger is more pessimistic, noting the continuing decline in effectiveness of Garcia's pitches.

The Red Sox know who their starting five should be, but less clear is how well they'll do. Like the Yankees, their No. 1 starter is a lefty who is as close to a sure thing as you can get. And like the Yankees, their No. 2 is a young guy who finally put it together last year, though to such a successful degree it seems likely the principle questions are how much will he regress, and how will he handle it?

After Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are the three enigmas: Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Beckett is entering an odd year, which is good news. Say what? Here are his ERA+ totals for seasons ending in an odd number: 286, 138, 118, 145, 122. He has never had an odd-number year worse than the previous season or worse than the next season. His even-numbered ERA+ totals: 99, 108, 95, 115, 75. His worst ERA+ in an odd-numbered season is better than his best even-numbered year. I don't know if this is some crazy coincidence, or if Beckett's body can't withstand the strain of pitching two consecutive years, thus affecting his ability to execute quality pitches, or if there's some other explanation.

Beckett was awful last season; that 5.78 ERA isn't good regardless of era or ballpark, but his FIP was 4.54, better than in 2006, because his K/9 was still above 8.0, his BB/9 was a little above 3.0 and his HR/9 was 1.4. Those aren't good numbers, but they're all better than they were in '06, which he followed up with a Cy Young-caliber season. His BABIP was the highest of his career despite a lower line drive rate than in either 2008 or 2009, and his strand rate was the lowest of his career. So he got massively unlucky on top of the effects his back injury was having on his ability to pitch: His fastball velocities, two-seam and four-seam alike, as well as his curveball velocity, were down significantly in 2010. I think it's likely he will rebound, but the question is by how much and whether he can stay healthy doing it.

Lackey overall pitched to league average for 225 innings, which has value (but not nearly enough for his contract), and he had an essentially perfect first/second-half split, by which I mean he was terrible up to the All-Star break, then pretty good from that point on. Red Sox Beacon discusses some of that, but the numbers are striking:

  • 1st half: 113 IP, 4.78 ERA, 1.602 WHIP, .816 OPS, 5.4 K/9, 1.48, K/BB
  • 2nd half: 102 IP, 3.97 ERA, 1.216 WHIP, .705 OPS, 7.8 K/9, 3.38 K/BB

That's an encouraging set of numbers. The second-half ERA is in line with his career norms, while the peripherals are better. It makes me think Lackey actually got a bit unlucky in the second half, and hopeful that Lackey in 2011 will be much closer to the pitcher we've seen in California.

Then there's Matsuzaka, who's had a disappointing couple of seasons since his promising 2007 and enigmatic but outstanding 2008. He just hasn't been healthy. In 2009, he was shelled for two starts before going on the DL, then returned and was hammered for six more starts before hitting the DL again. In his four ostensibly healthy starts at the end of the season, he posted a 2.22 ERA. In 2010, he was better but below average, good enough to be a fifth starter but not worthy of the hype he had generated in Japan. He missed April with an injury but had an ERA of 4.19 through the end of August. Another injury led to a skipped start and a dismal September in which he posted an ERA over 6.00.

I think the Sox would gladly accept the 4.19 ERA Matsuzaka posted from May through August. He just needs to be able to stay healthy doing it.

The Sox' rotation has a lot of upside, but a lot of "ifs" in it, as well. The Yankees are relying on a handful of wild cards in the hopes that one of them pans out for the back end of the rotation. I'd definitely prefer the Sox' situation, but neither instils me with a great deal of confidence.

 

27 comments… add one

  • Holy Crap.
    Other than that, how was th play, Mrs. Lincoln?
    Just kidding, Paul. This is a great post.
    My thoughts are that Hughes and Buchholz take steps forward, AJ and Beckett both rebound nicely, Lackey regresses somewhat.
    The questions really surround the rest. I have a sneaky feeling that both Beckett and AJ will have great years, if for no other reason that they’re both embarassed by last year. They both think they’re aces, and they both were nowhere near their capabilities.
    On another note, the Sox signed rehab-project Aceves today. I have absolutely no idea why.

    Brad February 8, 2011, 4:50 pm
  • To a major league contract…interesting move. He has two options left.
    CC lost 30lbs this offseason. Good thing because he’s going to have to go 25-1. Tip top shape can’t hurt!

    John - YF February 8, 2011, 5:32 pm
  • “…So no one knows. …”
    exactly
    ‘…After Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are the three enigmas: …”
    you mean 3 other enigmas…not ready to crown those guys just yet…they may disappoint…

    dc February 9, 2011, 12:36 am
  • Buchholz is definitely still a minor question, but Lester? Do you really think he’s an enigma at this point?

    Atheose - SF February 9, 2011, 7:57 am
  • no ath, he’s not an enigma at this point…his line for the last 3 seasons is excellent…he’s easily the ace of this staff, and probably would be on just about any other team…

    dc February 9, 2011, 8:27 am
  • I look at it like this:
    What other team in baseball, as constructed now, would the Red Sox trade all 5 starting pitchers (and their reserves) for?
    I say none. Their are teams with comperable top two, and even three, but as a group, I say no.
    So while some of you may see the Sox staff as a group of “enigmas”, I think every GM in baseball would sign up for that kind of problem right now. No team in baseball has 5 unquestionable good starters. No team in baseball, right now, has what Boston does.
    We’ll see how that pans out, and I guess it could go the way many of you think it may: with Beckett, Lackey, DiceK, Miller and the like all tanking or injured, but I’ll take that risk. Every season.
    Also, worth mentioning, Gammons said on Hot Stove last night there is some contention in the Sox office over Bard moving to the roatation.
    He was a starter at UNC. I take that move all day long, but don’t fuck it up like the Joba experiment. Put him in, and leave him in.

    Brad February 9, 2011, 8:37 am
  • “AJ and Beckett both rebound nicely, Lackey regresses somewhat.”
    Not that I want to give Beckett a pass but…Last year can be written off to him not being healthy. Making a bounce-back in 2011 justifiable. But as for AJ there is zero data that says he bounces back. I’d like to think Burnett could make an improvement over last year but there is nothing that says that will happen. I truly think people are underestimating just how average to below average this Yankees staff is. Time will tell but I have little to no faith in Burnett, Colon/Garcia/Prior/Mitre. I am fine with CC, Hughes, Nova, it’s the rest that makes me ill.

    John - YF February 9, 2011, 8:41 am
  • What other team in baseball, as constructed now, would the Red Sox trade all 5 starting pitchers (and their reserves) for?
    The Phillies and the Giants, for sure.

    Atheose - SF February 9, 2011, 8:47 am
  • Atheose:
    I’m considering everything. All five pitchers.
    The Phillies and the Giants are certainly as good, but not better (maybe on paper) than Boston, but I wouldn’t trade Lester straight up for Lee or Lincecum. So they have better #2? Is their 3,4,5,6 better? I say no. Maybe on any given night, but overall, I say no. Beckett, as a number three, is as good as any number 3 in baseball on any given night.
    What would Boston’s rotation look like in the NL? How good would THOSE numbers be?

    Brad February 9, 2011, 8:55 am
  • And even if you do actually consider Philly and SF better on paper, having only two teams in all of baseball on par or better than your staff, and not a single one in your division (top to bottom), is a good problem to have.
    Like I said, it’s hypothetical, but I do welcome the risk/reward associated with this current Boston rotation.

    Brad February 9, 2011, 9:00 am
  • philly and sf were the 2 teams that immediately came to my mind where lester would probably not be considered the ace, at least not right out of the chute…i understand defending your guys brad, but right now, and realizing that no games have been played yet, i think the phillies’ starting staff gets the nod…i think the point that was being made was that given recent data from lacky, beckett, and dice k, the sox rotation is far from settled in, where the phillies staff seems to be…if it’s any consolation, you guys stack up far better than my yankees…after cc, i got a lot of question marks [if i’m questioning buchholz, then i gotta question hughes]…and even cc’s not a sure thing, with the surgery and all the innings, blah, blah…

    dc February 9, 2011, 9:41 am
  • I’m a big fan of the Aceves signing. It’s a split contract, and he has options remaining, so the Sox can get him starts in Pawtucket and bring him up if/when they need help in the bullpen. He was very good for the Yankees before his injuries, and is apparently ahead of the schedule he was on when the Yanks cut him in November.
    I’m actually surprised the Yankees cut him. Strictly looking at performance, there was no reason to do so.

    Paul SF February 9, 2011, 10:05 am
  • Paul, I think I remember reading that the reason they let him go was that they wanted pitchers that could contend for a rotation spot in ST and according to all reports he wouldn’t be ready to do so. Otherwise you are right, he’s done something that some of the other stiffs haven’t: gotten hitters out.
    Brad, you are my boy and all…but…
    The Red Sox are clearly the class of the American League. They have the most complete team (on paper and other than that “awful” catching situation) in the AL and probably in all of baseball. Just strictly complete team wise they are way ahead of the Phillies (RF, CL, Pen) and they are probably their closest competition. I love, not like, love Lester. I think he’s as good of a pitcher as there is right now. He’s not the sexy name that Halladay and Lincecum may be, but he’s almost on Halladay’s level and he’s better than Timmy. (There I said it and I don’t care who knows, Lincecum has shown more signs of regression than progression, Lester to me is better.) Anyway, with all of that said I’d still worry about Beckett/Lackey/Daisuke just a little if you want to be considered that elite team. The Sox will win the AL East with or without success from the back end of that rotation, but in order to be elite, WS, I think they need that back end to be solid and I wouldn’t count on all 3 being ready to make that kind of statement. As much as I love Lester, I don’t love the Sox rotation. I think it will most definitely underperform this season minus Lester of course. (That’s not a dig, it’s just complete honesty. I am brutally honest re: the Yankees rotation as well.)
    I will say the best up and coming 3 man rotation (I think) is Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum. In the NL, in the NL Central…they could really be the talk of baseball if all 3 pitch the way they should. If you haven’t watched Gallardo he’s a H-O-R-S-E! He’s a take the ball every 5th day guy like Sabathia that still hasn’t reached his ceiling. I’d take that staff over the Giants right now. All signs point to progression on the Brewers side.

    John - YF February 9, 2011, 10:26 am
  • Well, like I said, we’ll see how it pans out.
    What happens if Beckett and Lackey just pitch like they should? What happens if each wins 16 games? We’ll see how it breaks out, but in the end, in a WS, It’ll be Lester, Buchholz, and probably Beckett, and after that, it doesn’t likely doesn’t matter. What makes you think an entire staff minus the top pitcher will underperform, but you think other staffs (with Grienke no less, who has underperformed every year but one), won’t?
    Is it just shear hatred of Boston? I’m not getting on you, but it doesn’t make sense that you think Beckett, Lackey, DiceK, and Buchholz underperform all at the same time? They’re all going to be bad? Really? But some guy like Gallardo is a horse? Lackey takes the ball every fifth day too, and has a bunch more years of excellent baseball under his belt.

    Brad February 9, 2011, 10:45 am
  • Agree 100% with John. I LOVE Lester and have no concerns regarding him, and I’m confident in Buchholz, but Becket/Lackey/Daisuke worry me. Tons of potential, but none of them have performed well lately.

    Atheose - SF February 9, 2011, 10:45 am
  • (on paper and other than that “awful” catching situation)
    Also another guess. How do you know what Salty brings to the table? How do any of us know that he’s not solid there? Are you giving the nod to Martin (have you seen his last two years) over Salty? I’m not. I think there is just as much question at C on both staffs.
    How the heck has Lackey not performed, Atheose? He’s had three bad months in two years! Lackey was as advertised for more than half the year last year? I’m not following the logic here. It’s almost like we’re talking about JD Drew here: are people just not looking at Lackeys body of work last year or something? Beckett being healthy isn’t a plus? I’m so confused by everyone at this point.
    DiceK I’ll give you, but honestly, I think if he falters, Miller is in that job.

    Brad February 9, 2011, 10:52 am
  • If Dice falters, it’ll probably be Wakefield or Doubront first, for whatever that’s worth.
    I’m fairly confident in Beckett and Lackey, probably Lackey moreso than Beckett because he performed well for half the season and didn’t suck as bad when he wasn’t performing well, but it is understandable to not have complete confidence in a starter when he didn’t break a 100 ERA+ the year before, regardless of what the splits come out to be, and certainly in a starter whose ERA was close to 6.00.

    Paul SF February 9, 2011, 10:58 am
  • Brad even at Martin’s worst he’s better than Salty. I wasn’t comparing the Sox to the Yankees just pointing out a weakness. There’s no data at the major level that shows Salty will be successful. His minor league track record was good but he’s yet to live up to any of that.
    I’ve made it clear how much I like what the Sox have done there’s nothing wrong with pointing out an obvious flaw. If you find me major league data that says otherwise I’ll stick to my opinion.

    John - YF February 9, 2011, 11:02 am
  • “…Strictly looking at performance, there was no reason to do so. …”
    yeah, i gotta agree with you paul…i don’t understand why the yanks would cut loose a seemingly servicable arm…i haven’t heard if there was some other factor that influenced the decision…

    dc February 9, 2011, 11:08 am
  • sox fans, many of them here, have had a love-affair with young ranger catchers for a long time now, and had their sights set on either salty or that other guy, tea-party?, whatever, ever since varitek started to falter a few years ago…it’s natural now that he, salty, is on the team, and despite not having lived up to the alleged potential, that he would be defended…nothing wrong with brad’s optimism…if we can say salty hasn’t proved his potential, it’s conversely ok to say he hasn’t sucked yet either…

    dc February 9, 2011, 11:18 am
  • “Also another guess. How do you know what Salty brings to the table? How do any of us know that he’s not solid there? Are you giving the nod to Martin (have you seen his last two years) over Salty? I’m not. I think there is just as much question at C on both staffs.”
    Even with all of the complimentary things I said it’s the catching comment that gets the most attention. With that said this is a perfect example of accepting the facts. Yankee fans were supposed to just go down quietly in re: to Jeter’s defense because all facts pointed towards him being “awful” defensively. Then when I point out a simple flaw in a very good team it’s too much to ask for you to say “you know what, you are right.” So here it goes:
    1. It’s not guessing it’s fact. Salty has done nothing at the major league level that says he can be even an average major league catcher. He might end up being Carlton Fisk, but to date he’s done nothing that says he will. In 899 AB’s he has put up a career line of .248/.315/.386 (His two closest comps are Tom Wilson and Adam Melhuse, not stellar company) In addition he’s thrown out just 20% of all runners at the major league level. So the stats point to him being neither a good offensive catcher or good defensive catcher. (24% at the minor league level, so while there is data that supports a possible influx offensively, defensively he owns that.) That’s simply not guessing. Right now Salty is nothing more than a hope. The good news is that he has a minor league track record that supports that. Problem is (and what I said) is that he’s been “awful” at the major league level. In comparison Cervelli (who I think is at BEST a career backup at the major league level) has this line in his major league career: .274/.343/.340.
    2. Why is this about Martin? I pointed out a flaw and now it’s about him? Well since we went there…In his worst season of his career (2010) Martin hit .248/.347/.332 and threw out 39% of base runners that stole on him. Career he’s .272/.365/.396 and 31%. Through age 27 his two most similar comps are Thurman Munson and Rich Gedman. He HAS a track record. So the same way you have faith (with data backing it) that Beckett will bounce back, that Ellsbury will bounce back, there is also no reason to think that Martin cannot bounce back. Especially because he was hurt last year (like Beckett).
    We cannot pick and choose when we want to listen to data.

    John - YF February 9, 2011, 12:52 pm
  • “…We cannot pick and choose when we want to listen to data. …”
    oh yes we can… ;)
    and we can cherry pick it too…the jeter stuff is a dead on example…they even used contrived data to demonstrate that jeter can’t get to batted balls not even hit to his position…well i fielded exactly 0% of all the balls hit to yankee fielders this past season…no wonder i’m not a major league baseball player…i’m gonna hire scott boras…

    dc February 9, 2011, 11:06 pm
  • Oh, DC… the study to which you’re referring is the exact opposite of cherry picking. It includes all the data you could ever imagine about balls put into play. I notice you are, however cherry picking which data to criticize (this one study you clearly don’t understand) and which data to ignore entirely (everything else). Anyway, I’m not going to force you to accept something you’re not willing to understand, and that’s all I’m going to say about that subject.
    I agree with John on Salty. He doesn’t have a major league track record of consistent, sustained success. That said, there IS some statistical basis at the major league level to hope that he’ll be something more than he has been, and that’s his line against right-handed pitchers: .273/.343/.422. He posted an OPS+ in that split of 102 and 128 in 2007-08. His game fell off the table in all respects in 2009-10, and his numbers against righties did, as well. But in a platoon situation with Varitek (.250/.336/.422 against lefties in his career, better than that in a small sample last year), I think it’s a safe bet that the Sox’ catching situation, at least on offense, will be less than “awful,” though there is certainly enough of a chance of utter suckage that I’m not going to quibble over the use of that word.
    Of course, I also agree with John about the rest of his post, too, especially the “class of the American League” part. ;-)

    Paul SF February 10, 2011, 10:45 am
  • “… I notice you are, however cherry picking which data to criticize (this one study you clearly don’t understand) and which data to ignore entirely (everything else). Anyway, I’m not going to force you to accept something you’re not willing to understand, and that’s all I’m going to say about that subject….”
    yikes that was harsh…it’s a shame when you slip and make things personal…please don’t confuse my lack of agreement with a lack of understanding…that analysis had more holes in it than swiss cheese, and you chose not to consider what i pointed out…that’s fine, and i understand why, it wasn’t convenient, and you don’t like to be challenged…i’m not offended, just a little disappointed…i even conceded that the bill james approach was a better, more thought out assessment…i never argued with the conclusions, just the method…and that’s the danger with too much reliance on statistics…some folks stumble upon a forgone conclusion and reinvent logic and math to prove it…it can’t be wrong, the numbers say it’s so…i did my own study, and i found out that jeter is not a very good first baseman either…he fielded 0% of the balls hit to that position last season…he should probably stay at ss…

    dc February 10, 2011, 11:17 am
  • Haha, Paul I didn’t even see your comment. I am glad we agree on the Sox being the class of the American league! God I hate saying that, it pains me.

    John - YF February 11, 2011, 9:17 am
  • i did my own study, and i found out that jeter is not a very good first baseman either…he fielded 0% of the balls hit to that position last season…he should probably stay at ss…
    You say you understand, but comments like this prove to me you did not read the article, let alone take the time to try to understand it. The “holes” you’ve brought up have thus far not been in any way satisfactory to dismantle the conclusions of the study, the basis of which has been widely approved by people much smarter and more stats savvy than I.
    Here’s where I’m going to go with this:
    I don’t argue with people who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
    I don’t argue with people who think global warming is a hoax.
    I will no longer argue with people who argue against data showing Derek Jeter is a bad fielder.

    Paul SF February 11, 2011, 9:38 am
  • still deleting comments?….wow

    dc February 11, 2011, 11:37 pm

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