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.