The Boston Red Sox successfully acquired a fifth starting pitcher to complete their starting rotation on Thursday, signing free-agent right-hander Ryan Dempster to a two-year deal worth $26.5 million, according to Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston.
If the rotation stays as is, it would be expected that Jon Lester would still start at the helm with Clay Buchholz and the newly-acquired Dempster to follow. Felix Doubront and John Lackey—who missed the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery—would round out the rotation as Boston’s No. 4 and No. 5 starters.
The Red Sox rotation in 2012 wasn’t an easy watch. Nine Red Sox pitchers made starts, combining for a 48-72 record and a 5.19 ERA.
Yet the rotation that struggled so mightily last season has a relatively different look to it going into 2013. Josh Beckett was dealt midseason to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Daisuke Matsuzaka is currently a free agent, Daniel Bard and Franklin Morales will both likely start the season in the bullpen and Zach Stewart and Aaron Cook are no longer with the club.
There’s a chance that the new rotation helps Boston to a postseason appearance, but that may be a bold assumption at this point during the offseason.
But let’s be bold for a moment and make some further assumptions on what could happen in 2013 for each Red Sox starting pitcher.
We shouldn’t be convinced that the 2010 Jon Lester—who went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA in 208 innings—will never return and that the 2012 Jon Lester—who went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 205.1 innings—is what to expect in the future.
Not every pitcher is great every time they take the mound—unless it’s Justin Verlander who just continues to dominate. Lester had an off-year. He makes a couple of mistakes during a game and it comes back to bite him in the loss column. He doesn’t locate a curveball and someone bangs it off the Green Monster for a double, scoring two. It happens.
Before 2012, Lester won at least 15 games and posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of the previous four seasons, tossing at least 200 innings three times. And take into consideration that 2012 wasn't all terrible—he did show much better control, walking seven less batters compared to 2011 despite throwing nearly 15 more innings.
In 2013, we should expect to see the Jon Lester of old and not that guy wearing No. 31 for the Bobby Valentine-managed Red Sox.
As mentioned, the closest he’s come to winning 20 games was in 2010 when he won 19. If Boston’s new manager, John Farrell, can get Lester’s head back on straight, look for a similar win total.
Injuries have truly plagued Clay Buchholz’s ability to perform at a high level in each of the last two seasons.
The right-hander experienced back stiffness constantly throughout the 2011 season and ended up missing nearly 100 games after it was discovered that he had a stress fracture. Buchholz ended the 2011 season after making just 14 starts, going 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA in 82.2 innings of work.
Then Buchholz missed 20 games in 2012 with esophagitis. In 29 starts, he went 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA in 189.1 innings.
When healthy, Buchholz can be effective. In 2010, he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 173.2 innings, finishing sixth in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Injuries have been one of the reasons Buchholz hasn’t been able to replicate those numbers.
But there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be 100 percent healthy going into 2013 and can’t post a sub-3.00 ERA, something he’s only done once in his career (2010).
One thing that Buchholz absolutely has to do to accomplish this feat is to locate the ball better. He allowed just 19 home runs combined over the course of 42 starts in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, he allowed 25 long balls.
By looking at how batters fared against Buchholz in 2012, provided by Baseball Prospectus, he got hit the hardest in the middle of the plate.
Buchholz has to work with John Farrell to work on pitch location to either lower those numbers across the middle or to be able to pitch to corners more often and more effectively. If he can do this, a 3.00 ERA is definitely a reasonable mark for him to hit.
There’s not one positive aspect of Ryan Dempster’s career against the New York Yankees. In five career starts, spanning from 1998 through 2012, Dempster is 0-4 with a 7.62 ERA in 28.1 innings, while walking 18 and striking out 24.
Looking at each game individually, as you can see below, there hasn’t been one instance where he completed seven innings, struck out more than six batters or allowed fewer than three runs:
1998: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 3 K (L)
2000: 6.0 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 K (L)
2001: 6.1 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K (ND)
2011: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 6 BB, 6 K (L)
2012: 6.0 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 2 BB, 4 K (L)
Now obviously this is an extremely small sample size for a pitcher who hasn’t spent all but half a season of his 15-year career outside of the National League. But it is still something to consider, especially since two of his starts against the Yankees have been in the last two seasons—and the lineup he’ll face should look fairly similar.
In order to get the best of the Yankees—a team he could end up facing around three times in 2013—he has to command the zone. New York just waits for the pitcher to make a mistake and they almost always capitalize on great opportunities. One missed spot could end up in the short porch at Yankee Stadium in a matter of moments.
Dempster needs to talk with the more experienced starters on the staff about how they approach the New York batters, what works and what doesn’t work. And who knows, maybe Dempster gets the best of the Bronx Bombers a few times in 2013.
Felix Doubront started 29 games for the Red Sox in his first full season in the major leagues last season. As impressive as it was for a 24-year-old to make 29 starts, it was very unimpressive that he was only able to toss 161 innings.
That’s an average of 5.6 innings per game started—an unacceptable statistic for a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Doubront’s biggest problem: limiting his pitch count.
In 2012, Doubront threw 2,868 pitches. Taking into consideration that he only threw 161 innings, he averaged 17.8 pitches per inning. Now if you’re unsure of how that compares to the rest of Major League Baseball, let me fill you in.
It’s the worst.
Doubront’s 17.8 pitches per innings are the most of any pitcher in both the American and National League who threw at least 100 innings last season. That’s how he compares.
His command has to improve unless he’s just not going to make it. Allowing each batter to see around four pitches per plate appearance is what’s keeping Doubront from pitching into the seventh, eighth and ninth inning on a regular basis.
Maybe it’s Doubront, maybe it was that it was his first year in the rotation, maybe it’s the catchers or maybe it’s some type of outlying factor that we aren’t considering, but he has to make a change in his delivery that will allow him to throw more strikes and extend his outings.
The 161 innings that Doubront threw last season were the most he’s thrown at any level of professional baseball, but he has been able to significantly increase his workload lately. He threw nearly 100 more innings in 2012 than he did in 2011. If he can make the necessary changes, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be able to hit the 200-inning mark in 2013.
If a starting pitcher tosses at least six innings without allowing more than three earned runs in an outing, he earns himself a quality start. John Lackey has been good at performing to those requirements over the course of his career.
In more than 300 starts between the Los Angeles Angels and the Boston Red Sox, around 55 percent of them have been deemed quality starts. On average, Lackey throws around 17 quality starts per season.
There have only been two campaigns in Lackey’s career where he didn’t exceed 15 or more quality starts and that was his first year with the Angels—where he only got 18 starts—and his most recent season with the Red Sox—where just nine of 29 starts were deemed quality starts.
Now, setting the bar at 15 quality starts for 2013 may not seem so bold, but it is considering the circumstances. Lackey missed all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and has not thrown a pitch in the big leagues since September 25, 2011.
It’s not known how well or how poorly Lackey is going to pitch right out of the gate. He may show a loss of control and walk six batters in each of his first 10 starts or he may show no signs that he missed a full season. But we just don’t know yet.
I’m somewhat optimistic on how Lackey will perform in 2013, projecting him to go 11-8 in 28 starts with a 4.13 ERA in 185 innings pitched while striking out 139 batters.
If Lackey can pitch to his career quality start percentage, 28 starts would get him around 15 quality starts.
The question remains, however: can Lackey return to his 2007 form—where he went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA—or will he pitch like he did in 2011—where he went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA?