In order to be the World Series contenders that many people expect them to be this season, the Red Sox will need all five of their starters to pitch up to their potential.
Last season, Red Sox starting pitching was inconsistent, at best. Despite the rash of injuries, poor starting pitching—more than anything else—was the reason for the Sox' disappointing season.
In 2011, the Red Sox will return an intact rotation, comprised of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daiuske Matsuzaka.
Without question, Lester and Buchholz have become the staff aces and are among the elite pitchers in the game. Both pitchers are only 26 years old, still improving, and should contend for the Cy Young this season.
Lester finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting after going 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 225 strikeouts last season. He overcame a slow start (0-2, 8.44 ERA) and finished the season as arguably the best pitcher in the AL, posting a 19-7 record, 2.81 ERA and 9.89 strikeouts per nine innings.
For his part, Buchholz went 17-7 with a phenomenal 2.33 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.
However, after that young, dynamic duo, the rest of the Sox' starters were huge disappointments.
Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka combined for over $39 million dollars in salary and an unimpressive 4.84 ERA. For comparison's sake, the entire payrolls of the 2010 Pirates and Padres were the same as, or less than, what that Boston trio made.
Which Red Sox starter is most likely to have a rebound season in 2011?
Beckett and Matsuzaka fell prey to injuries and never found the form that had made them successful in the past. Lackey was hardly the pitcher the Red Sox were expecting when they signed him last winter and had a lackluster first season in Boston.
Beckett posted a career high 5.78 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Over the previous three years with the Red Sox, he was 49-23 with a 3.71 ERA and sub 1.20 WHIP.
Lackey posted a 4.40 ERA, the first time his average exceeded 4.00 since 2004. And his 1.42 WHIP was tied for the highest of his career (2003).
Matsuzaka went 9-6 with a 4.69 ERA. Though he had moments of brilliance (like his one-hitter against the Phillies in May), they were far too infrequent and he typically looked like a shadow of the pitcher who went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 2008.
Though the Red Sox let Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre walk, two of their premier hitters in 2010, the offense should be at least as good (if not better) with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
But after scoring 818 runs last season (good enough for second in the AL), offense was not the Red Sox shortcoming.
One weak spot—the Red Sox bullpen—should improve markedly this season with the additions of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.
What is most critical to the Red Sox success in 2011?
However, for the Red Sox to win the AL Pennant, and ultimately the World Series, all five of their starters must stay healthy and pitch their absolute best in 2011. All of the Sox' starters need to consistently make quality starts and go deep into games, taking pressure off the bullpen.
As we saw last season, the Red Sox cannot get by on offense alone. Amongst AL teams, the Red Sox were first in total bases, second in homers, second in runs, second in slugging and third in on-base percentage.
Yet, the Red Sox won just 89 games and missed the playoffs. It was just the second time since 2002 that the Sox failed to win 90 games, and just the second in 13 seasons that they failed to finish in first or second place in the AL East.
All that offense in 2010 couldn't overcome the disappointing efforts of three-fifths of the rotation.
Red Sox starting pitching allowed 517 runs in 2010, fifth worst in the AL. Their 1.35 WHIP was also fifth worst in the AL. Additionally, Red Sox starters allowed a league-high 383 walks, well above the league average of 330, and hit the most batters in the league (45).
The upside is that Sox starters struck out a league-high 833 batters, held opposing batters to a .254 average (fourth-best in the AL), and gave up just 89 home runs, lowest in the league.
Unless the rotation repeats the latter statistics and not the former, the Red Sox new lineup and bullpen won't matter much.
On paper, at least, the Red Sox appear to be the team to beat in 2011. But now they actually have to go out, play the games, and win. There are always surprises. Who picked the Giants to be World Series Champions at this time last year?
It's long been said that pitching wins championships. Without it, the Red Sox may be just another in a long list of overpaid, underachieving teams through baseball history.
Sean is a freelance writer and creator of Kennedy's Commentary, a dedicated Red Sox blog. He has written for Baseball Digest and other magazines, newspapers and Websites.