Boston Red Sox 2011: Previews and Predictions for the Entire Starting Rotation

deleteth accounethCorrespondent IIIMarch 16, 2011

Boston Red Sox 2011: Previews and Predictions for the Entire Starting Rotation

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    Boston Red Sox baseball is underway, and with that comes questions and concerns over the starting rotation.

    Last season, the starting rotation was the modern day version of Jekyll and Hyde.

    Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz delighted, finishing the year fourth and sixth in AL Cy Young voting respectively, and combining for a 36-16 record.

    On the other hand, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka all underwhelmed. Dice-K and Beckett combined for just 46 starts and an ERA over 5.00, while Lackey finished the season with rather lackluster numbers: 14-11, 4.40 ERA, 1.42 WHIP.

    It's no secret that the success of the Red Sox is tied to the performance of the starting rotation. The offense is one of the best in baseball and the Red Sox aren't going to struggle to score runs.

    So it was a pleasant surprise when Lackey, Beckett and Matsuzaka showed up to spring training early and in much-improved shape.

    But can the "middle-management" trio really bounce back, when injuries and inconsistency have plagued them in the past?

    Moreover, can Clay Buchholz repeat his 2010 success? Will Jon Lester continue to improve on his perennial ace status?

    These are all vital questions for the Sox, and I'll touch upon what I think the starters need to do to succeed, as well as offer completely unscientific predictions for the upcoming season. 

Jon Lester

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    Age: 27

    Years of MLB Service: Six

    What he needs to do to improve in 2011: From a fan's standpoint, there's little more that Lester can do. At age 27, he's already considered a Cy Young contender and one of the best left-handers in the game.

    So, the best thing to do is ask Mr. Lester himself. This February, Lester sat down with Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, and answered a few questions about the upcoming year.

    When asked what he wants to improve on in 2011, he answered as such: 

    "Walks. That’s the main thing. Too many free passes last year; too many long innings; too many two-out walks that add 10, 12 extra pitches that aren’t needed. That’s an extra inning, that’s an extra arm out of the bullpen.”

    Lester walked 83 batters in 2010, the highest total of his career. He averaged 3.59 BB/9, which was above the league average of 3.28 BB/9, and the highest mark since he became a full-time starter in 2008.

    Lester isn't someone you would characterize as wild, and it's only logical to expect a decrease in walks in 2011.

    Another, albeit minor, issue was his occasional tendency to explode last year. The majority of the time, he was a dominating pitcher. He allowed two earned runs or fewer in 21 of his 32 starts, including nine zero-run performances.

    However, he served up a head-scratcher on August 20 against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he served up nine earned runs in just 2.0 innings of work. On his final start of the season (Sep. 30), he gave up eight earned runs in just 4.0 innings of work. He also had a seven-run performance in April and a six-run game in June.

    This is incredibly, incredibly nit-picky. It's impossible to blame a pitcher for a few blips on the radar, especially one who turned out such a strong bottom line. I guess that's just how good he is—it's hard to find anything of significance that he does wrong.

    2011 Prediction: 33 GS, 21-7, 225 SO, 3.13 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.***

    ***Lester also happens to be my preseason pick for American League Cy Young winner. 

Clay Buchholz

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    Age: 26 (birthday in August)

    Years of MLB Service: Four

    What he needs to do to improve in 2011: My biggest concern for Clay in 2011 was his less-than-ideal K/9 and BB/9 ratios of 6.2 and 3.5 respectively last season.

    However, in the minor leagues, Buchholz averaged a 10.2 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 ratio. He's always been billed as a strikeout pitcher, and I think it's only a matter of time before we see that on the major league level.

    Last year, Buchholz was also the beneficiary of an incredibly low BABIP (batting average against balls in play) of .261. His FIP (fielder independent pitching) of 3.61 was also much higher than his final ERA of 2.33. Both of these metrics would indicate a regression in ERA in 2011.

    However, Buchholz did many good things in 2010. He posted a 5.6 home run/fly ball percentage, a 50.8 ground ball percentage and a 1.61 ground ball/fly ball ratio. All of these marks were some of the best in the league.

    Even if Buchholz wasn't fanning batters all that well and allowing too many free passes, he was routinely getting weak contact that didn't leave the infield. He did this with the help of his fantastic, pure stuff: His fastball was valued by fangraphs at a whopping 20.8 runs above average, his changeup at 7.7 runs above average and his slider at 5.2 runs above average.

    It's only a matter of time before Buchholz' peripheral stats catch up with his ability. When those two meet, it's going to be scary.

    2011 Prediction: 30 GS, 16-8, 187 SO, 3.39 ERA, 1.21 WHIP 

Josh Beckett

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    Age: 30 (birthday in May)

    Years of MLB Service: 10

    What he needs to do to improve in 2011: Be consistent, stay healthy. A simple idea, yet one with many factors.

    Last year, Beckett struggled with a myriad injuries. But even when he was healthy enough to pitch, he didn't pitch well.

    Beckett fell in love with his cut fastball in 2010. He threw it nearly 15.3 percent of the time, a huge spike from his previous career high of 5.1 percent (2009). At first, I thought the pitch would be a nice addition to his repertoire (which I still think it can be). But not when it becomes his go-to pitch in all counts, against any hitter, in any scenario...basically all the time.

    As a result, we saw Beckett shy away from what's worked for him in the past: His fastball/curve combination. As a believer in the true nastiness of his curve (he can throw it at multiple arm angles/break angles), I was truly disappointed when he threw it a career Red Sox low 18.2 percent of the time.

    Maybe it was because his mechanics were all fouled up from his injuries (which is a definite possibility), but Beckett needs to go back to his bread and butter in 2011.

    Also, Josh Beckett isn't a power pitcher. And yet, he occasionally thinks he is. He's got an above-average fastball, but throwing it down the middle of the plate in an attempt to blow away the hitter (when it's only going 94-95 MPH) isn't doing anyone but the opposing hitter favors.

    Beckett has averaged a 9.4 HR/FB rate over the last two seasons, much higher than the average of his first two seasons (2007-08) with the club (6.7 HR/FB). It would be nice to see him cut down on this trend.

    2011 Prediction: 29 GS, 15-10, 188 SO, 3.53 ERA, 1.17 WHIP. 

John Lackey

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    Age: 32

    Years of MLB Service: 10

    What he needs to do to improve in 2011: I'm going to give Lackey the benefit of the doubt and chalk his 2010 up to an "adjustment period" between the AL West and AL East.

    The biggest problem for Lackey was the constant stream of runners on base. Whether it was his 3.0 BB/9 (worst since 2006), or the 233 hits he allowed (highest total of career), Lackey was always working himself into jams. 

    As a result, his WHIP (1.42) was absolutely through the roof, the worst mark of his career and nearly a tenth of a point higher than his career average.

    Lackey has always pitched to contact, however. It's not as if he's going to miraculously start striking batters out at a very high clip.

    The problem last year seemed to be an inconsistent feel for his stuff. His curve ball was rarely working, and when it was, nothing else seemed to follow suit.

    It's almost self-explanatory, but Lackey just didn't locate well at any one point during the season. For a pitcher such as himself to survive in the AL East, he's going to have to be much sharper in his command and his mental approach to the game.

    2011 Prediction: 33 GS, 14-11, 170 SO, 3.89 ERA, 1.30 WHIP.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

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    Age: 30 (birthday in September)

    Years of MLB Service: Five

    What he needs to do to improve in 2011: Health is a must for Matsuzaka. He's appeared in just 37 games for the Red Sox over the last two seasons, and he needs to find a way to put a (relatively) healthy season together.

    Beyond that, Matsuzaka is as big an enigma as there is. It's easy to point to his career 4.3 BB/9 and his 5.97 innings per start as areas to improve on. But, at this point in his career, it might be unrealistic to expect an improvement in either of these areas.

    He's incredibly frustrating to watch at times. He's the contrast of what American baseball fans view as an effective pitcher. And yet, he's talented (when healthy).

    There's no doubt about it: Daisuke is the fifth starter. It might just be best to let him loose and hope for the best (i.e. his 2008 numbers), when batters hit just .164 off him with runners in scoring position and went 0-14 with the bases loaded. I'd certainly take that from my No. 5 guy.

    2011 Prediction: 27 GS, 14-10, 150 SO, 4.09 ERA, 1.37 WHIP

The Bubble

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    These are the guys who might start for the Red Sox in 2011 if they need an extra arm or a replacement for injury.

    Tim Wakefield: The Red Sox know what they're getting from Father Time if he's called upon to spot-start. He'll go out there and eat up five or six innings and give up three or four runs. The magic of the knuckleball is that no matter how many times an offense sees it, it's still hard to hit. In a pinch, Wakefield is a great option, because he gives a team as offensively talented as the Red Sox a great chance to get a W.

    Felix Doubront: The young lefty impressed many during his brief tenure with the Red Sox last season. Only 23 years old, Doubront has already accumulated 562.0 innings of combined minor/major league work, including three straight seasons of 100.0 or more innings. Doubront isn't ready for a full season yet, but he could be valuable if the Red Sox need a fresh arm.

    Alfredo Aceves: Aceves was a great pickup by the Red Sox. For $675,000, they got a 28-year-old with the ability to pitch out of the bullpen and start. Not to mention he's had success in the AL East, where he's spent his entire career. What else could you ask for?

    Andrew Miller: Miller is in competition for a bullpen job to start the season. But, if he doesn't make it, the 25-year-old still has plenty of potential. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe recently mused that Miller is more of a long-term project than a reliever, and I would tend to agree. It might be somewhat of an aggressive timetable to expect Miller to be ready during the season, but he could provide the Sox with a few spot starts. 

    Scott Atchison: This 34-year-old journeyman was a great find for the Red Sox last year. By the season's end, he was the third-best arm in the bullpen. Even if he doesn't break camp with the Red Sox, he has one minor league option remaining, meaning that he could be called up if the Red Sox are in need of his services.

    Michael Bowden: The Red Sox might be in some trouble if they have to call on Bowden for anything more than a few innings in 2011. Let's hope they don't get this far down the depth chart.