On paper, the Boston Red Sox have a borderline elite rotation. On paper, it doesn't get more elite than Josh Beckett in the postseason. On paper, there are perhaps two pitchers that finished above Daisuke Matsuzaka in A.L. Cy Young voting. And on paper, Jon Lester rounds out the top five in the A.L. Cy young.
As it turns out though, they don't play these things on paper (I know! I was just as surprised). So let's take a quick look at what these things on paper should translate to in the ALDS (and, fingers crossed, through the World Series).
Jon Lester will start Game One against the Angels. Lester had a monster year for the Red Sox, by anyone's standards, and an even bigger year when you take into account he's 24 and less than two years removed from his treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
In the A.L., Lester tied for eighth in wins with eight, was fourth in ERA with a mark of 3.21, and had a very respectable 1.27 WHIP. This was all while throwing by far a career high 210-1/3 innings, good enough to tie for seventh-most in the A.L.
In my mind, there is very little to be concerned about regarding Lester. The biggest, and only, concerns are that he has thrown a massive amount of innings on his young arm, and he is relatively inexperienced on this stage still.
Is he a Game One starter? No. Not yet, at least. But he'll work his way out of any jam he gets himself into, he'll work deep into games, and he will always give his team a chance to win.
He's not a surefire stud like Josh Beckett, but he's also not a boom or bust pitcher like Tim Wakefield. Let's also keep in mind that when the Red Sox won the World Series last year, this kid started that game. He managed to throw five-and-two-thirds scoreless innings, and the Red Sox cruised to victory. Effective is the key word with Jon Lester, and he should be effective enough at the very least.
The enigma that is Daisuke Matsuzaka follows in Game Two. As I mentioned earlier, he will most likely finish third (fourth at worst) in the AL Cy Young vote. How one pitcher can achieve an overwhelmingly positive 18-3 record and still have his collective fanbase pulling their hair out every time he takes the mound is a feat that few can accomplish.
Daisuke does it with ease.
Matsuzaka is 18-3 (tied for third in the A.L.), with a 2.90 ERA (sub three! Good for third in the A.L.). Yet somehow, he's able to accomplish those numbers while leading the A.L. in walks (94) and throwing only 167-2/3 innings in 29 starts. Only one A.L. pitcher with at least 29 starts threw less innings than Daisuke (the decidedly less-talented Carlos Silva).
So what can we expect from Daisuke heading into the playoffs? Well, as always, the unrelenting belief that he'll throw whatever pitch he wants to, regardless of the hitter's count. He will not give in, he will not throw strikes just to keep his pitch count low and extend his outing.
Yet somehow, some way, he will do enough. That's about all we can expect from Daisuke, and hopefully it will be enough. If he can avoid the big inning he's prone to give up, he'll leave the bullpen in a very good position to hold on for the win.
Ugh. Plain and simple. Perhaps the most dominant postseason pitcher of his generation, yet Josh Beckett has already been bumped from his first start. Hampered by a right oblique injury, Beckett has seen his start moved back to Game Three for now.
There's certainly a chance that he could miss that start as well, as an injury to the oblique, even as minor as a strain, would make it almost impossible for him to be effective. Fingers remain crossed throughout Red Sox Nation.
If he does pitch though, watch out. In 10 postseason appearances, Josh Beckett has been the definition of lights out. He is 6-0 with a 1.73 ERA, coupled with 82 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 72 innings pitched. Yikes. During the Red Sox's World Series run last season, he went 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA. It's a simple equation: If Josh Beckett pitches (at even close to full strength), the Red Sox are almost impossible to beat. My fingers remain crossed.
Paul Byrd/Tim Wakefield
Paul Byrd is more than likely the first of these two to get a start. It's almost unnecessary to debate the idea, as Wakefield has proven his worth out of the bullpen, year after year.
The bigger question here is whether Wakefield will have to take Beckett's turn, or will Byrd be bumped up and Beckett pushed back to Game Four? Or will Byrd get the bump to Game Three and Wakefield throws Game Four?
There are many way this can play out, and fortunately, the Red Sox are in a position where they can weather a situation like this for a series if need be. They cannot expect to be the favorites of any series if Josh Beckett doesn't pitch, but they're certainly not out of it if they have to start Byrd and Wakefield.
The Red Sox don't need either of these guys to be lights out. They need them to keep the game close, and they need them to eat innings. If Paul Byrd gets shelled, but can go seven plus innings, the Red Sox will come back the next day with a rested bullpen.
The worst thing that can happen from either of these two (if they both start) is being knocked from the game early. They're certainly going to go out there to try to win, but their biggest goal is to not tire out the bullpen. If Byrd can string together a few starts of six-plus with the lead, the rest of baseball should watch out.
So, everyone is great, right? Sure, on paper. The Red Sox will put themselves in position if Lester can be "effective," if Daisuke can limit the big innings and walks, if Paul Byrd or Tim Wakefield can provide one decent start per series, and most importantly, if Josh Beckett can pitch near the level he's capable, if at all.
At worst, the Red Sox still don't possess the worst rotation in the playoffs. At full strength, there is no better top three still playing this season.