As we sit with roughly 2 1/2 weeks left to play in 2016, the Boston Red Sox sit atop the AL East and look capable of a deep postseason run — if they can actually make the playoffs through the insane AL race — thanks to a wrecking crew of an offense and a rotation that is really rounding into shape behind a pair of aces. Yes, two.
What a difference one year makes, huh? Let’s take a quick walk back through time.
Remember the 2014 Winter Meetings? I, an Indiana boy, was in San Diego in December, so I’ll surely never forget. Those meetings were the ones where the Cubs landed Jon Lester on a six-year, $155 million deal. This is pertinent because the Red Sox lost out on Lester and then instead went with a “no aces” plan for their rotation heading into 2015.
Through some trades, free agent signings and roster retention, former GM Ben Cherington’s “win with a bunch of twos and threes” approach gave the Red Sox an opening day rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly.
It wasn’t just those five all season, obviously, but the Red Sox would end up with a 4.39 rotation ERA, good for 24th in Major League Baseball.
This past offseason, the new, Dave Dombrowski-led regime signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal to be that missing “ace” and help shore up the entire rotation by knocking everyone down a spot. Youngster Eduardo Rodriguez was supposed to help, too.
Overall, things didn’t nearly as well as planned for a bit. Rodriguez suffered a knee injury in spring training while Price was giving up too many runs. Buchholz and Kelly were bad, mostly, and the team posted a 4.72 ERA in the first half.
Still, there were two good signs. The fill-in for Rodriguez was knuckleballer Steven Wright, who actually ended up making the All-Star team.
And then there was Porcello. For most of 2015, he was terrible. Then there was the first DL stint of his career. Many outside New England might not have noticed, but once he returned from the DL, he was good. In eight starts to conclude the season, Porcello posted a 3.14 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings.
Now, he’s a Cy Young candidate. He took his fourth loss of the season in a Wednesday night loss, but he only gave up one run (a Mark Trumbo solo homer, which is hardly a rarity this season) on four hits in eight innings. He struck out six without a walk. Basically, Porcello took a tough-luck loss thanks to yet another brilliant performance from Kevin Gausman (who I touched upon a few days ago).
The season line for Porcello: 20-4, 3.12 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 167 strikeouts, 29 walks, 201 2/3 innings. The ERA title ( Chris Sale leads at 3.03) is in range, Porcello now leads in WHIP and only Price has worked more innings in the AL. So, yes, Porcello is absolutely a Cy Young candidate. In the eyes of some, he may the frontrunner.
Again, this was a guy who was awful through July of last season.
What changed? Well, Porcello was trying to overpower hitters with his fourseam fastball far too often last season. He ended by throwing it 35.5 percent of the time when his highest mark from 2010-14 was 28.8 percent. Meantime, his twoseamer (sinker) dipped to 29.8 percent from the mid-40s in 2012.
Starting late last season and carrying over into 2016, Porcello has been relying on his heavy sinker to get outs. He’s throwing his fourseamer 23.5 percent of the time compared to 36.3 percent with the sinker. He’s throwing his slider more often than he has since 2012 as well.
“Talking to [pitching coach] Carl [Willis] and [manager] John [Farrell], we made a huge commitment to execute the sinker down in the zone and use the elevated fastball accordingly a handful of times whenever I need to,” Porcello told ESPN Boston last month.
With this, he’s improved control to the point that the walk rate (1.29 BB/9 compared to 1.99 last season) is the lowest of his career.
A funny thing has happened as Porcello has started to turn heads nationally these past six weeks. Price’s numbers regressed to the mean.
In his last seven starts, Price is 7-0 with a 2.16 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 50 innings. Many peripherals showed that he should normalize all season — just as his track record did, too — and they’re doing so. He leads the majors with 205 2/3 innings and again looks like the guy who finished second in AL Cy Young voting last season.
Behind their pair of aces, the Red Sox’s rotation ERA has been much improved these past two months:
Rodriguez has shown signs of life in his last two outings, Drew Pomeranz has had a few good outings (mixed in with bad, yes) and even Buchholz has had three very good starts. The low marks in August and September are mostly due to the two horses at the top, though.
So it’s a pair of aces leading the staff one season after the Red Sox had zero.
With the bullpen coming around (0.91 ERA in September), the best offense in baseball (they lead the majors in runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), the two aces atop the rotation have stabilized the ballclub to the point that there should be confidence in a deep postseason run.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Once an issue, Red Sox rotation coming together behind two aces