Note to the reader: most of this piece was written on Thursday morning, before the Red Sox and Rays each dropped their sixth game. Feel free to inject 20% more pessimism into the existing text.
Every mainstream sports outlet is beating us to death with stories about whether it’s time to panic in Boston and Tampa, where the Red Sox and Rays (my two favorite teams, incidentally) are each off to horrendous 0-5 starts. Writers assigned to these puff pieces invariably point out that no team has ever won the World Series after starting 0-5 (of course, most of those teams didn’t have three divisions and a wild card). Then they flip to the other side and mention all the 5-game losing streaks these teams have endured in the past few seasons, when they’ve gone on to make the playoffs anyway. As my friend Hoffer mentioned today, we’re 1/32 into the season, which is equivalent to halftime of the first football game.
For both of these teams, the key to determining whether their early season slumps are legitimate trends lies in the unpredictability of their pitching. In Boston, we know the bats will come around. They’ve scored 16 runs in five games, all on the road. That’s not disastrous, and the trend is sure to reverse when the weather warms up and the Sox get to Fenway Park. In Tampa, the lineup is missing Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, and now Evan Longoria is on the DL. We don’t know how strong their bats will be, but any expectation the ’11 Rays had of making the postseason was built around their pitching, not their bats. In both cases, if the pitching recovers, they’ll be fine. But can the pitching recover?
Boston has a collection of stellar talent in their rotation, but little promise of all that talent materializing in 2011. In his best season (2010, at least on the surface), Jon Lester went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA and a second straight season with 225 strikeouts. If healthy, the Sox can expect similar numbers from Lester in 2011. Clay Buchholz also peaked last year, returning from a sophomore slump to post a 2.33 ERA and 17 wins. His peripherals (K/BB ratio under 2, 3.61 FIP) suggest a possible decline in ’11, but he’s still 26 and could potentially show the true talent in ’11 that his raw numbers in ’10 suggested.
After Lester and Buchholz, there’s nothing close to a sure thing in Boston’s rotation. Josh Beckett peaked in 2007 with 20 wins, a 3.27 ERA, an an impressive 194 strikeouts vs. 40 walks. He was similarly excellent in late 2003, 2005, and 2009, suggesting that another odd year may be promising. Unfortunately, I know of no precedent for such a trend, and it’s more likely that Beckett’s 2010 (5.78, 116/45 in 128 injury-peppered innings) is more of a template for Beckett’s post-30 career. John Lackey was one of the game’s best pitchers from 2005 to 2007, when he struck out at least 179 and posted at least 5.5 WAR in each year. He showed flashes of that brilliance again in 2009, when he returned from injury to post a 3.83 ERA (with a better FIP) in 176 innings. In 2010, he got off to a slow start with the Red Sox, but finished respectably, his 4.40 ERA mostly a product of his defense, as his 3.85 FIP suggested a better pitcher. If his season opener against Texas is any indicator, he’s still trying to find his late-career form, but it’s possible, at 32, that he has some great innings left in the tank.
Finally, Daisuke Matsuzaka was a revelation in 2008, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, but advanced numbers suggest he accomplished what he did with smoke, mirrors, and a healthy dose of luck. He struck out 154, walked a ridiculous 94 batters (and hit seven more), and wiggled out of enough jams to far outperform his 4.03 FIP. Since then, he’s been no better than the advanced numbers suggested, winning just 13 games and completing barely 200 total innings in the two years since. Until he starts going after hitters consistently, he’s a five-inning pitcher hoping to fool enough hitters by nibbling on the corners and escaping jams without giving up too many three-run homers.
If Boston’s pitchers all pitch like they did in their best seasons, and Jonathan Papelbon returns to form in closing out leads held by Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks, the Red Sox are a 110-win juggernaut. I think it’s clear at this point that that’s a pipe dream. If Lester is a Cy Young contender, Buchholz is good, and two of the other three are serviceable starters, the Sox probably have 93-win talent. Then, after the first five games, if they play like a 93-win team over the next 156 games, they’ll win 90 games and possibly contend for the division or wild card.
In Tampa, the unpredictability is not about players hoping to recapture past dominance, but about young pitchers coming of age in the brutal AL East. James Shields was the anti-2008 Matsuzaka in 2010, going 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA despite 187 strikeouts and just 51 walks. He can expect fewer bloopers to find holes this year, leading to what will look like a resurgence. David Price, on the other hand, received Cy Young consideration despite a similar FIP to Shields’s, largely thanks to opponents’ .270 batting average on balls in play and a 78.5% strand rate. Price won’t win 19 games again, but he could improve on last season and pitch like a true ace.
Jeff Niemann is the only other Rays pitcher with any significant major league experience. Niemann went 12-8 last year and showed flashes of excellence, striking out 131 in 174 1/3 innings. A young (28), tall (6’9″), overpowering pitcher, Niemann could be a major factor in returning the Rays to the top of the division. Jeremy Hellickson is even more raw, but showed great promise in 2010’s cup of tea with Tampa. He went 4-0 in the majors last season with 33 Ks in 36 innings, and struck out more than a batter per inning in each of the past three innings in the minors, suggesting great things in the majors. These two, along with Wade Davis, are all promise, with no proof that they can handle the AL East over a full season.
Youth is a better problem to have than age, particularly in the post-PED era, but when you mix in a lineup that scored eight runs in its first six games, you’re putting a lot of pressure on a bunch of unproven arms to pitch deep into games and make few, if any, mistakes. Unless three of the four young pitchers take steps forward, the Rays will need huge things offensively from young players like Reid Brignac and Desmond Jennings to contend for a playoff berth. At this point, they feel like an 83-win team, which means an 0-6 start might keep them from breaking .500. If Evan Longoria comes back healthy, puts the team on his back, and keeps them in contention through late-summer, their rotation could be formidable come October.
Then again, who knows? Unpredictability is not the worst trait in a baseball team, but it’s not what helps managers sleep at night when their teams start 0-6.