Red Sox 2014 Preview: Starting Pitching (Part One)

The first pitch of the Red Sox 2014 season is now less than a month away.  As your 2013 World Series champions (doesn’t get old, does it?) are in Fort Myers preparing to defend their title, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at the projected 25 man roster.  I’ll kick things off by tackling questions about the top of the starting rotation.  All told, the Sox starting pitching is among the best in the majors, but that doesn’t mean that everything is puppy dogs and rainbows.

As is stands right now, the members of the starting rotation seem set.  The order may get shuffled around between now and April 2, but barring injury, we’ll see some combination of these five names.

Jon Lester (L)
Clay Buchholz (R)
Felix Doubront (L)
John Lackey (R)
Jake Peavy (R)

That’s one hell of a strong group, but they aren’t without their issues.  To me, there are questions at every slot in the rotation.  I’ll tackle the first three in this installment.

Can Buchholz stay healthy for 30ish starts?

Clay Buchholz

“Damn, did I just feel a twinge?”

For the first two months of the season, the player known affectionately in my household as “Buttholz” was as effective as any pitcher in the league.  He went 5-0 in April and was named the AL pitcher of the month.  He was similarly strong through May, and by the beginning of June you had to wonder if we were looking at a Cy Young winner in the making.  The euphoria over his performance was always tempered by a nagging question in the back of my mind; could he stay healthy?  After picking up a win against the Angels on June 8th, Buchholz pulled an incredible imitation of DB Cooper and simply disappeared.  What started off as a sore neck due to falling asleep while cradling his infant child turned into a three month stint in purgatory.  When he came back, he was still an asset, but the layoff had taken an obvious toll on his stamina and ability to pitch deep into games.

Questions about his durability still remain as he’s made at least one trip to the disabled list in five of the last six seasons.  It’s not always the same thing which lands him on the DL; a torn fingernail, a hamstring, a stress fracture in his back, gastrointestinal issues and the mysterious neck injury.  It’s frustrating when a chronic arm problem sandbags a pitcher’s career, but with Buchholz it’s something new (and often more bizarre) each year.  Can he be relied on to take the ball 30 times in a season for the first time in his career?  Let’s cover him in bubble wrap, keep him away from infants, and hope for the best.

Will Lester get lost along the way again?

South of Roger Clemens, north of Bruce Hurst

South of Roger Clemens, north of Bruce Hurst

It seems like every year, Sox fans and pundits are wondering if this will be the season that the big lefty breaks through the ceiling of very good and takes his place among the aces of the game.  One could argue that 2010 was that year for Lester, and I’d be inclined to agree if he had followed up a great season with something other than a very good one.  Perhaps I’m a harsh critic, but 2011 saw him fail to reach 200 innings while suffering a jump in ERA and WHIP and a  1.2 drop in  his K/9.  Debate the merits of his 2011 if you want, but there’s no question that 2012 was a steaming turd pinched 60′ 6″ from the plate.  Both his performance and his demeanor left a lot to be desired as he suffered from the fallout of the Chicken and Beer Club revelations.

At the beginning of 2013, we looked at a body of work that included a great season, some very good ones and the aforementioned bowel movement.  Would this finally be another statement season?  The answer was no…but in a way, yes.  There were four distinct phases to Jon Lester in 2013.  He was solid at the start, completely lost his mechanics and confidence for a while, righted the ship in the second half and then completely dominated the postseason.

Before the start of the playoffs, I was extremely worried.  Lester had gotten himself back together and was pitching solidly if not spectacularly, but that three start stretch in the middle of the year was SO bad.  Every player has ups and downs over the course of a 6 month long season.  For a few weeks, however, it looked like Lester’s body had been injected with John “Way Back” Wasdin’s ability.  Over those 3 starts, he gave up 6 home runs and nearly a quarter of the runs he allowed all season.  His mechanics had completely abandoned him and he was making the same worrying facial expressions from 2012.  He looked utterly lost.  I was terrified that it would happen again at the wrong time.  Fortunately, a completely different Jon Lester emerged in October.  He wasn’t the same guy he was before or after his time in the desert, instead he turned the clock back to 2010 and was great again.  Lester’s performance in the playoffs transcended very good and even great.  He was spectacular.  But now here we are again in March wondering “what will Lester give us this year?”  That remains to be seen, but I’ll settle for very good all year if he can avoid a detour down Wasdin Way again.

Can Doubront get through his starts without losing focus?

Wait, where did our lead go?

Wait, where did our lead go?

“Fucking Doubront!”  I think I said those two words more than any others during the 2013 season.  Lester may have had a worrying loss of command for three starts, but Doubront seemed to suffer a breakdown of sorts in every start.  Sometimes he would start off strong and seem to completely lose focus.  Sometimes he was crap for the first two innings before finding his groove.  Seldom, however, did we get a steady performance all the way through a start.  There were too many pitches, too many walks, too many early exits, and way too many sighs and head shakes as he left the mound for the dugout.

In the past, perhaps Doubront could get a pass for being young, but that excuse isn’t going to fly anymore.  He’s entering his age 26 season and it’s time to figure it out.  It’s time to grow up and figure out how to keep focused for an entire outing.  It’s also time to stop wasting so many pitches and start pitching deeper into ballgames.  Felix showed a maddening ability to turn an 0-2 count into a 3-2 count.  Tasked with making a batter go fishing for a pitch or two and then pounding the zone again, he often struggled to do so.  That can’t happen anymore.  He needs to be more than the girl with the curl.  When he’s good, he needs to stay very very good.  There’s no more patience for the horrid innings he sprinkled into almost every start last year.

That’s all for now.  In the next installment, I’ll tackle the four and five slots as well as the young arms on the farm that may be needed to cover injury and ineffectiveness.

~ by schlippo on March 3, 2014.

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