It’s a fool’s errand to overreact about baseball in April. Just looking at the standings right now will leave people incredulous. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers lead the West divisions, and even with the ongoing Bryan Reynolds trade rumors, the Pittsburgh Pirates are somehow good? Meanwhile, World Series contenders like the San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers have all had lukewarm starts.
That said, April is also a great time for teams to experiment with lineups and the pitching staff. In this sense, it’s natural for the season’s first month to portray wonky results. The Boston Red Sox are one of those teams experimenting, and the result has been a .500 start through 20 games.
Red Sox Pitching Staff Holes
The Lowdown So Far
Although it’s early, some trends mimic last year’s season. In 2022, the Sox were an abysmal 26-50 in the American League East, but they were 52-34 against teams outside the division. The latter stat matches the Yankees’ record outside the AL East in 2022.
So far, that current has stayed the same in Boston. Through 20 games, the Red Sox are 2-5 against AL East opponents but 8-5 against everyone else, but it’s worth noting that Boston has only played the Baltimore Orioles and red-hot Tampa Bay Rays for AL East opponents, so things can change as the season ramps up.
On the bright side, the Sox have won every series except two, and when they win, they score in bunches and show resilience. It’s a tiny sample size, but there’s some indication that Boston can be in the thick of things by September just based on a torrid offense that ranks top three in runs.
Can It Get Any Worse?
Where things get a little dicey is the other side of the ball. For as good as the offense has been, the pitching staff has been under the most scrutiny for manager Alex Cora’s team. If you look at the raw stats, there’s no way around it. The staff sucks right now. According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox staff ranks bottom five in WAR and bottom 10 in ERA (5.19). Only the usual bottom feeders like Detroit, Cincinnati, Colorado, and Oakland have worse numbers.
The results are even worse if you narrow it down to starting pitching. The Sox are one of only three teams (Oakland and the Mets are the others) where the starters have a negative WAR, and only Oakland and Colorado have a worse ERA. On top of that, Sox starting pitchers have only reached the sixth inning three times this year, and all those games have happened in the past week. The main culprits are all-stars Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, who have given up a combined 33 earned runs in eight games started, leading to ERAs north of 8. That’s not the tone you’d expect from a veteran one-two punch. Instead, their starts have felt more like a light tap.
The other four rotation players- utter Crawford, Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, and Nick Pivetta-have fared marginally better (everyone is hovering just over a 4 ERA), but rarely do you see clean innings from these guys. More often than not, the Red Sox have had to rely on come-from-behind wins and explosive offensive performances to stay in the AL East mix, which has led to a last-place start.
That’s partially a testament to the difficulty of the other four teams, but the pitching has yet to do them any favors.
A New Hope
Despite these issues, there are signs that improvements can be made as manager Alex Cora figures out how to stabilize the rotation. For starters, the Red Sox are finally getting healthy. Garrett Whitlock and heralded prospect Brayan Bello are back, which means the rotation is already more stabilized. Whitlock already pitched the first gem the Red Sox had had all year this past Sunday when he went seven against the Angels and held Mike Trout hitless.
Bello’s start against the Angels was much more strenuous (eight hits in 2 2/3 and five earned runs), but it’s worth noting that the Sox threw him out there to face Shohei Ohtani on Marathon Monday during one of the coldest and rainiest days of the spring. I wouldn’t kill him after that start.
An Inability to Get Out of Innings
What’s been killing the Sox is their inability to end innings. I overreacted, but the numbers corroborate my observation and show that the Sox pitching lacks the same resiliency as the hitting. According to Baseball Reference, teams have scored 53 runs against the Red Sox with two outs in an inning, tied for second most in the entire MLB with that many outs (tied with the Tigers for second). Only the team with a living possum in their stadium has surrendered more with two outs.
In all, opponents are batting.279 against the Sox with two outs, compared to .234 with no outs and .252 with one out. The good news is something like that can be fixed by closing innings to avoid trouble, but they haven’t been able to curb that issue yet. If they do, the team’s morale could improve even more.
The Bullpen Is a Bright Spot
Thankfully, the bullpen looks much better. Cumulatively, they rank in the top 15 in WAR and carry a 3.61 ERA, which is much better than the 6.51 ERA from the starters. Take Ryan Brasier and Richard Bleier out of the equation, and that relief ERA drops to 2.37, which would rank third in the league. The bullpen success is only more encouraging when you consider how Joely Rodriguez hasn’t even returned from injury yet, and Kenley Jansen is looking spry as ever (no earned runs yet and four saves). The relief is the silver lining so far.
Statistically, yes, the Red Sox pitching staff is terrible so far. But injuries have riddled them, and Cora has expressed a desire to run with a six-man rotation to get a feel for things. I will be worried if Kluber and Sale continue to underperform, but some aspects are worth being optimistic about. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the Red Sox are still adjusting without Christian Vasquez. Connor Wong is just starting to wet his beak after being a part of the Mookie Betts trade as a prospect in 2020. Reese McGuire, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise at the plate but has only been a part of the team since the trade deadline.
Considering this, it may be before the Sox pitching staff finds a groove. But it sure is possible.
Photo Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Players Mentioned: Bryan Reynolds, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, Nick Pivetta, Brayan Bello, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Ryan Brasier, Richard Bleier, Joely Rodriguez, Kenley Jansen, Connor Wong, Mookie Betts, Reese McGuire
Managers Mentioned: Alex Cora