The Red Sox starting rotation finished the regular season ranked sixth in ERA (4.17) in the American League. They were fourth-best in wins (70) and fourth-lowest in losses (50). They had the fewest complete games (three), but pitched the third-most inning (1,011.1). They led the league in both strikeouts (833) and walks (383). And while they were dead in the middle for earned runs allowed (469, good for seventh place), they had the fourth-highest opponent batting average (.254). If all of these stats strike you as contradictory, they should. The Red Sox starting rotation was an enigma this season. It had some of the best pitchers in the league, but also some of the worst. So in order to grade the team, we must first grade the individuals.
Josh Beckett: C+. Beckett gets a slight pass for being injured for much of the season. But six wins (worst since 2002) and a 5.78 ERA (career highest) aren’t acceptable from the man who made $12.1 million this year. He did strike out 116 batters this season, which is decent for a guy who pitched just 127.2 innings (8.18 strikeouts per nine innings, good for 23rd place). But he gave up a whopping 20 home runs, and opponents batted .292 off him. He was in the bottom 20 for opponent OPS with .848. He was also terrible on the road, with an ERA of 6.07 away from Fenway. This was easily the worst season of his career, and for a guy who just three years ago put on one of the great postseason pitching performances ever (4-0, 1.20 ERA, 35 strikeouts, two walks), this has to be a major disappointment. Hopefully he recovers next year. He usually rebounds from bad years with good ones.
Clay Buchholz: A. Buchholz won’t win the Cy Young award this season (smart money’s on CC Sabathia), but he’ll definitely get some votes. He finished second in the AL with a pristine ERA of 2.33. He only gave up 45 earned runs all season. He missed some time due to a hyper-extended knee, which limited his innings-pitched to just 173.2, and he’s not a strikeout pitcher (120, just over half as much as the league leader, Jered Weaver). But he was an excellent contact pitcher this year, inducing 24 double plays. He also was impossible to hit hard. He gave up the fewest home runs among qualified starting pitchers (just nine). His .312 opponent slugging is just .001 off the league-leader. It was hard to hit Buchholz (he gave up just 143 hits all season, best among qualified starters), and even harder to drive his pitches. The Red Sox had been waiting for years for Buchholz to become the elite pitcher they thought he could be, and now he has.
John Lackey: B-. First the good news: he won 14 games. He was the team’s workhorse (33 starts, 215 innings pitched, both highest on team). And… that’s about it. Really, it was a lackluster season from the $18.7 million Man. His 105 earned runs puts him in fifth place in the AL. His 72 walks and 156 strikeouts puts him in the middle of the pack. So does his batting average against (.277). Just kind of a middle of the road season. As a third or fourth starter, you could probably live with this performance. But as the highest-paid pitcher on the team, as well as the team’s marquee free-agent signing, we all really hoped he would do better than he did. With John Farrell likely to leave for the Blue Jays, Lackey is going to have to improve himself in the off-season. There won’t be a high-caliber coach to work with him next season (whoever the Red Sox sign, he won’t be as good as Farrell), so the burden will fall to Lackey to prove his value to the team. The Red Sox are stuck with Lackey as a fourth or fifth starter next year, but hopefully he has the competitive drive to push himself to a higher level of performance than he had this year.
Jon Lester: A. If Buchholz was the ace this season, Lester was maybe the best second starter in the game. His 19 wins puts him second in the AL, and his 3.25 ERA puts him ninth. He was also third in the league in strikeouts with 225, just eight off the leader, who made two more starts than him and pitched 16 more innings. Lester had some walk problems (83, third-highest), but opponents batted just .220 off him, good for seventh place. He was another pitcher who was difficult to drive the ball on, surrendering just 15 home runs all season. And Lester’s hit total has gone down each of the last two seasons (from 202 in 2008 to 186 in 2009 to 167 in 2010). The tandem of Lester and Buchholz should make Red Sox fans salivate over the thought of next year. Both of these players are young (both are 26), and both were All-Stars this year. They are a testimony to the strength of Boston’s farm system.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: C. The best word to describe Matsuzaka would be “frustrating.” Frustrating to watch, frustrating to analyze. He’ll walk the bases loaded, then get out of it without allowing any runs, but take 30 pitches to do so and shorten his outing by two innings, all before the first Red Sox at-bat.
His ERA, 4.69, was second-highest of his career. He allowed the second-most hits and earned runs of his career, but this was actually his second-lowest season in terms of walks. But his strikeouts are the worst of any season where he went over 150 innings. Is any pattern emerging here? Not really. It seems like Matsuzaka is either getting worse or at the very least not getting any better, but there’s no way to really prove it. He’s actually in the top 40 among qualified pitchers in terms of opponent OPS (.706). Hitters seem to have as much difficulty figuring out Matsuzaka as fans do. But the bottom line is, he’s not entertaining to watch. And that’s bad for a business that, at its core, is about entertainment.
Tim Wakefield: C-. Wakefield may have gotten shafted toward the end of the season by being moved to the bullpen, but it was absolutely justified. Wakefield just didn’t have it this year, going 4-10 (fewest wins ever) with a 5.32 ERA (third-highest of his career). And he never went on the kind of run you usually get from him once or twice a season. There was no three straight shutouts, or four straight wins. He just stumbled along all season, winning rarely, losing frequently. At 44, he really has to consider whether another season is worth it. He could play for one more salary, or he could do the honorable thing and retire. He needs 14 wins to break the franchise record for career victories, and he hasn’t managed that since 2007. And the only way he’ll start next year is if regular starters get injured. This is quite possible, but cobbling together 14 wins from spot-starts will be next to impossible. The knuckleball is an awesome, quirky, weird pitch, and he has made his bones on it for 17 years. But those bones are old, and it’s time to give them a rest. He should retire, and let the accolades roll in.
So there you have it: two aces, one almost-decent performance, and two and a half (counting Wakefield) bad performances. Average it all out, and you wind up with a B-. And that’s a pretty accurate description of their season: not bad, but really not acceptable from a rotation that averaged $7.8 million per starter.