Red Sox Pitching Takeaways from 2017

For all the attention that the Red Sox received last season for having such a flawed team, it is important to remember that they came in first place in arguably the most competitive division in baseball. For a large-market team like the Red Sox, it seems that the negatives of the team are often magnified, while the positives are taken for granted. That being said, as with every season, there are a ton of takeaways, both positive and negative. In these next two articles I will try to identify some of the biggest takeaways from the 2017 season.

Pitching

One of the biggest positive changes for the Red Sox from last season is the improvement in pitching. After pitching to a team total of 18.1 fWAR in 2016, good for 9th best in all of baseball, the Red Sox improved to a team total of 23.9 fWAR among pitchers in 2017, good for 4th best in baseball. fWAR is the Fangraphs calculation of the number of wins a player adds to his team compared to a replacement level player. The chart below shows most of the reasons for the change in fWAR from 2016 to 2017. Obviously there were more pitchers on the roster in each season, but the pitchers in the chart were the most impactful in terms of fWAR.

Pitcher 2016 fWAR 2017 fWAR Differential
Chris Sale Not with Red Sox 7.7 +7.7
Drew Pomeranz 0.5 3.1 +2.6
Craig Kimbrel 1.2 3.3 +2.1
Doug Fister Not with Red Sox 1.4 +1.4
Eduardo Rodriguez 1.2 2.1 +0.9
Matt Barnes 0.4 1.0 +0.6
Joe Kelly 0.4 0.7 +0.3
Robbie Ross Jr. 0.7 0.1 -0.6
Koji Uehara 0.7 Not with Red Sox -0.7
Brad Ziegler 0.8 Not with Red Sox -0.8
David Price 4.4 1.5 -2.9
Rick Porcello 5.1 2.0 -3.1
Steven Wright 2.7 -0.5 -3.2

It is important to note that this chart may appear a bit skewed. The fWAR differential is calculated by subtracting the pitcher’s fWAR in 2017 on the Red Sox by the pitcher’s fWAR in 2016 on the Red Sox. The differential is only showing the pitcher’s performance with the Red Sox. For pitchers like Chris Sale and Doug Fister who did not pitch for the Red Sox in 2016, the differential is only based on their performance in 2017. For Drew Pomeranz, who was traded to the Red Sox in the middle of the 2016 season, only his pitching performance from the part of the 2016 season where he pitched for the Red Sox is used in his fWAR differential. Additionally, Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler, who pitched for the Red Sox in 2016 but not in 2017, will automatically have a negative differential since their fWAR was positive in 2016.

Right away it is apparent that the largest change from the 2016 to the 2017 season was the addition of Chris Sale. One of the biggest narratives of the Red Sox season is that they had great pitching and subpar offense. Looking at the chart above it becomes evident that the narrative is a bit off. Without the addition of Chris Sale to the pitching staff, the Red Sox look like a very different team this year. Some of the most impactful pitchers in 2016 took a step back this season. Whether because of performance issues (Rick Porcello), health issues (David Price), or a combination of the two (Steven Wright), the decrease in productivity this season without Chris Sale could have been disastrous.

Having said that, Chris Sale was not the only pitcher to contribute to the improvement of the Red Sox pitching staff. The three most notable pitching improvements other than Chris Sale this season were Drew Pomeranz, Craig Kimbrel, and Doug Fister.

Through 102 innings with the Padres in the first half of 2016, Pomeranz looked like an ace. He pitched to a 2.47 ERA, 30 K%, 9.98 BB%, and a 0.7 HR/9. After Drew Pomeranz was traded mid-July in a controversial transaction sending Anderson Espinoza to the Padres, he failed to impress. After the trade, Pomeranz’s ERA was 4.59 through 68.2 innings. While his K% did fall by almost 6% when he came to the Red Sox, the main difference was that his home runs per 9 innings rose from 0.7 to 1.8. This is the primary reason why his performance with the Red Sox was considered so poor in 2016. In 2017, Pomeranz became one of the most consistent and reliable contributors in the Red Sox rotation. Along with a career best fWAR at 3.1, he also had a career high innings pitched with 173.2. Pomeranz is set to become a free agent at the end of next season and he will likely get a big payday, especially if his 2018 season looks like his 2017 season.

Craig Kimbrel is another Red Sox pitcher who had a significant improvement in 2017. After being one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since he debuted with the Braves in 2010, Kimbrel had a down year his first year with the Red Sox in 2016. While Kimbrel’s K% remained fairly consistent with his career average in 2016, the main thing he struggled with was walks. Going into 2017, there was a lot of questions about how Kimbrel would perform, and more specifically, how he would control the baseball. Surely, Kimbrel put any doubts to rest. After posting a 13.6 BB% in 2016, Kimbrel came back to post a career-low 5.5 BB%. To go along with it, Kimbrel also pitched to a Major League leading 49.6 K% (for pitchers with 60 innings or more). In other words, nearly half of the batters Kimbrel faced last year, he struck out. In the era of teams creating super bullpens, a closer like Kimbrel who can reliably lock down later innings is extremely valuable. Like Pomeranz, Kimbrel has one year of team control left before becoming a free agent for the 2019 season. Whether or not Kimbrel can replicate his 2017 production in 2018, he will surely be offered a considerable contract.

Looking back now on Doug Fister’s 2017, he looks like one of the most interesting pitchers on the team. After the Red Sox suffered several injuries to pitchers in their starting rotation (Price, Wright, Rodriguez), they were forced to use pitchers that they would not normally want to start. Fister was selected off waivers from the Angels in mid-May due to the lack of starting pitching depth for the Red Sox. From there, he went on to start in 15 games. Of those 15 games, 7 games were quality starts (a start that lasts 6+ innings and gives up no more than 3 runs). Although quality starts are not a perfect statistic, it helps to show that Fister was an inconstant pitcher.

A little less than half of the time, Fister had a quality start this season. While not extraordinary, most teams would be happy with that from their 4-5 starter. But it goes further than that. Between July 31 and September 6, Fister had 5 of his 7 quality starts. In that time he had a 2.79 ERA in 48.1 innings along with a complete game. But just as quickly as Fister’s hot streak began, it went away. The combined ERA for all of Fister’s starts not in the hot streak is 7.29 through 42 innings. Fister’s hot streak was unexpected and it lasted longer than his poor pitching, but the kind of steak that Fister had this year can not be counted on to recur. Fister is a free agent now, and it would make sense for the Red Sox, with their uncertainties surrounding starting pitcher health, to sign him to a small one year contract if he is willing.

While there were several pitchers who improved from last season or whose presence on the team contributed to the Red Sox’s success, there were also pitchers who took a step backwards this season. Ever since John Farrell used Steven Wright as a pinch-runner in a game against the Dodgers in August 2016, Wright has not been the same pitcher. As a pinch-runner, Wright got hurt diving into the base and injured his shoulder. He made two more starts the rest of the season and was ineffective. In 2017 there was hope that Wright would return to his 2016 form, but instead posted an 8.25 ERA and -0.5 fWAR before having season ending knee surgery at the end of April. Looking towards 2018, it seems that Wright needs to have a strong and injury-free spring training and start of the season in order to have a place in the starting rotation.

After a lot of controversy over the contract that David Price received from the Red Sox in the 2016 offseason (7 years/$217M), Price ended up having a pretty good 2016 season. Sure it wasn’t peak David Price performance, but a 4.4 fWAR with a league leading 230 innings pitched is nothing to scoff at. There is much more of an argument to be made about Price’s contract following the 2017 season, rather than after the 2016 season. Instead of looking like a slightly declining pitcher with upside, he now looks like a substantial injury risk.

After going on the disabled list for left elbow strain in early April this year, it was increasingly looking like Price was going to need Tommy John Surgery (also known as Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction), which would sideline him for 1+ seasons. Instead, Price came back in late May and made consistent starts through mid-July. Although he didn’t look amazing at first, he seemed to be improving with each start, culminating in an 8 innings/8 strikeouts/0 earned runs win over the Yankees on July 16th. In his next start, eight days later, he went 5 innings and gave up 5 earned runs. Three days after that he was put on the disabled list for left elbow inflammation. Again it looked like Price could be out for the season. Price did come back however, pitching 8.2 innings in relief to finish the regular season, and then another 6.2 innings of relief in the postseason. Through Price’s 15.1 innings of relief at the end of last season, he didn’t give up a single run and struck out 19 of the batters he faced. While promising, especially given how serious his injuries seemed to be, Price’s outlook for 2018 should remain realistic before getting to see him start again.

Rick Porcello was another pitcher who took a noticeable step back from 2016. After winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2016, albeit a controversial victory, Porcello’s production diminished. From 2016 to 2017, Porcello’s fWAR shrunk by 3.1. So what was the cause of this dramatic change. While there was not a significant change in his K% from 2016 to 2017, his BB% increased from a career-low 3.6% in 2016, to 5.4% in 2017. Along with an increase in walks this year, Porcello had a large increase in his home runs allowed as well. His HR/9 innings leaped from 0.93 in 2016, to 1.68 in 2017. The increase in these two statistics suggests that Porcello’s control worsened from last year to this year. The increase in home runs across the league coupled with the “fly ball revolution” that baseball is in right now could also have had an affect on Porcello. However, home runs allowed have been found to have a significant degree of variance from season to season, so it is likely best to not focus on this particular statistic too much before seeing his home run rate next season.

Another statistic that could explain Porcello’s regression is BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. In 2016, Porcello had a BABIP of .269, where .300 is roughly league average. This season Porcello’s BABIP was .324 and 10th highest among qualified starters. While BABIP over a career can tell you about the quality of the pitcher, large deviations of a pitcher’s BABIP from season to season, like Porcello has seen the past two years, can have to do with luck or the performance of the defense behind the pitcher. With that said, it is likely that Porcello had some luck on his side on with where his pitches were being hit in 2016, while he had some bad luck with it last year. It is reasonable to assume that Porcello’s BABIP, along with the rest of his pitching production, in 2018 will likely fall somewhere in the middle of his 2016 and 2017 performances.

This wraps up the pitching takeaways from the 2017 season. I will be writing a position player takeaways article to go along with this one.

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