Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red Sox Off-season Review: Beware Worms

On December 10, 2014, the Boston Red Sox had the following rotation: Clay Buccholz, Joe Kelly, Ruby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo and Allen Webster.

On December 11, 2014, the Boston Red Sox had the following rotation: Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Clay Buccholz, Joe Kelly, Justin Masterson.

The pitching staff on December 11 is better than the pitching staff on December 10. Analysis over. Article over.

Ok, since you all paid good money to read my thoughts (oh you are here for free?), I will dive a little deeper. The thing is, the analysis of the rotation as it stands right now is really that simple. The three players that the team acquired on 12/11 are better and more reliable than the players they replaced. At the heart of any transaction that a competitive team makes, the goal should be to get a player that is better than the player he is replacing. In these transactions, the mission was accomplished.

Let me get one thing out of the way real quick. I already discussed this in the Jon Lester piece, but when evaluating these deals I really only want to look at what happened and not what people think could have happened. If you want to say they should not have traded for Wade Miley because he had a down year last year and he may not be that good, that is ok. If you want to say they should not have traded for Wade Miley, they should have traded for Jeff Samardzija instead, that is not ok. I'm sure the Sox made an offer to Oakland, but Billy Beane decided he liked the White Sox package centered around a young, MLB ready middle infielder. The Sox have two guys that fit that profile in Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, but I hope none of you think trading either those two for Samardzija would be a smart move.

Since each of these players is an individual, let's take a look at each move individually before discussing the rotation as a whole (if you want a quick analysis just skip to the end)...

Rick Porcello

I will address the other side of this trade (Yoenis Cespedes) when I talk about the offensive additions. For now, let's talk about Porcello, who I think is now the team's "number one" starter. Some people will think calling Porcello our number one is depressing. In his career, he has had an ERA better than league average twice in six seasons. He typically strikes out less than 6 batters per nine innings. His career high in wins is only 15 (you all know I think pitcher wins are as valuable as an asshole on your elbow). Since Porcello has reached the big leagues, he has been nobody's idea of a number one starter, let alone an ace. But he is right now the best pitcher on the Red Sox, and I don't think that is a bad thing at all.

I am very optimistic about Porcello this year. The number one reason is Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. These strapping young men were the third and first basemen, respectively, protecting Porcello's myriad of ground balls in 2012-13. Both men should probably be DH's and that's been true for at least the last 3 years and yet they were being relied on to field behind an extreme ground ball pitcher. This, predictably, led to Porcello surrendering a lot of baserunners which in turn led to a high ERA. In 2014, the Tigers removed Fielder and moved Cabrera to first base, instantly improving the infield defense. Guess what else instantly improved? If you said Porcello's ERA you are right! Well now Porcello is going to a team with a Gold Glove second baseman and two very good defenders at third and first. If all he does is repeat what he did last year in front of a strong defense, then he's a very good pitcher.

Which leads me to my second point and that is the fact that I think Porcello is going to be even better this year. Porcello is going to be 26 years old this coming year and yet this will be his 7th full season in the bigs. All the pitchers that were on the roster were the same age or slightly younger and had between one and two seasons in the majors. These are all players we viewed as prospects, but Porcello is already fully realized. If we were hoping for those other guys to be a little better this year, couldn't we also make the same assumption about Porcello? Players tend to peak in their mid to late 20's so it is entirely possible we still haven't seen the best out of this guy.

It sucks that we only have him under contract for one season, but Cespedes also only had one season left so it seems like a fair swap. If he pitches really well this year and prices himself out of the Red Sox budget, then we will get a first round draft pick for him. However, I think if he pitches well here, the Sox will try to extend him and he will accept. Because he is only 26 years old, the team will feel much more comfortable giving him a 5 or 6 year deal that takes him to his age 32 or 33 season.

Bonus fun fact: He's a handsome dude. Also, he and his dad are supposedly building a cabin in Vermont (do they allow father-son marriages now too?), so I guess this means he is even more likely to sign here long term.

Justin Masterson

I'm not incredibly excited about Masterson, but he is only signed to a one year deal and he is likely a better bet to be serviceable than the De La Rosa/Webster/Ranaudo trio. I do think it was a good gamble on someone who has produced very good seasons recently in the majors.

In 2013, Masterson was a really good starter. A pitcher who has always been a ground ball machine (his career rate of 56.6% ground balls would have ranked third in the league last year among qualified starters), he took his strikeouts to a whole new level. For most of his career to that point he struck out about 17% of the batters he faced. In 2013, he upped that to 24%, which ranked 15th in all baseball. The main change in his approach that season was an increased reliance on a nasty slider that was nearly unhittable. The performance earned him his only All Star appearance and at just 28 years old he looked like a young pitcher hitting his prime.

Then last year he crashed back to earth. An early season knee injury evidently lead to altered mechanics, decreased velocity on the fastball (over 3 MPH), and a diminished reliance on his dominant slider. He was still a groundball machine (his 58.2% rate was the second highest of his career), but the strikeouts fell back and the walks increased. Players seemed to be able to lay off the slider more this year because they could just wait on the hittable fastball. With more balls in play and a questionable infield defense (former catcher Carlos Santana started the year at 3B and played 26 games there), his ERA sky rocketed. An in-season trade to St. Louis proved not to help either.

So why am I slightly optimistic about Masterson? First, he claims to be healthy again. If he is able to get his fastball up to 93 MPH and the coaching staff can get him to rely on the slider again, I don't see why his high strikeout rate won't continue. The second reason is the same reason that I am optimistic about Porcello (and Wade Miley) and that is the infield defense. Despite the injury, Masterson still got hitters to pound the ball into the ground a lot last year and that should continue. And if Masterson can't return to what he was in 2013, this is only a one year deal and he could have value as a bullpen specialist against righties. There is still enough rotation depth to replace him if he struggles.

Bonus fun fact: He was born in Jamaica.

Wade Miley

This seems like a good time to explain a stat called FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. This is based off a theory developed years ago by a writer named Voros McCracken (sounds like a Bond villain), where he realized that pitchers only have so much control over what happens once a ball is hit. They mostly control strikeouts, walks and home runs, but once a ball is put in the field of play they can't really dictate what happens (later people realized that different pitchers have control over ground balls and fly balls at least).

If you think about it, and if you've been following my analysis of Porcello and Masterson, this makes sense. If a routine ground ball is hit to Derek Jeter's left, it's likely to get through the infield for a base hit because Jeter, like another Derek, Zoolander, can't go left. But if that same exact ground ball is hit to Andrelton Simmons, it's an easy out. In those situations, the pitcher did nothing different, but in one situation he gave up a hit and the other he came one out closer to getting out of the inning.

FIP strips away the majority of balls put in play and focuses mostly on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed and produces a number that is scaled to look like ERA. FIP is particularly useful when trying to determine whether a player who had a bad ERA will bounce back the following year, or if a player with a great ERA will collapse. If your ERA is higher than your FIP, you probably had an unlucky season. If you subtract FIP from ERA, you can see who may have had the most unlucky season.

In 2014, Wade Miley had a 4.34 ERA and a 3.98 FIP. The difference of 0.36 was 17th in baseball among pitchers with at least 162 innings pitched. Oh by the way, number one on that list was Clay Buccholz with a difference of 1.33, yet another reason for optimism this year. Also, Masterson would have ranked number one if he had enough innings with a difference of 1.34.

Ok, this makes sense at a certain level, but does it actually hold true? Do starters with an ERA higher than their FIP correct themself the following year? Well, while one data point doesn't prove a theory, we don't have to look farther than our own Rick Porcello to find a correlation. From 2010-2013, Porcello had an ERA of 4.64 and a FIP of 3.95. In 2014 when he had a better infield to pitch in front of, he had an ERA of 3.43 and a FIP of 3.67. For pitchers that put a lot of balls in play, a good defense is so important.

Miley, like Porcello and Masterson, generates a lot of ground balls (51.1% last season). Like those two guys he has also had a really strong season in his past (his rookie year in 2012). The significant differences with Miley are that he's a lefty and he's under team control for 3 more years. Lefties can struggle in Fenway because of the short porch in left, but with his ability to keep the ball on the ground, I think Miley will be comfortable here.

One thing to note about Miley is that he saw an uptick in strikeouts in 2014. Like Masterson in 2013, Miley started throwing his slider a lot more. Sliders are really difficult to hit for same handed hitters because it starts off looking like a fastbll, but once you realize it's a slider it has started darting far, far away from you. It appears this is a swing and miss pitch that should help Miley get out of situations with runners on base if he keeps it up.

Bonus fun fact: The D-Backs tried to get him to stop eating gluten and he told them to fuck off. He's going to love the North End.

Final Thoughts

The Sox had a clear Plan B when they lost out on Lester and there are some themes shared by the players they acquired.

  • Each player is in his 20's. The team is trying to avoid commitments to pitchers in their 30's.
  • Each player has had at least one strong season in the majors. The trio of De La Rosa/Ranaudo/Webster all have promise but none of them have translated that to Major League success. It was clearly important to find guys that have done it before.
  • The Sox must believe they have a strong infield defense. Joe Kelly gives up the fewest ground balls in the rotation at about 48% (still well above average), so the infield is going to get a workout. These days, pitchers with high strikeout rates are all the rage, but if you have the right players you can find value in guys who generate specific kinds of contact.
  • The goal was to find players better than the players they had on the roster without dipping into their pool of top prospects. They dealt from a position of strength in getting Porcello and offloaded a couple young pitchers they no longer wanted to get Miley. Masterson only cost money.
  • The rotation overall may not be elite but it will be deep. Each pitcher has a high likelihood of being at least average. Combine an average start with an elite offense and the team should win a lot of games.
  • If any of the new or incumbent starters are hurt or ineffective, the team still has Ranaudo, Workman, Wright, Owens, Rodriguez and Johnson to step in. Or, they could dip into that depth to acquire any number of other pitchers mid-season.
  • If a trade for an "ace" does present itself, any of these guys can be bumped from the rotation. If Ruben Amaro lowers his demands, the team will have no problem sticking Masterson or Kelly in the bullpen or trading away Buccholz or Miley.
Bottom line, the moves improve the team. I think there is a lot of upside with these guys and Ben Cherington did a great job to pivot so quickly when they lost their number 1 target. There is still a lot of off-season left so the rotation could change, but if the season started tomorrow (now that Rondo is gone baseball can't come soon enough) I would be very comfortable with this crew.

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