Currently, a lot of speculation about who will compose the Red Sox pitching staff during the playoffs. No one asked me, but I want to put in good words for these pitchers:
Lester, Lackey, Bucholz, Peavy, Dempster, Uehara, Breslow, Workman and Britton. What do they all have in common? They work fast and put the ball in the strike zone. Sometimes they get hit, even Uhehara, but they don’t fuss and fidget and walk around the mound, trying to summon the pitching gods to their aid. They look in, get the sign, and serve up another one. “Go ahead,” they are saying, “give it your best shot.”
It is well known that this is the gospel Juan Nieves and John Farrell have been preaching since Spring Training. The Josh Beckett era of delay and deliberation is over. Keep the game moving and let them hit what you have to show them. It has done wonders for the likes of Lester and Lackey, who have pitched with increasing confidence, pounding the strike zone as the year has progressed. They are truly controlling the game with their aggressiveness, not letting the batter regroup with every pitch. It is a pleasure to watch. Uhehara’s rhythm is poetic, not a hesitation in his delivery, unless you want to count the hitch you see just before he delivers the ball.
Some have not gotten the message: Tazawa, Dubront and Thornton. If they are in the zone, they can work quickly and get ahead of batters, but as the season waxes, they are increasingly behind. The hitters are waiting for their stream of pitches out of the strike zone, then getting their best shot on a 3-2 count. I have small patience for these laggers, because they are not getting with the program. They could all be dominant, but they choose to pick around the corners and fuss when they don’t get the strike calls they expect.
The first one to cut from the staff is Thornton, because he has not found the strike zone, since he came to the Red Sox. He is constantly in a 3-2 count, and then, naturally, walking the hitter. If Dubront could work rapidly and pound the strike zone, he could be the second left-hander coming out of the bullpen behind Breslow. So, of the two lefties, I choose Dubront.
Apparently Farrell likes Junichi Tazawa, but he paces around the mound, making faces after every pitch. Lately he is all over place, rarely pitching where the catcher is holding his mitt. Eventually he puts one right in the wheelhouse of some hitter, and the ball lands in the upper deck four hundred feet away. Clearly this is not what you want in a set-up man. I like the aptly-named Workman in his place, although Workman has had his own control issues lately. Workman, however, goes right after hitters, whether he has his best stuff or not. You have to admire that in a rookie.
Once the playoffs begin there should be no more free passes. Make them hit it, and let the other eight position players handle the results. Walks are poison. Thornton and Dubront? They have not proved they can do this. Britton? He started with confidence, but has lost his touch lately. Somehow a playoff staff will be assembled from these three left-handers and Tazawa. The one who regains his confidence and goes after hitters, should be the one who makes the cut.
This pitching staff should play ball, not play games on the mound.
Gordon Edes of ESPN.com takes a dim view of the re-treads the Red Sox brought in over the Winter. He portrays the glass half-empty for 2013: fragile bodies, disappointing 2012 performances, uncertain clubhouse culture. But Edes misses the point when he evaluates what the Red Sox have added, because the one thing that has to change in 2013 is the pitching.
The Red Sox will hit, they always have hit, but what will make the Red Sox into a contender is their pitching. So it matters that they brought in Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uhehara, all pitchers with good credentials. Even more it matters that the front of their rotation, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and John Lackey make a comeback from career-worst seasons in 2012. If those three pitch as they are capable, it hardly matters who is in the line-up next to Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury. The Red Sox will hit, and they will win.
On their best days, no one can out-pitch John Lester and Clay Bucholz. The problem was they had maybe two “best days” apiece during the 2012 season. You could see the pitches, the aggressive approach, the frustration in the eyes of the hitters, but you saw it only occasionally. These are both blue chip pitchers. Other teams always ask for them in trade talks. What will they show in 2013?
In 2011 John Lackey spelled disappointment. Many doom-sayers thought the Red Sox had overpaid for him, and I was one of them. When it was disclosed he had a deteriorating elbow condition, a lot of things made sense. Lackey should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn’t been healthy since he came to Fenway Park. If he can win 14-15 games in 2013, he will be what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him.
Rounding out the rotation will be Felix Dubront and Ryan Dempster. Both of them can be counted on for 10-12 wins if they stay healthy. Both of them have to prove they can endure a full season of starting at 6-7 innings a start. Both of them have proven they can face the best line-ups in baseball when they are healthy. So durability is the big question.
The bullpen has been reassembled with a new closer, Hanrahan, with Aceves moving back to middle relief. Andrew Bailey’s health remains a question, and Daniel Bard’s confidence needs re-building, but the bullpen can survive the collapse of either of them with the insurance of Uhehara, Aceves, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Franklin Morales may yet play a vital role for the Red Sox, but where and how remains a question. The upshot is there are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but a lot of answers as well.
So what matters in 2013 is, Can John Farrell, the erstwhile pitching coach, assemble a strong pitching staff from these elements? The Red Sox were clearly counting on this when they aggressively pursued his contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. Ben Cherrington was clearly counting on this when he signed Hanrahan, Uhehara, and Dempster. All the noise about Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew is just distraction compared to what happens on the mound this year.
It’s a new era in Major League Baseball. With good hitting you might stake out third place in the division. For the long haul and in the playoffs, pitching rules.