The most important part of any baseball team is the starting pitching. Although hitters play every day, starting pitchers are much more important. A starting pitcher is involved in about 100 plays per game. A position player might be involved in 10 to 15 plays a game, depending on position. Unless, of course, they're a catcher. But the pitcher is a much more influential part of the 100 pitching plays he's involved in than the catcher is, particularly when there is nobody on base.
Anyway, the Red Sox, as usual, have a lot of questions in their rotation this year. The cast of characters is pretty set in stone, at least for April, but a lot of them are surrounded by doubt and uncertainty.
1. Will Schilling pitch like an old man?
2. Will Beckett continue to struggle?
3. How will Matsuzaka adjust, and more importantly, how will MLB hitters adjust to him?
4. Is Wakefield still a starter?
5. What the hell will we get out of Tavarez?
Let's start off from the top of the rotation. Schilling is pitching Opening Day for us. This is Curt's 16th year as a starter, and he turned 40 in the off-season. He was slightly off the center of attention with Manny Ramirez's shenanigans and the arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he still managed to steal some spotlight with his sudden desire to pitch in 2008, and his ultimatum to the Red Sox to extend his contract. However, he's a professional, and I highly doubt this will affect his performance. If anything, he'll pitch better because of it.
But he's 40 years old. That's a massive number for a pitcher. He's got over 3,100 innings worn into that right arm, not including warm ups, high school, college, Little League, pick up games, the minors, exhibition games, or the playoffs. Last year he was very solid, throwing 204 innings with a below league average ERA and 15 wins. But he's not an Ace. He is a #2 pitcher in a #1 slot on this team.
I think Curt will throw close to 200 innings this year, and his ERA will be around 4.00. He'll win 16 to 18 games, depending on the offense and the bullpen. His WHIP will be around 1.30 to 1.35. In 2008, he'll get paid $10 million by the Red Sox to pitch.
Josh Beckett was the biggest disappointment on the 2006 Red Sox. But the situation with him is not all gloom and doom. He's had a full season in Boston, now. He's got a new pitching coach, and he's surrounded by other good pitchers.
Beckett had two major problems last year. Walks, and homeruns. These two problems are related. You have trouble throwing strikes, so you groove pitches that hitters crush out of the ballpark. Walks are a pitcher's worse nightmare, because they literally are free passes. Beckett walked 74 batters last year, a career high. Only 1 was an intentional walk. He walked a batter every 2.77 innings. In 2005, he walked a batter once every 3.08 innings (this was in the NL with no DH). In his career he walks batters once every 2.74 innings, so this is not a new problem. However, what was a new problem were the abundance of homeruns. Beckett allowed 36 in 33 starts. He gave up the longball every 5.69 innings. His career rate is a homerun every 8.94 innings. This was a major problem for him in 2006.
Why so many homeruns? Well, there's the DH, but that isn't too much of a factor, I don't think. There's pitching in Fenway Park, but he only allowed 12 homers in Fenway, and gave up 24 on the road. Then there's the notion of pressure, and a pitcher bearing down too hard. Beckett was on a new team in a baseball crazy city, pitching in the biggest American sports rivalry, having his every move watched, being recognized wherever he went (my friend once saw him in an electronics store in Chestnut Hill and talked to him), and having losers like me breaking down his every pitch on our blogs. So Beckett would give up walks, and the pressure he put on himself, and we put on him, caused him to press too hard. To try too much to make that perfect pitch. And if that perfect pitch is just a little bit off, it's a long way gone. I think this is why Beckett allowed so many homeruns.
But I think there's a chance he's adjusted to it all. He's had an entire off-season to cool down. His Spring numbers are pretty solid, 23.2 IP, 22 hits, only 4 walks, only 1 homerun, and 8 earned runs for an ERA of 3.04. A very small sample, but the walk and homerun totals are very nice to see. If he can keep the homeruns to around 15 to 18, he's going to be a very good starter for us. And I think he will keep those HR totals down. So my prediction for Beckett this season: 205 innings, 17 to 20 wins, 3.45 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and a whole lot of redemption.
The $51,111,111.11 question revolves around Daisuke Matsuzaka. Will he adjust to America? Will MLB hitters eat him up? How will he deal with the different strikezone. So on and so forth.
Just a few things about Daisuke that I've seen in spring, the WBC, and videos online. He throws a lot of pitches. I don't mean he has a wide variety (which he does), or he throws a lot in a single game (which he does). What I mean is that in order to get batters out, he works the count on them. He goes very deep into each at-bat, falling behind the count or not getting very far ahead in the count.
This is somewhat troublesome to me, because against NPB hitters, you can get away with falling behind 3-1, or 2-0, and still toy with hitters if you've got stuff like Daisuke. But in the Majors, the hitters are too good. They'll take that 3-1 pitch for a ball, or they'll be able to crush that 2-0 pitch for a double. So I think Daisuke will have to adjust to MLB hitters. And it is paramount for pitchers to be ahead in the count against MLB hitters. Their batting eyes are just too good, they crush every single mistake, and they know how to work counts. All of them.
I think this will be a huge adjustment for Daisuke. He's got the pitches to accomplish this, but the way he approaches batters will be quite different. He's going to have to throw more strikes early in the count, and I think it will be a rough adjustment, at first, as he grows accustomed to approaching hitters in this way. Thankfully, it will also be an adjustment for MLB hitters as they see his stuff for the first time. In the first few meetings between pitchers and hitters, the hitter usually has an advantage. New arm angles, release points, and movement on the ball for the hitter to adjust to.
So I think Daisuke will adjust to MLB hitters in time, and by the time MLB hitters have adjusted to him, he'll be set in the way he approaches pitching to them. And I think he has the stuff to pitch very well.
Predictions: 16 wins, 3.65 ERA, 1.3 WHIP. Solid season which will be improved upon in 2008.
Tim Wakefield in the rotation is an issue that has sort of been kept quiet around The Nation this off-season. Wake will be turning 41 in August. The general misconception is that because he's a knuckleballer, he doesn't wear down. This is incorrect. Although throwing a knuckleball is less strenuous on the arm compared to a fastball or breaking ball, it still does some damage. Counting the playoffs, Wakefield's thrown just about 2,500 MLB innings.
I think Wakefield will struggle as a starter this year. He didn't do too poorly in 2006 with a 4.63 ERA (league average was 4.61), but he's another year older. He's no longer "rubber armed," he averaged 6.09 innings per start last year, as opposed to the 6.83 he averaged in 2005. He's a 5 or 6 inning pitcher.
But we don't have much of a choice at the moment. He will be our starter for most if not all of April, then we'll go from there. The good thing is that Wakefield can be very useful out of the bullpen. With the knuckleball, he can really screw up hitters after they face our hard throwing starters, and right before they face relievers like Papelbon. I'd really like to see Tim in the bullpen. I think he can help out this team a great deal in a middle relief role and an occasional set-up man.
Julian Tavarez in the rotation is great. I actually felt as though Tavarez should have been in the rotation even when Papelbon was still there. In September last year, he went 3-0 as a starter with 30.2 IP in 5 starts, and an ERA of 3.52. I think he's a solid 5th starter to have on the team.
On winning teams, 5th starters are able to win those extra games for the team. Most of the wins come from the top of the rotation, but those few extra wins from the bottom are huge. Tavarez can give us that from the bottom of the rotation.
Prediction: 13 wins, 4.00 ERA.
As mentioned above, I think Wakefield will find his way into the bullpen somewhere in the middle of the season. So who will replace him?
Kyle Snyder is capable of spot starting should the need arise, as is Joel Pineiro. But these are not our 6th and 7th starters.
Jon Lester is the 6th starter, and I think he will be brought up in case of injury in the rotation. I also think he'll be brought up by the middle of the season to be our 4th starter, replacing Wakefield. Lester pitched solidly last season for us, all things considered. I think he'll do well in AAA Pawtucket and will eventually his way up I-95 to Boston.
Kason Gabbard is another potential option for emergency starting pitcher. Although, last year was not very good for him in Pawtucket.
If the Red Sox are in the hunt late in the season, they will make a deal for a starting pitcher if they need one. There will be no holding back this season.