Red Sox Hope to Keep Building on Hot Start, Strong Pitching

Roy Ben-Joseph  Journal Staff

The most popular question in the baseball world over the last couple of weeks is whether the Boston Red Sox are legitimate contenders. The start to the 2013 Red Sox season couldn’t be more successful. The club has not only won nine of its first 13 games, but also posted some encouraging numbers in the area the team has been struggling for years: pitching. While the Red Sox used to lead the majors in many offensive categories, including scoring in 2011, expect it to go down as Adrian Gonzalez, who was a main RBI figure in the lineup, got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fans must also keep in mind that the Red Sox are days away from getting their best slugger in David Ortiz back.

But scoring is not the reason for the excitement around the 2013 Red Sox. For the past two seasons the Red Sox have struggled in the pitching category, posting an ERA over four in both 2011 and 2012. It was very frustrating to see an offense putting 5.7 runs per game and still losing during 2011 and 2012.

Through 13 games in 2013, the Red Sox pitching has been nothing but outstanding. The team total ERA (Earned Run Average) is 2.69, the lowest in the American League. The Red Sox starting pitchers have posted a combined ERA of 1.99, the lowest in baseball. Jon Lester is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, Clay Buchholz is 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA (tied for lowest in baseball among qualifiers). Ryan Dempster is 0-1 due to the lack of run support and the rainout against Baltimore that gave him his first of two no decisions, but his ERA is very solid standing at 2.69. Red Sox pitching leads the majors in strikeouts as well as in opponent batting average, standing at only .212.

While the team’s top three starters have already proved that they are pitching well, it has yet to be determined what production Felix Doubront and John Lackey can both give from the No. 4 and 5 spots. Doubront was very inconsistent in 2012. While sometimes pitching what seemed to be a potential shutout, in other games he looked fatigued and missed with the location of his pitches. Doubront had problems with going deep into the ball game while posting a high pitch count. John Lackey missed the entire 2012 as a result of Tommy John Surgery he underwent following the 2011 season. If the Red Sox would be able to get from him the same solid production he had with the Los Angeles Angels, then we are talking about a Red Sox team that has one of the most intimidating rotations in the league.

The Red Sox bullpen has been solid in early innings of relief, but struggled in the ninth, especially in save situations. On paper, the Red Sox have a top three bullpen in the MLB. Not many teams have the pleasure of having two natural closers as relievers. Joel Hanrahan, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in the off-season, is the official team closer. Andrew Bailey, the former Oakland Athletics closer is assigned to the eighth inning. In this early stage of the season the Red Sox already blew three saves, although they still managed to win two-thirds of their blown-save games. In order to be a competitor, the Red Sox need to be able to close games, something they struggled to do in 2012 with a league leading 20-plus blown saves. Despite the shaky start for the pen, it is safe to assume that this group of great arms will reach their full potential and the Red Sox will have an all-around elite pitching stuff.

It is impossible to talk about the 9-4 start without mentioning John Farrell. The former Red Sox pitching coach, who has returned as team manager, has a huge influence on Buchholz and especially on Lester who won the 2007 World Series with the Red Sox while Farrell was the pitching coach. Both Lester and Buchholz had a huge down year in 2012, both posting an ERA over four, which is high and above their career average. It was believed that while both had their best years when Farrell was their pitching coach, the return of their old manager would put them back on track.

So far they have done nothing but prove it all right through three starts each. On Sunday, Clay Buchholz took a no hitter into the eighth inning where it was broken on a broken-bat single by Kelly Johnson. The Sox have completed a three game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays during the weekend, their first since 2010, doing so while facing the top of the Rays rotationincluding 2012 AL Cy Young award winner David Price. The Rays’ rotation has been ranked first in the majors since 2010. Red Sox pitching had a 0.96 ERA against the Rays, and it was only due to solid pitching that the Red Sox were able to finally complete such a sweep against arguably the best pitching team since 2010. If Farrell would be able to maintain the solid pitching performances, then expect the Red Sox, who currently rank first in their division, to go deep in 2013.