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Infield May Be Key to Red Sox Rotation Success

The way players field the ball behind groundballer Rick Porcello could balloon his results above his Detroit days, changing the complexion of the team's pitching staff.

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    Infield May Be Key to Red Sox Rotation Success
    Getty Images/CSNNE.com
    2015 Boston Red Sox rotation - left to right: Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly

    This could be a post about the Red Sox not extending or signing Jon Lester. It could be about the team not making a stronger push on the trade market for an ace like Cole Hamels, or about not beating San Diego, James Shields' hometown club, and its offer of four years for $75 million (of which "Big Game James" will reportedly receive under $40 million).

    Instead, let's focus on the starting pitching the Red Sox do have – a rotation consisting of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson. The team has some flashy new toys coming out of the batter's box. If Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Rusney Castillo and the looming shadow of Yoan Moncada are a sports car, fans are wondering why the rotation looks more like a red wagon.

    To an extent, that concern is valid – the team does not have a top-tier starting pitcher. But while they don't have spinning rims, there is reason to believe this wagon could have some sturdy wheels.

    The wheel you will see on opening day is not sturdy. In recent seasons, it has ranged from completely busted to jet-powered (OK, wagon analogy's starting to fall apart here, so we'll drop it for now). Buchholz is capable of being an ace. He is also capable of not being worthy of a roster spot on a major league ballclub, or at least of not appearing to be worthy of one.

    The righty is the only member of last April's rotation remaining on the team. He wasn't traded with his mound mates – his stock, marred by severe inconsistency, plummeted. A year after taking harsh criticism for missing half a year with a sleep-related injury, he finished his 2014 campaign with a 5.34 ERA. His bWAR1 last year was -1.6, meaning the average replacement-level journeyman pitcher the Sox could have signed to a minor league contract would have been significantly better. Still, before Buchholz fell asleep with his child in his arms and proceeded to miss half the summer, he was en route to a Cy Young Award-quality season in 2013. His ERA was 1.74, his bWAR 4.3, an astounding total for 108.1 innings pitched. And in 2014, his FIP2 of 4.01 shows some promise of positive regression.

    Essentially, we should not expect half of a Cy Young campaign or one of the worst ERAs in baseball from Buchholz. But because those were the two most recent outcomes, the Texan is nothing if not a wild card.

    Even more so than with Buchholz, FIP is on Porcello's side. In four of his six seasons, his was significantly better than his ERA. In 2012 and 2013, when Prince Fielder's presence at first base shifted Miguel Cabrera to third, the Tigers' infield defense was … just … terrible. A sometimes-capable defender at first, Miggy was absolutely horrendous at fielding the hot corner, and Fielder's last name is a bit of a misnomer (although his UZR3 was about average in 2012). In those seasons, his ERA of 4.59 and 4.32, respectively, were worse than his FIP of 3.91 and 3.53. While rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos' defense was bad – really bad – last year, the trade of Fielder for second baseman Ian Kinsler helped.

    Because, by definition, fielding independent pitching is independent of fielding, the guys behind Porcello will need to be up to the task. A groundballer requires infield defense. Dustin Pedroia is an elite defender at second, and since switching from catcher, Mike Napoli has been a very good first baseman. Sandoval has had his ups and downs defensively, but his UZR there has been a plus overall, and he fielded the ball well last year. That leaves Xander Bogaerts, whose offensive potential is limitless, but who isn't widely consider a strong shortstop. Many scouts see him moving off the position in the future, and his small major league sample size there extrapolated to 150 games leaves him with a UZR of -3.7.

    If the whole infield does what it is expected to do, Porcello should be better in Boston than he was in Detroit. If Bogaerts exceeds expectations, Porcello could take a huge step forward in his final year before free agency.

    As it stands now, Porcello's bWAR of 7.9 from 2012–2014 is the 34th best among starters in that time, and just 0.4 worse than Lester, who ranked 32nd. His fWAR4 of 8.1 in the last three seasons ranks 32nd among pitchers with at least 400 innings, while Boston's old ace ranked 15th. Names ahead of Porcello on both those lists include Bartolo Colon (who turns 42 in May), Hiroki Kuroda (who has returned to Japan), Cliff Lee (whose elbow injury could end his career) and Justin Verlander (who, sadly, has been on a rapid and steady decline for the last three years).

    Is Porcello a shutdown pitcher who can carry his team on his back to top a guy like Chris Sale or David Price in a potential postseason matchup if the bats are being shut down? Probably not. Can he help an elite-level offense win a ton of games in the regular season? Absolutely.

    Kelly will open the season on the DL, but could be off it in time to start the season's fifth game. If he and Miley perform as expected, they should represent very decent options somewhere in the back three. Before an atrocious 2014 season, Masterson figured to sign one of the bigger contracts among free agent pitchers. If he and Buchholz recapture at least some of the form they showed in 2013, this rotation could certainly be adequate considering the Sox' bats.

    The team will certainly not have an elite rotation. But it will likely have a serviceable rotation. It could be solid. That, and the bats, could certainly be enough for April through July. Then, if they're on a roll, and the wagon is able to add an engine like Hamels at the deadline, that pitching staff might actually look plus - maybe even good.


    1 WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is a statistic that relies on many factors that interpret how many overall runs a player is worth, boiling down to his value compared to an average replacement-level player, who would be valued at zero. Because different websites use different methods to determine WAR, a letter before the acronym specifies. Baseball Reference's version is often called "bWAR."

    2 FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, is a metric that attempts to remove luck from ERA. A pitcher has little control of whether a batted ball that does not leave the park turns into a hit or an out. FIP uses strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit-by-pitches, along with a constant to put it on the same scale as ERA. FIP can be a better predictor of future performance than ERA, and comparing the two can show whether a natural regression - positive or negative - is likely.

    3 UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating, measures how strong a player's fielding ability is. It can be read similarly to WAR, in that a player with a UZR of zero is a league average defender at his position. Players with negative UZR in a given year are relatively poor defenders that season and vice versa. Fangraphs explains in detail just what goes into determining UZR.

    4 fWAR is Fangraphs' version of WAR.