Nobody saw this Red Sox start coming, that’s for sure.
And now that the Red Sox are up to their obliques in a 3-9 funk of their own making, it’s becoming clearer that the end is not in sight.
They know what the biggest problem is – a stunning absence of quality starts from their on-paper strength in starting pitching – but as Chris Sale’s dismal start (five runs, seven hits allowed in just four innings) screamed, they haven’t found an answer to the world of hurt the rotation keeps applying to the rest of the team.
After each of the nine losses, manager Alex Cora keeps getting asked what went wrong this time, and while plate discipline, baserunning, pitch selection and overall defense each have had their time under the klieg lights, the explanations always return to the starting pitching.
When the Red Sox do return to their expected equilibrium of being an elite team, it will be when the starting pitching returns to form and that will be when the wins start to pile up rather than feel like a Sasquatch sighting.
But a dozen games into the season, Cora and the Red Sox are just as unsure as you and I are about when the badness will stop with the starters.
“We have to play better, I’ve been saying it all along – better defense, better offense, pitch better,” Cora said Tuesday, before turning directly to the truth after the Red Sox’ 7-5 loss to Toronto. “Everybody knows we go with the starters. The starters are our strongest point and so far it hasn’t been good. They scored two, we scored two in the third inning, then they got that three-run inning. We scored. They scored again. we haven’t had a shutdown inning for two weeks. That’s very important. We haven’t had a chance to add on, which is very important to our offense, or any offense at the big league level. We just have to get better.”
Remember, the Red Sox’ rotation was so good last season that Cora used most of them in relief in October to shore up a bullpen that was looking leaky. The putty and caulk job worked for the ultimate purpose of winning a championship, but for lack of a better explanation from anyone associated with the Red Sox, the 2019 staff is paying the price now.
Last season the Red Sox starters collectively pitched 871 1/3 innings, which rounds up to 60 percent of the total innings pitched by the hurlers. Quick math shows that meant the relievers were relied upon for 40 percent of the workload. That’s a healthy balance, plus the combined ERA of the starters – 3.77 – was right where the relievers were at 3.72.
This year, with the exception of David Price’s 12 innings after two appearances, the starters haven’t gone deep into games. Sale is averaging 4 1/3 innings per start, Nathan Eovaldi is at 5, Eduardo Rodriguez is at 4 and Rick Porcello is at 3-plus.
Of the 100 2/3 innings pitched by the Red Sox this season, the starters’ workload has dipped to only 53 percent with an 8.78 ERA – it’s a 9.30 ERA if one takes away Hector Velazquez’ three-inning “opening” start and only counts the five regular starters, but let’s work with the lower number to keep this analysis in positive territory.
That means the relievers have been asked to carry 47 percent of the work. They’ve responded very well, with a 3.61 ERA, and so far have eliminated the burning question we all asked with feverish frequency all spring about the bullpen’s quality.
So perhaps because it was phrased in such a way that Cora could not provide a credible answer, the question about how much longer he can keep relying upon his bullpen at this rate prompted a short response from the manager.
“Hopefully not long, hopefully not much because that means our starters aren’t going deep in games – don’t you think?” he asked. “Bad answer?”
Nope, not a bad answer at all.
But it’s the same, and only, answer he’s been able to give since this season began. He doesn’t know when the starters are going to turn themselves around and that’s mainly because he never thought he would be in a position where he had to worry.
It’s a big bad mystery in which the Red Sox are the victim of their own crimes, and their very own culprits can’t even explain their motives.
“You guys are watching, I’m struggling – I don’t know if I’ve ever pitched like this in my life,” Sale said Tuesday. “I’m trying to find something. I’m working. That only goes so far. This isn’t the hard-work league. This is the do-good league. Got to start going out there and performing.”
Sale took personal responsibility, which is admirable, but it’s also supposed to be rare for an ace. And this year he’s had to take responsibility too often.
“This wasn’t us not playing good, this was me sucking today,” Sale said. “That’s frustrating. Today was the day we were going to turn it around. We were back home, ceremony, playing in front of our home fans, playing our first home game. Everyone did what they had to do except for me and that’s a frustrating spot to be in.
“If I knew what it was, I’d fix it, that’s kind of where I’m at, is spinning my tires. Looking at this, looking at that. See if I’m tipping pitches, seeing if my mechanics, if it’s this, if it’s angles, still searching. But I’ll find it. I know who I am, I know what I can do. I’ve been there before. I’ll keep grinding.”
For too many of the first dozen Red Sox games, the rotation’s been grinding.
And that’s become a grind.