Peter Gammons: Early May check in on Red Sox pitching staff

Anyone who thought Dave Dombrowski essentially tossed blank checks at the Padres and White Sox to get Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale had a large antiphonal choir with them. Prospect rankings may been rotisserie fools’ gold in many cases, but Dombrowski emptied some of the stock shelves for the three pitchers.

Now, a month into the 2017 season, one can easily ask—where would the Red Sox be without the threesome? And where they might be two months from now had he not laid down a clear nyet on Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers.

This has been a foggy, drizzly first fifth of the season for the Red Sox after they lost Friday night on a Joe Mauer walkoff in Minneapolis prior to the Saturday matinee. They were four games behind the Yankees. Only the Jays, A’s, Angels, and Royals had worse run differentials than Boston’s -4. They were 13th in the American League in runs, last in homers, 11th in OPS. Third base is such a hole that as they wait to see what they’ll eventually get back in Pablo Sandoval, their gaggle of third basemen are 29th in Defensive Runs Saved, 30th in OPS, and have more errors than several team rosters, and when David Price returns and if Brian Johnson eventually becomes the fifth starter, four of their five starting pitchers will be lefthanded.

Not exactly the model Earl Weaver laid down when he had three lefthanded starters with Mark Belanger and either Brooks Robinson or Doug DeCinces on the left side of the infield.

Yet, with sensational outfield defense, in the 15 games leading into Saturday their staff earned run average was 2.92, best in the majors in that time-frame. Pomeranz has allowed more than two runs just once in five starts, morphing into a curveball pitcher, ala Rich Hill. Eduardo Rodriguez has a 3.07 ERA. Rick Porcello went into Saturday with 18 quality starts in his last 19 outings. Watching David Price’s throwing session Wednesday and simulated game Thursday made one believe he will return, Memorial Day, whenever.

Kimbrel has been what John Farrell says “is arguably the best closer in the game.” 98.3 MPH heat. Curveball from Hell’s Kitchen. Struck out half the 48 batters he’s faced.

And Sale has been nothing short of beyond belief, with the 1.38 ERA and 63-8 strikeout-walk ratio through six starts and 45 2/3 innings. Farrell, teammates and managers and coaches from other teams ask, “why can’t more pitchers emulate him?”

Now, they’re not asking someone else to be able to dial it up from 91 to 97 MPH or throwing that killer breaking ball or something out of that deceptive, complex delivery and be so coordinated that he can throw close to three out of every four fastballs for strikes. Not a fair request.

What they are asking is why other pitchers, like Sale, dial up Mark Buehrle? Remember when George Bamberger and later Ray Miller had the Oriole pitchers wearing “Work Fast, Throw Strikes” t-shirts? The point, exactly.

When Sale got to the big leagues with the White Sox as a reliever, Buehrle was a veteran en route to 214 wins—more than Hall of Famers Don Drysdale or Bob Lemon— and 14 consecutive seasons throwing at least 200 innings. His stuff might have been described as Sale In a Hospital Zone, but he has really good stuff. He worked exceptionally quickly. He didn’t stand on the mound staring at his catcher as he gave the signs; in fact, Buehrle claimed that in his entire career, never once—never—did he shake off a catcher’s sign.

“I learned a lot from Mark,” says Sale. “He believed that the quicker you work, the less time there is for the hitter to get set or think. Your teammates enjoy playing behind you, which means you get a lot of help. It’s being aggressive. Don’t overthink it. Work fast, execute, trust your catcher.”

And going into his Sunday start against Ervin Santana, catcher Sandy Leon thinks Sale has shaken off two signs all season.

In his career, Sale averaged 19.3 seconds per pitch. Buehrle was 16.8, making them two of the quickest workers since the start of the 2010 season. This season Sale is down to less than 16 seconds between pitches.

Fewest Seconds Between Pitches, 2010-2017 (min. 1000 IP)

Mark Buehrle 16.8

R.A.  Dickey  18.3

Wade Miley  18.4

Jon Niese     18.6

Doug Fister 18.8

Chris Sale     19.3

Sale is averaging 14.2 pitches per innings this season, 15.5 for his career. Buehrle averaged 15.2 pitches per inning.

There has been speculation that once Price gets healthy, he could begin to work quicker. If Brian Johnson were to get himself back to the majors and is as healthy as he was two years ago, he has been a Buehrle clone in terms of pace.

Boston’s bullpen has been good, despite the Matt Barnes walkoff piece Friday. They think that between Ben Taylor, Chandler Shepherd and Jamie Callahan in the high minors, they may get further help in front of Kimbrel. And if Price comes back, he, Sale, Porcello and Wright were four of the eight pitchers in the American League that averaged at least 20 outs a start, taking further pressure off the back end of the staff.

There are issues to be answered with the Red Sox, who if they cling to remaining below the luxury tax threshold, cannot go out and take a significant contract at third base or the pitching staff. The Yankees do not want to cross the threshold and pay a 50% tax on free agents next winter, but their blend of youth and veterans has taken on a fascinating character piece in the first month.

Kimbrel may well be the best closer in the league right now, especially if Zach Britton has lasting problems with his forearm. If Pomeranz can throw 180 innings (for the first time), he may be a mid-rotation starter. Sale is a Cy Young candidate every year, perhaps this more than ever.

In reality, Yoan Moncada and Anderson Espinoza, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe, and Manuel Margot are all going to play in the big leagues, not to mention that Travis Shaw has outperformed what he left behind, but without Sale, Kimbrel and Pomeranz, they might not have a chance to win their first post-season game since 2013, which is precisely the chance Dombrowski didn’t feel he could take.

Comments

  1. StanTheMan says:

    A lot can happen in a season, or a couple seasons for that matter… you need the horses to carry the carriage, and though Pomeranz is closer to a donkey than we may like, we need the innings while Price gets ready, Wright gets healthy, and the produce on the farm continues to grow and ripen.

  2. hmmm, 100 pitches @ 10 seconds less than other pitchers = 15+ minutes a game faster

  3. It would be interesting to know the Red Sox profitability (earnings after total expenses) compared with the competition (American League or all MLB teams) to see whether avoiding going on the MLB penalty tax next year would more out of greed than ability to function at a championship level. Otherwise, would being on the penalty tax list involve non-financial “penalties” (draft positions, etc.)?