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Tigers, Red Sox proving that hitting isn't everything in 2015

Pitching still matters, and both the Tigers and Red Sox are learning that the hard way.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Both the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox spent considerable resources to add offense last winter. The Tigers forked over $68 million to a 36-year-old Victor Martinez and traded away one of their starting rotation stalwarts for outfield thumper Yoenis Cespedes. The Red Sox spent a combined $183 million on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez despite the fact that they play the same defensive position. While the rest of baseball was zigging, the Tigers and Red Sox were zagging, in hopes of getting out ahead of the curve during baseball's current run-depressed era.

It hasn't worked. Both teams skimped on their respective starting rotations in December and are currently paying for it in a big way. The Tigers enter play today 10 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Royals in an AL Central race they were expected to win for a fifth consecutive season. The Red Sox, a popular pick to win the AL East and return to the postseason, own the worst record in the American League. Their pitching staffs have the two highest team ERAs in the AL. The Red Sox have some reprieve, at least. Their bullpen has a 3.81 ERA, which ranks in the middle of the pack. Sure, they are outperforming their peripherals and are one of four AL bullpens below replacement level, but silver linings are about all you get when you look at these two pitching staffs (David Price excluded, of course).

The "outscore everyone with guns blazing" approach has almost worked for the Tigers, who rank second in the American League with 433 runs scored this season. They have shot up the rankings lately, scoring 5.63 runs per game since their closed-door team meeting on June 21. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are 11th in the league in run scoring. They hit for a decent average and on-base percentage, but, oddly enough, have the second-lowest isolated power (ISO) in the AL. Nearly all of their power bats -- Sandoval, Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli -- have been banged up at some point, and no one else has been able to pick up the slack.

SB Nation blog: Over the Monster

Game One: Friday, 7:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (0-3, 6.62 ERA) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (5-10, 5.79 ERA)

Verlander 6 34.0 5.82 3.18 2.12 1.50 6.06 4.81 -0.4
Porcello 18 105.2 7.15 2.21 1.53 1.41 4.63 3.89 0.2

This is the part where you exhale. Many Tigers fans lamented the departure of Rick Porcello last offseason, claiming that he was a key component to Detroit's rotation after a breakout season in 2014. While that isn't necessarily wrong -- have you seen our rotation lately? -- Porcello has turned in the worst season of his career in Boston. After holding opponents to a career-best 3.43 ERA in 204 2/3 innings last year, Porcello has allowed a 5.79 ERA in 105 2/3 innings in 2015. He has allowed 18 home runs already, easily the highest homer rate of his career.

There are several theories on what exactly happened to the 26-year-old righthander, but the prevailing one seems to involve his pitch selection. Porcello has thrown more fastballs and cutters this year, eschewing the changeup and curveball that were so effective against left-handed hitters last season. Porcello's strikeout rate has climbed to 2013-ish levels, but so have his numbers against lefties.

One of his biggest problems has been against right-handed batters. They are hitting .265 with a .309 on-base percentage against him in his career, but are batting .284 with a .154 ISO this season. Porcello has gotten away from the varied pitch selection he used against righties with the Tigers, instead going with a fastball-slider approach. His only effective pitch against them has been the curveball, which is generating an 11 percent whiff rate this year.

Game Two: Saturday, 4:05 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit

Pitching Matchup: RHP Alfredo Simon (8-6, 4.63 ERA) vs. RHP Steven Wright (3-3, 4.84 ERA)

Simon 18 105.0 6.69 3.17 0.94 1.48 4.03 4.38 1.1
Wright 5 48.1 5.03 2.98 1.68 1.30 5.42 4.74 -0.4

Red Sox manager John Farrell is throwing the Tigers a literal wrinkle in this series, starting knuckleballer Steven Wright and moving his young lefthanders back a day. Wright, a 30-year-old righthander who spent 5 1/2 years in the Cleveland Indians' minor league system, has only made seven career starts at the major league level. As expected, his minor league numbers aren't all that solid, and he has allowed over a hit per inning in eight starts at Triple-A Pawtucket this season.

While he has a relatively tame 7.7 percent walk rate in the major leagues this year, Wright's command of his knuckleball isn't great. The pitch tends to float up and to his arm side, which lends itself to plenty of fly balls. Over 43 percent of the balls put in play against Wright this season have gone in the air, with a hefty percentage of them leaving the ballpark. Right-handed batters are getting the better of him this season, with six of the nine home runs Wright has allowed.

Of course, this means nothing. Steven Wright is a stupid knuckleballer, the type of pitcher that only pitches well against your team and gives up 10 stupid runs in every other game he starts. Knuckleballs are stupid and annoying and gosh darnit why did you swing at that it was a foot off the plate. This is going to be the worst game ever.

Game Three: Sunday, 8:08 p.m., ESPN

Pitching Matchup: RHP Shane Greene (4-7, 6.52 ERA) vs. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (5-3, 4.64 ERA)

Greene 15 77.1 5.47 2.79 1.40 1.46 5.03 4.62 0.0
Rodriguez 10 54.1 7.62 3.15 1.16 1.27 4.21 4.03 0.5

How deep is Boston's farm system? Consider this: both Baseball Prospectus and Sox Prospects think that lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez has the ceiling of a No. 3 starter in the major leagues, yet neither ranked the 22-year-old Venezuelan among the top three prospects in the Red Sox system prior to the 2015 season. Rodriguez was the return for shipping away Andrew Miller at last season's trade deadline, and has bullrushed his way into the Red Sox rotation with a dominant season. He allowed a 2.98 ERA and 1.10 WHIP with a 6.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 1/3 innings at Triple-A, and it's not likely that he'll be heading back to Pawtucket this year.

Since joining the Red Sox rotation, Rodriguez has taken a few lumps. He was tagged for nine runs in eight innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 14, and gave up seven runs in his last outing, a five-out start against the Los Angeles Angels. There have been flashes of promise too, though. Rodriguez struck out seven in 7 2/3 scoreless innings in his MLB debut on May 28, and has held opponents to one run or fewer in six of his 10 starts. His changeup is the more advanced of his two secondary pitches right now, making him a threat to neutralize righty-heavy lineups.

Hitter to fear: Dustin Pedroia (.287/.348/.426 in 337 plate apperances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Napoli (.206/.302/.376 in 328 plate appearances)

If you exclude Alejandro De Aza's 119 plate appearances in a Red Sox uniform, Hanley Ramirez's .778 OPS leads the Red Sox this season. Jose Iglesias has a .777 OPS. While Iglesias has certainly outperformed expectations, Ramirez, the premier bat on last offseason's free agent market, has done the opposite. Fellow free agent signee Pablo Sandoval has been even worse, hitting .260/.304/.375 with 21 extra base hits -- the same number as Anthony Gose -- in 336 plate appearances. Dustin Pedroia has held up his end of the bargain with a 113 OPS+, but the floundering power bats around him have been a major problem for the last place Red Sox.


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