It happened again on Tuesday, the 56th time this season the Red Sox played a game without a pitcher going at least five innings. Starter Tanner Houck wasn’t bad. He was charged with only two runs, but he walked four and needed Brennan Bernardino to bail him out of a two-on, no-out jam in the fifth. Bernardino stranded both runners.
How, though, did this become such a common occurrence, the bullpen door swinging open less than halfway through a game, leaving a parade of relievers to handle four, five, sometimes six innings on a given night?
It wasn’t a lack of depth. Not really. It was depth left exposed by multiple injuries and not nearly enough impact at the top of the pecking order.
Fact is, the Red Sox were relatively deep. They entered spring training with 12 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster. Nine had big league experience, four were legitimate big league veterans, and the other three finished the 2022 season in Triple A. Each was a realistic option to start or provide long relief at some point this season.
Short-term injuries limited that depth at the very beginning of the season, but by the end of May, the Red Sox had enough viable, healthy starters to move two of their veterans (Nick Pivetta and Corey Kluber) to the bullpen and still have enough for a typical five-man rotation.
A month later, they were desperate enough to spot-start Matt Dermody, sign Kyle Barraclough out of independent ball, and take a minor-league flyer on underperforming Dinelson Lamet. Now that the playoffs are out of reach, it’s clear a lack of reliable starting pitching has been perhaps the team’s biggest and most persistent problem.
“If you look around the league, like Toronto, those (starters), most of them are going to get 200 innings,” manager Alex Cora said last week. “That’s the difference between this year and ’21. Everybody talks about the magic run (in 2021). I don’t know. It wasn’t that magical. It’s just a good team and solid starters that went deep in the games.”
So, why didn’t the Red Sox have that this year? How did a team that started with so much depth — enough to fill two rotations with a couple of long relievers left over — end up scrambling for starting pitchers? And how did they end up with the fourth-fewest rotation innings and a bottom-third rotation ERA in the majors?
In short: too many injuries and not enough impact.
Of the team’s seven most experienced starters, only Pivetta avoided the injured list. Kluber, Houck, Chris Sale, James Paxton, and Garrett Whitlock each missed at least 55 games because of injury, and in Triple A, Bryan Mata missed more than four months.
Some of that was bad luck — Houck was hit in the face by a comebacker, Sale had a relatively rare shoulder blade issue — but some of it was unsurprising. Sale and Paxton were coming back from years-long struggles to get and stay healthy, while Houck and Whitlock had finished last season on the IL, and Whitlock in particular was never a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day (though his ongoing health issues during the season were less predictable). Kluber was coming off a 31-start season but turned 37 in April and had his own health problems in recent seasons. Those undeniable health concerns were one reason the Red Sox maintained such depth in the first place.
Depth, though, is not the same as dependability, and while the Red Sox filled more than a quarter of their 40-man rotation with players with options, they had no one to provide top-of-the-rotation certainty. Sale and Kluber had been aces in the past but were well past their elite heyday. Bello, Houck and Whitlock had upside for the future but hadn’t proven themselves as big-league starters. In terms of workload, the Red Sox’s most reliable starting pitcher might have been Pivetta, who didn’t even have a rotation spot when everyone was healthy.
Starting pitching had been an offseason priority for the Red Sox, but when Zach Eflin signed with the Rays (for a contract said to be basically identical to the one offered by the Red Sox) and Nathan Eovaldi turned down a Red Sox offer at the Winter Meetings (the offer was believed to have been basically as good or better than what he eventually got from Texas), the Red Sox shifted their offseason focus to fortifying the bullpen with Kenley Jansen and settled on Kluber as their only significant rotation addition.
Eflin and Eovaldi wound up missing time with injuries this season, but Eflin is still on track to make 30 starts while Eovaldi was an All-Star who, despite diminished stuff late in the year, still got through five innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday. Kluber, on the other hand, has a 7.04 ERA in just 55 innings and didn’t pitch in the majors past June 20.
Bello has been terrific in essentially his first full season as a major league starter, and the bullpen has been much better than last season — Bernardino has been a useful find who thrived as an opener — but the second- and third-most innings on the Red Sox roster are going to come from Pivetta and Crawford, two pitchers who have bounced back and forth between starting and relieving. Houck and Sale should get over 100 innings, but it’s going to be close (and both are likely to finish the season with ERAs closer to 5.00 than 4.00, and nowhere near 3.00).
Certainly, health and inexperience were factors, and there was some bad luck involved, but the Red Sox also accepted a certain amount of uncertainty when they built their rotation. Injuries, growing pains, and late-career decline came with the territory. It’s the reason a team with so much apparent depth wound up digging constantly for more and more innings this season.
(Top photo of Houck: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)