• Philip

2021 Red Sox Starting Rotation: Reasons for Optimism

The Red Sox rotation has question marks, just like the starting lineup. The rotation’s question marks, however, are more due to the likelihood of injury and underperformance, rather than being due to not knowing who is even going to be on the team as was the case with the lineup. The Red Sox starting rotation actually has decent upside—it just has frightening potential to fall apart, due to injuries, underperformance, or both. If everything goes just right, the team will have a VERY solid 1-5, with decent depth guys to step in as needed. If some things go wrong, however, the team could be doomed to another season of having a great offense wasted on atrocious pitching.

Eduardo Rodriguez looks to be Boston’s ace to open the season. After dealing with injuries his first few seasons in the league, Rodriguez finally was able to stay healthy in 2019. He threw over 200 innings for the first time in his career and lead the league with 34 games started. He did so while posting a 3.81 ERA and a 1.328 WHIP, while striking out 9.4 batters per 9. He finished 6th in AL Cy Young voting, and at just 25 years old, Rodriguez looked poised to really break out in 2020. We all know what happened next—a positive Covid-19 test, followed by a myocarditis diagnosis, caused the young southpaw to miss the entire 2020 season, and raised some questions about 2021. Rodriguez has plenty of talent, that much is obvious. The issues he’s had in his career have almost entirely been related to availability, not to performance. No one can fault him for missing 2020—it was simply horrible luck, and considering what he went through, we’re lucky he’s able to play professional baseball again at all. If he can quickly shake off the rust he’ll most likely have after missing a full season, and can stay healthy, I expect another very solid, potentially great season from Rodriguez—he’s still only 27, and theoretically entering his prime. If he can stay on the field, there’s no reason to be concerned about the lefty.

The team’s number two starter to enter the season is another talented, but often unavailable pitcher—Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi was awesome for the Sox after being acquired in 2018, and was very solid in 2020, starting 9 times to the tune of a 3.72 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP on the year. Furthermore, he posted career bests in K/9 (9.7), BB/9 (1.3), and K/BB (7.43). In between his solid performances in 2018 and 2020, Eovaldi was frequently hurt, which was actually a blessing, because he was horrendous when healthy. He made 23 appearances in 2019, 12 of which were starts, and managed a 5.99 ERA. He gave up over 2 homers per nine innings, and walked nearly 5 per nine. We could dig deeper into his stats for 2019, but there’s really no need—all of his stats, basic or advanced, paint the picture of a really bad pitcher. Now, he wasn’t healthy, and it’s very likely his injuries affected his performance—so, as was the case with Rodriguez, his performance in 2021 is most likely going to be highly dependent on his durability. If Eovaldi can stay healthy, he might be able to live up to his Nasty Nate moniker—if not, well, we’ve seen how bad he can be when he’s not healthy.

There’s really no set 3-5 in Boston’s rotaion. Nick Pivetta, Garrett Richards, and Tanner Houck are most likely going to open the season in those slots, but their order is anybody’s guess. Despite the lack of a big name in the back 3/5 of the rotation, there is plenty of reason for optimism and excitement. Tanner Houck got called up to the bigs for the first time in 2020, and was absolutely dominant in 3 starts. He looked like a right-handed Chris Sale, and that’s not at all an exaggeration. In 3 starts, the 24-year-old posted a 0.53 ERA with a 0.882 WHIP. He threw 17.0 innings, struck out 21, walked only 9, and gave up a just a single earned run. He also tied with Eovaldi for the team lead in wins, with 3 (good for Houck, but that really illustrates how awful the Sox rotation was in 2020). Now, we obviously can’t expect Houck to be that electric over the course of a season, seeing as it would be far and away the greatest season of all time. However, he’s still only 24, he’s entering the season with major league experience for the first time in his career, and his stuff is simply filthy. He hasn’t had any major injury issues in his career, so it’s reasonable to assume that he could be pitching every 5 games for the Sox in 2021. As is the case with any young player, it is safe to assume the league will adjust to him, and he will have his struggles; if, however, Houck can make adjustments in return, he could be a hugely important part of the team for 2021 and years after.

Nick Pivetta is another interesting (relatively) young pitcher. Pivetta was traded to the Sox in 2020, and was very good for the team in very limited playing time. Two starts, both wins, with a 1.80 ERA. He threw 10 innings, striking out 13 while walking 5, and gave up only 2 runs, both earned. Pivetta was also pretty good in 2018. As a 25-year-old, he made 33 appearances, 32 of which were starts. His ERA was 4.77, but that number is extremely misleading. He posted a 1.305 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and only 2.8 BB/9. His FIP was 3.79, which illustrates how unlucky he was to end the season with an ERA as ugly as his was. There is, however, no way to call his 2019 unlucky—Pivetta was just really, really, bad that year. 5.38 ERA with a 5.47 FIP. He gave up almost 10 hits and 2 homers per 9. He only struck out 8.6 batters per 9, and walked 3.7. This awful performance extended into 2020—Pivetta was terrible until the trade. If the 2019 and 2020 Phillies version of Pivetta shows up in 2021, it’s safe to assume he won’t stay in the rotation all that long. If, however, he can recapture what he had in 2018, and can carry over his great performance to end the season with the Sox into 2021, he could be a great end of the rotation starter. He’s still only 27, so there’s no reason to think he can’t perform better than he ever has before, but it’s really going to depend on which version of Pivetta shows up for the 2021 Sox.

The fifth Red Sox starter (although not necessarily 5th in the rotation) is the recently signed Garrett Richards. Richards made 10 starts and 14 appearances total in 2020, and had a perfectly fine 4.03 ERA. He had a 1.247 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9. Nothing great, not going to blow anyone away, but perfectly adequate, and honestly that’s all the Sox need from Richards. If one looks hard enough, however, they can see a very good pitcher in Garrett Richards. In 2019, Richards made 3 starts and was awful. Over the three seasons prior to 2019, Richards was awesome, but made a total of 28 starts, with no more than 16 in a single year. In 2014 and 2015, Richards was nasty, making 58 starts to the tune of a 3.18 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.149 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and only 0.6 HR/9. If that version of Richards shows up, he could take the Sox rotation to the next level. Now, it’s very unlikely that the 2014-15 Richards shows up—after all, he was 26 and 27 over those seasons, and is now 32. That said, Richards has had a 3.36 ERA since those seasons, he’s just been hurt every single year. However, he’s not exactly injury-prone, despite always being hurt. Richards had a UCL injury in 2016, and tried alternatives to Tommy John surgery in 2017 and 2018 before finally opting for TJ and missing the end of 2018 and almost all of 2019. 2020 was his first healthy season since his dominant 2015, and he looked pretty solid. Due to all of his time missed being caused by the same injury, I don’t see any reason for huge concern that he won’t be able to stay on the field. And, due to his performance for basically his entire career, whether he was healthy or not, I don’t see any reason to expect him to be anything worse than fine. And as I said, “fine” is all the Sox really need from him. Anything better than that is just a nice bonus.

The Sox have decent depth behind these five pitchers. Martin Perez is back, and Matt Andriese was signed in December, giving Boston good 6th and 7th pitchers, ready to step up in the case of injury or underperformance. Andriese will likely start in the bullpen, and will only start if he’s needed. Perez may actually start the season in the rotation, and the Sox may simply go with 6 starting pitchers to help ease everyone into 2021 after an (obviously) abnormal 2020. Whatever the team decides, however, Perez and Andriese are good guys to have in case something goes wrong with one or two of the starting 5.

There is, of course, one more pitcher we have to discuss. Chris Sale is Boston’s ace when he’s healthy—that is undisputable. The question, of course, is when he will be ready to pitch again. Boston is said to be taking Sale’s Tommy John rehabilitation slowly and cautiously, and I’m fine with that—nothing would be worse than rushing him back, just to have him reaggravate the injury, especially considering he’s under contract for 3 more seasons after 2021. Sometime in August is probably a reasonable time to expect a return, with July the optimistic scenario.

Whenever it is that Sale returns, he will instantly be the team’s ace. Hopefully, he will return to a rotation in which Rodriguez is dominating, Eovaldi has stayed healthy, Houck is building upon his 2020 breakout, and Pivetta and Richards have returned to form. If so, the 2021 Red Sox will be well-positioned to make a run in October. The worry, of course, is that Rodriguez will struggle with rust, Eovaldi will get hurt, the league will adjust to Houck, Pivetta will continue to suck, and Richards won’t be able to recapture what he had before he got hurt. A lot of things have to go right for this Sox rotation to be good—however, if these things do go right, this rotation has the upside to surprise a lot of people.