Red Sox rotation getting back in form

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Every time a Boston Red Sox starting pitcher went to the mound last season, it was history in the making.

But if you think that’s a good thing, you obviously aren’t a Red Sox fan.

This, we regret to announce, wasn’t Pedro Martinez/Roger Clemens/Lefty Grove kind of history.

This was the kind of history that got a manager fired, got a coaching staff overturned, got Josh Beckett shipped 3,000 miles west and got people wondering about life-altering questions like, “Why did Tim Wakefield retire again?”

To be slightly more precise, this was the sort of history that revolved around the following magic number: 5.19.

And no, that wasn’t the area code of John Henry’s cottage in Boca. It was the combined ERA by the starters for the 2012 Red Sox.

And here’s the big news: It just happened to be the highest ERA by any rotation in franchise history.

The previous record had held up for a mere 80 years, ever since a 5.16 mark by Hod Lisenbee’s 1932 Red Sox rotation led that team to a fun-filled 43-111 season. But that group is off the hook now, amazingly enough. And not surprisingly, the 2013 Red Sox rotation is on a mission to turn last year into ancient history ASAP.

Well, so far, so good.

Ready for a number that looks a lot more attractive than 5.19? How ‘bout this one:


That would be the ERA of the five prospective Red Sox starters -- Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, John Lackey and Felix Doubront -- this spring, if you count Lackey’s three shutout innings in an exhibition against Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team.

And if that doesn’t catch your attention, how about this number:


That would be the number of hits that Lester and Buchholz allowed combined to the 36 hitters they faced over back-to-back starts Sunday and Monday.

And neither of those numbers, says manager John Farrell, would be particularly misleading, even though he also makes sure to use that expression, “It’s spring training,” every few sentences, just to remind us that none of this brilliance actually counts.

“I’ve always felt that, because of their track records there’s no reason that these guys shouldn’t be successful,” Farrell said of his rotation, on a day that Buchholz spun five drizzly, one-hit innings against the Pirates. “They’re talented. They’re healthy. And those are ingredients to have successful seasons.”

What happened last year, Buchholz said Monday, was still tough to comprehend for a group of pitchers who had become accustomed to bigger and better things.

“It’s crazy,” the 28-year-old right-hander said, after finally allowing his first run in four starts this spring. “I think when that’s happening, every guy goes out there wanting to stop the bleeding, and it snowballs on you. I know it snowballed on me for the first half of the season. Every time I went out there, I wanted to do better. But it kept going, over and over and over again.

“But this spring, it looks like everybody’s throwing the ball well,” he said. “[That season] left, not necessarily a bad taste in your mouth, but a sense of knowing we’ve got work to do. And if this team goes anywhere, it’s going to start with our pitching.”

Well, he’s got that right. The AL East used to be Thunder Road. Now it’s a veritable arms race. So there’s that.

And there’s also this: Over the past nine seasons, the Red Sox have never won a postseason series in a year in which their rotation finished worse than third in the league in starting-pitching ERA. And that’s where Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves come in.

Once upon a time, in another life, Farrell was the pitching coach of four Red Sox teams (2007-10) that won a World Series, made three trips to the postseason and led the American League in strikeouts and opponent average over that span. Then he spent the past two years watching them from across the field, while he was managing the Blue Jays.

Lester, Buchholz and Doubront were members of his staff back in the good old days. So “I kind of got a 'before' and 'after' view,” Farrell chuckled Monday. And he has returned with a strong sense of “this is what we need to get back to” in the cases of Lester and Buchholz in particular.

So what do Farrell, Nieves and Buchholz see when they look at these five starters? They see a group with good things happening. Here’s their view:


Jon Lester

The numbers: As our amigo from ESPN Boston, Gordon Edes, wrote Sunday, from Opening Day 2008 to Sept. 6, 2011, Lester went 65-29, the second-best winning percentage (.691) in baseball, trailing only CC Sabathia (.704) among pitchers who worked 600-plus innings. But in his last 37 starts, from that date through the end of last season, Lester went just 9-17, 5.12 -- the worst winning percentage (.346) and third-highest ERA (5.12) among pitchers with 200 innings or more. And his strikeout rate dropped from 8.72 per nine innings to 7.24. But thanks to some adjustments with his arm angle and a de-emphasis on the cutter, he has had a fabulous spring (20 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 16 K).

The manager's view: Asked if Lester has been as good as his spring numbers, Farrell replied: “Yeah. He has. And he’s been consistent with his location at the bottom of the zone more regularly. I think if you look back to the issues he dealt with last year, it wasn’t a matter of stuff. It was a matter of the flight of the baseball through the zone. And he’s back to repeating a delivery that allows him to throw the ball downhill.”

The pitching coach's view: Nieves on Lester’s biggest focus this year: “Creating more angle [with his delivery]. Rhythm and tempo are very important. And he’s been doing that.”

Buchholz's view: After watching Lester spin six perfect innings Sunday, Buchholz pronounced: “That’s the Johnny that everybody knows. It’s been fun watching him work. The guy’s a horse. Throws 85-pitch bullpens. It’s like the old Josh Beckett. It’s fun to see him work.”


Ryan Dempster

The numbers: Signed a two-year, $26.5-million contract with the Red Sox over the winter. Has allowed just three earned runs and nine hits in 12 2/3 innings this spring. But here’s the big question: Can he win in the AL East? Since moving into the Cubs’ rotation in 2008, Dempster went 53-41, with a 3.64 ERA, in five seasons as a starter in the NL. But after getting traded to Texas last July, he went 7-3, with a 5.09 ERA, in 12 starts.

The manager's view: Asked if he had any concerns about Dempster’s ability to pitch successfully in the American League, Farrell uttered a quick: “No. And I think his last seven or eight starts in Texas prove it. There were obviously some adjustments that he went through, whether it was just the lineups or seeing guys he’d never seen before. But as long as you execute, pitch location doesn’t have 'National League' or 'American League' written on it.”

The pitching coach's view: All Nieves asks of Dempster is: “Pitch down in the zone. Be able to throw all his pitches for strikes. And command, command, command.”

Buchholz's view: What Dempster’s fellow starters see is a guy whose off-the-field presence is just as meaningful as his on-the-field presence: “I’d never met him before he got here,” Buchholz said. “The guy’s a character. He’s awesome. He’s definitely not shy. You can joke around with him. There’s a reason he’s been around the game as long as he has and still as good as he is. So bringing him in here, that was definitely a plus.”


John Lackey

The numbers: Missed all of last season after Tommy John Surgery. So three seasons into a five-year, $82.5-million contract, Lackey has gone a messy 26-23, 5.26 in 61 starts for the Red Sox after going 128-94, 3.81 in eight seasons with the Angels. He got off to a rough start this spring, but has a 2.70 ERA in his past two starts.

The manager's view: Lackey has lost between 17 and 40 pounds, depending on whose estimate you’re listening to. And Farrell says he’s “much more comfortable. He has more body control. And I think that’s what’s allowed him to command the baseball in this early going as well as he has.”

Asked if people in Boston had ever seen the “real” John Lackey, Farrell said: “Well, the second half of his first year in Boston, he pitched well. But after that, he was competing against his body as much as he was against the competition. And that’s not an easy thing to do.”

The pitching coach's view: What Nieves wants from Lackey is: “Stay healthy. Give us five strong in the beginning. Go all out from the beginning and don’t worry about the rest, so we can build up from that. But my biggest thing is to keep him healthy.”

Buchholz's view: Much as they do with Dempster, Lackey’s teammates feed off his renewed energy: “Man, I’m telling you I think the big thing is John Lackey, really,” Buchholz said. “You don’t see him cringing when he lets go of a ball now. And I think with him being his old self out there, you see him laughing, going through the drills, being healthy and knowing in his mind that he’s healthy, is a big plus for us, because obviously the Red Sox wouldn’t have signed him to the contract they signed him to if he wasn’t as good as he is.”


Felix Doubront

The numbers: The good news from Doubront’s first full season as a starter: He struck out 167 in 161 innings, the fourth-best strikeout ratio (9.34 per 9 IPs) in baseball. The bad news: Thanks to 71 walks, he had a 1.45 WHIP. But this spring, he has shown more flashes of greatness, with 11 whiffs and just two earned runs allowed in 8 2/3 innings.

The manager's view: In terms of pure stuff, “he may possess an overall package that’s the best on our staff,” Farrell said. “When you get a left-hander that’s 93 to 95 with four pitches, that’s a pretty good mix.” Farrell actually compares Doubront’s development to that of “Lester when he first came up. He was strong to his glove side of the plate but he would push balls off the plate to his arm side. And when major league hitters can eliminate one side of the plate, you’re making it a little bit more difficult on yourself.”

The pitching coach's view: Asked about Doubront, Nieves gets passionate: “I want more from you. I want seven innings. I want you to pound the strike zone. … Any time I look up, I want to see 1-2. I’m challenging him with that. Hopefully, this guy will be able to adapt to that. Cutting down the walks. Making the first pitch and second pitch of every at-bat very important. Getting the first hitter. So we can maximize pitches per inning and maximize innings per game.”

Buchholz's view: It’s easy to see that Doubront’s fellow pitchers think he’s a star waiting to happen. Buchholz’s succinct review: “Special. He’s got some of the best left-handed stuff in the game, I think.” Buchholz said he has played catch with Doubront a couple of times this spring, “but I try to stay away from that,” he laughed. “I don’t think it’s good for my confidence. It comes out of his hand so well.”


Clay Buchholz

The numbers: From 2009-11, before he was shut down with a stress fracture in his back, Buchholz was as good as any young pitcher in baseball (30-14, 3.10 ERA), but wasn’t the same, by his own admission, last year (11-8, 4.56). His numbers this spring: 13 1/3 innings, 8 hits, 1 run.

The manager's view: Farrell is convinced many of Buchholz’s issues last season were a result of being afraid to cut loose because of his back: “Last year, even watching highlights, there were a lot of pitches that were elevated in the strike zone,” the manager said. “Whether subconsciously he was protecting or not able to get full extension and drive the ball downhill, I mean you could see it. But after about the seventh or eighth start of the year, he ran off a good number of starts where he was his old self. And that’s what we’re seeing now.”

The pitching coach's view: Nieves has preached a faster pace and more two-seamers this spring. He summed up Buchholz this way: “Incredible contact pitcher with the ability to strike people out. Working quick without jeopardizing balance.”

Buchholz's view: Buchholz admits he’s in a much better place physically this spring than last spring. And it shows. “That [happens to] anybody who has an injury in the back of their mind,” he said. “It might be fully healed, but you don’t want to go out there and mess something up … And that’s why I got off to a bad start [in 2012]. I didn’t want to push myself to get to the point where I was throwing 100 percent every pitch. Now I can go out there and I can hump up on a pitch where I feel like I need to and not have to worry about anything. So I definitely have a more clear head every time I’ve been out there so far.”

So will any of this mean anything once they escape the palm trees? You never know, of course. But scouts we’ve surveyed are remarkably upbeat about what they’ve seen. They also know, though, that this team’s season is hinging on its ability to take this act north.

“Their pitching ought to be much better,” said one NL scout Monday. “But then again, in this division, it pretty much has to be. Or they’re in trouble.”