The way Dave Dombrowski chooses to see it, things will break the Boston Red Sox‘s way this season as long as the American League East turns into an arms race.
Forget all about the David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of the batting order. And never mind Giancarlo Stanton teaming up with Aaron Judge in New York. Dombrowski believes the division will be decided by pitching, and the Red Sox president wouldn’t trade his staff for any other.
“If you told me right now that our starting rotation and our bullpen was going to stay healthy during the season, I’d take our chances right now with our club,” Dombrowski says. “I think we can compete with anybody because we’ve got some guys [who] can shut people down when they come out in big games.”
It’s true Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball for three quarters of last season before hitting a wall in August. Likewise, Craig Kimbrel had as dominant a year as you’ll see from a closer, at least until Game 4 of the division series against the Houston Astros.
But the Red Sox have bullpen questions in front of Kimbrel, chiefly whether Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg can return from injuries to be reliable setup men. And then there’s the starting rotation, which had the fourth-best ERA in the league last year (4.06) but nevertheless is filled with uncertainty.
As pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida, Monday and partake in their first workout Wednesday, here’s a look at the biggest issue facing each prospective Red Sox starting pitcher.
Chris Sale: Start to finish
Sale had a 2.37 ERA and gave up 11 home runs in 148 1/3 innings through the end of last July. But over his final 11 regular-season starts, he had a 4.09 ERA and gave up 13 homers in 66 innings. Then, in Game 1 against the Astros, he allowed seven runs on three homers in five innings.
Quite simply, Sale hit a wall. It’s happened before, too. His career ERA before the All-Star break (2.74) is half a run lower than after the break (3.28), while his home-run rate jumps from 0.78 per nine innings to 1.11. And in the final month of the season, those numbers skyrocket to 3.78 and 1.51.
But at least Sale is aware of the problem and intent on fixing it. He “won’t spill the beans” about changes he’s making with new pitching coach Dana LeVangie, but suggested a more gradual build-up of his throwing program. After striking out 308 batters last season, the most by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999, Sale also hinted at being more economical.
“I don’t think I need to dial it back. I think I just need to eliminate waste pitches,” Sale said recently. “I’d love to be able to get to the sixth inning on a very regular basis with 80-85 pitches. Easier said than done, and it looks good on paper, but those are kind of the things we’ve been talking about.”
David Price: Head games
Price missed the first two months and another eight weeks last season with an elbow injury, the specificity of which was never revealed. Regardless, the lefty’s head was every bit as big a problem as his arm.
From his feud with local media to needlessly deriding Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley on the team plane over an innocuous comment during a television broadcast, Price raised a whole new set of questions about his ability to thrive amid the deafening noise that exists in the sports-obsessed fishbowl known as Boston.
Price’s dominance out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs signaled his elbow was healthier. By all accounts, he has had a relatively typical offseason as he prepares to re-enter the rotation. But with a chance to opt out of his seven-year, $217 million contract after this season, what about Price’s mindset?
“For me, it’s unfair to talk about last year. It’s in the past,” said new manager Alex Cora, whose predecessor John Farrell had a strained relationship with Price. “I’m here to move forward. He’s a talented kid. He single-handedly almost beat [the Astros] in the playoffs. The way he threw the ball with conviction, I’ll take that.”
Rick Porcello: Identity crisis
In 2015, Porcello ranked 75th among 78 pitchers (minimum 162 innings) with a 4.92 ERA. In 2016, he won the Cy Young Award. Last season, his ERA climbed back to 4.65 and he allowed more hits (236) and homers (38) than any other AL pitcher.
If ever Porcello could settle somewhere in the middle of those extremes, he would be a solid No. 3 starter.
A sinkerballer without overpowering stuff, Porcello must locate with precision to be effective. With more hitters hunting low pitches in order to lift the ball in the air, it’s imperative for Porcello to be more exact than ever.
“One of the biggest things I’m trying to do is separate the fastball at the bottom of the zone and elevated above the zone,” Porcello said recently. “When you try to do that, and you’re not executing the knee-high fastball as well as the one out of the zone elevated, everything starts to blend into one pitch. That’s when I get in trouble.”
Drew Pomeranz: Don’t go changin’
As much as any Red Sox starter, Pomeranz would do well to simply repeat 2017. The lefty reached career highs in starts (32) and innings (173 2/3), matched his All-Star 2016 season with a 3.32 ERA and was more consistent over six months than even Sale.
At 29, and after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation with four teams in four years, Pomeranz might have finally reached his potential. And with free agency beckoning after the season, that could mean a handsome payday.
“I’ve mainly been focused on picking up where I left off because at the end of the year, I was basically throwing every pitch I have when I wanted to, and it didn’t matter the count,” Pomeranz said. “Just trying to pick up from there and get that same feel coming into the season.”
Eduardo Rodriguez: Finding the ceiling
On the night the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in 2015, Rodriguez allowed one run over eight innings against the Cleveland Indians. More than two years later, it remains one of his most impressive starts in the big leagues.
Injuries, specifically recurring instability in his right knee that finally necessitated surgery in October, have prevented Rodriguez from rising to a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Sox still believe he can get there, but if it doesn’t happen this season for the 24-year-old lefty, there will be reason to doubt it ever will.
With Rodriguez likely to miss the season’s first few weeks to complete his recovery, 2016 All-Star Steven Wright could find his way back into the rotation. But that presumes Wright is healthy and available. The knuckleballer missed most of last season after knee surgery in May and was arrested in December on charges of domestic assault. While a Tennessee court retired the charges for one year, Major League Baseball is still conducting an investigation with no timetable for potential discipline.
Braves rip ’embarrassing call at home plate that keyed Phillies’ win
Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm slid home with the eventual winning run as Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud attempted to apply the tag, moving from the third base side of the plate to the first base side where Bohm was coming in.
Home plate umpire Lance Barrett called Bohm safe though replays showed he may never have touched home plate. After a long delay for the video challenge, the ruling on the field was upheld.
“In real time it’s bang, bang,” Braves starter Drew Smyly said after the game. “We have five different angles on a national televised game, and it’s clear that his foot didn’t touch the plate. That it was on the chalk. For MLB not to overturn that, it’s embarrassing. Why even have replay if you won’t overturn that?”
The official ruling from MLB stated the replay official “could not definitively determine that the runner failed to touch home plate prior to the fielder applying the tag.”
“Initially, I didn’t know if he was safe or out but after watching the replay it looked like his foot didn’t touch the bag, from any angle we saw,” d’Arnaud said. “I thought he was clearly out at the plate.”
The inning began with the teams tied, 6-6. After Bohm led off with a double, Jean Segura hit a ground ball to second, allowing Bohm to reach third base. Lefty Didi Gregorious then hit a shallow fly ball to left field off of Braves reliever Will Smith. Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna camped under it then threw a two-hopper to the plate, slightly to the third base side. D’Arnaud caught the ball and then slid over towards first to tag Bohm as his left foot got to the plate.
Bohm was asked if he thought he was safe after the game. “I was called safe,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
Phillies manager Joe Girardi added: “We felt like we had a chance [to score on the fly ball]. It was a narrow one and it was by the skin of the big toe that we scored. It looked like his big toe kind of hit the corner of the plate when we saw all the angles.”
The Braves adamantly disagreed.
“It makes me not even want [replay] anymore,” d’Arnaud said. “It just slows the game down. To me, they got it wrong. I just rather not have it and get the game going.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said he didn’t get a good explanation from the umpires after the call while d’Arnaud stated the replay official in New York should be the one being interviewed. After the Braves lost the challenge, the downsized crowd at Truist Park got angry, throwing garbage onto the field, prompting a scolding from Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson.
“I love our city,” Swanson said. “I love our fans. They’re passionate. They care. But what happened after they announced that call is the most embarrassing part of the whole night.
“The throwing of things on the field, it’s disrespectful to the people who put in so much work to have the field ready for us every day. …It’s an embarrassing representation of our city. The worst part of it is I don’t think people realize we have families here. There are kids that are sitting in the front row and you have bottles whizzing by their heads. Endangering kids that may not be able to protect themselves is downright embarrassing and shouldn’t happen again.”
The controversy overshadowed another good game by Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. He had three hits, including an infield single he beat out on a routine ground ball to short in the first inning. Later, he homered to tie the game, 6-6.
In all, Acuna had nine hits in the three-game series, most for him over a 3-game span in his young career. But it won’t get the headlines as the replay challenge took center stage in an early season battle between division foes.
“They said there wasn’t enough evidence but there were five different angles,” an incredulous Smyly declared. “It’s clear. He didn’t touch the plate.”
Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez on a mission to leave 2020’s struggles behind
J.D. Martinez suffered through a miserable 2020 season. He hit .213. He ranked 129th out of 142 qualified hitters in weighted on-base average (wOBA). He finished with more strikeouts than hits. It was a shocking season for a hitter who ranked second in the majors in wOBA from 2017 to 2019, behind only Mike Trout.
He also made one thing clear in spring training: “I’m kind of tired of being judged on two months,” he told WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford late in March.
Martinez is making an early statement in 2021. He hit three home runs in Sunday’s 14-9 win for the Boston Red Sox over the Baltimore Orioles and has started the season with extra-base hits in all eight games he’s played — including seven doubles and five home runs. Martinez is the hottest hitter on the planet. Oh, and after Red Sox Nation and pundits were ready to bury the Red Sox after an 0-3 start in which the Orioles outscored them 18-5, Boston has won six in a row.
“He’s on a mission to prove people wrong,” manager Alex Cora said after Sunday’s win. “It was only 60 games. He was one month away from getting his numbers right and now he’s locked in and I’m glad he’s swinging the bat the way he is.”
Against the Orioles on Sunday, his three home runs came off three different pitchers:
• Third inning: 1-2 knuckle-curve from Jorge Lopez, 372 feet to right field (105.2 exit velo)
• Sixth inning: 1-2 curveball from Mac Sceroler, 382 feet to right-center (102.4 exit velo)
• Eighth inning: 0-2 changeup from Tyler Wells, 430 feet to center field (105.7 exit velo)
Granted, that trio of pitchers isn’t exactly headed to the 2021 All-Star Game. I hadn’t even heard of Sceroler and Wells until now, as Sceroler was making just his second major league appearance and Wells his fourth. Still, all three home runs came with two strikes, a good sign considering Martinez hit .171 with two strikes a year ago.
From the cool factoid department, Martinez also became the fifth player to hit three home runs in a game with three different teams:
• Martinez (Tigers, Diamondbacks, Red Sox)
• Mark Teixeira (Rangers, Braves, Yankees)
• Alex Rodriguez (Mariners, Rangers, Yankees)
• Dave Kingman (Mets, Cubs, A’s)
• Johnny Mize (Cardinals, Giants, Yankees)
Martinez’s eight straight games with an extra-base hit to start a season ties the major league record held by Alex Rodriguez (2007) and Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997). It’s the volume of extra-base hits that is so impressive, however, as Martinez is hitting .472/.500/1.083:
Most extra-base hits in player’s 1st 8 games played in a season (since at least 1906):
2021 J.D. Martinez: 12
1994 Dante Bichette: 12
2006 Chris Shelton: 11
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) April 11, 2021
OK, the Chris Shelton reference is a reminder that not all hot starts are going to last, but Martinez has that long track record of being one of the best hitters in the game — and now he has his beloved in-game video back to study.
That was offered as one reason for Martinez’s struggles in 2020, when in-game video was disallowed under the guise of pandemic protocols. He also had an ankle issue he played through that may have affected his swing. Whatever the reason, he admitted his troubles were self-inflicted.
“I think I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Martinez said when he reported to spring training in February. “I’ve always played with that, I’ve always played with that chip, having to prove people wrong my whole career. It kind of might have went away a little bit, but I think I’ve got it back a little bit now.”
Martinez struggled most of spring training, however, leading to concerns that maybe he had just lost his swing overnight. Still, he’s just 33, so it seemed a little early for that to happen. Cora pointed out Martinez finally got going late in camp, especially driving the ball to right field – like he did on Sunday. Cora sent another message to Martinez in spring training, playing him quite a bit in the outfield instead of just using him as the designated hitter. While Martinez has started just one game in the outfield so far, it was perhaps a signal from Cora to remind Martinez to stay in shape.
Still, it’s hard not to ignore the psychological comfort of being able go into the dugout or clubhouse between at-bats to check the iPad. Few hitters in the game study their swing as studiously as Martinez — remember, he completely reconstructed his swing earlier in his career and was in the middle of that process when the Astros released him in spring training of 2014. Martinez signed with Detroit and has since had four 36-homer seasons, five .300 seasons and four 100-RBI seasons. And one big chip on his shoulder.
As for the Red Sox, their six-game win streak includes two extra-inning wins (12 innings over the Rays and 10 innings over the Orioles on Saturday) and they’ve hit a robust .332 with 53 runs those six games. Rafael Devers has homered in three straight games, Xander Bogaerts is hitting .375 and Christian Vazquez is off to a hot start. For this Red Sox lineup to click like it has in past seasons, though, it needs Martinez to thump.
What remains to be seen is how good the pitching will be. Playing six of nine games against the Orioles doesn’t really tell us much. This week’s series against the Twins and White Sox will be a much tougher test. Nick Pivetta, who won Sunday’s game with four runs over six innings, is a key member in the rotation. For now, the Red Sox are in first place – it’s early, of course, but that’s a much better place to be after starting 3-9 and 6-13 in 2019 (and never really recovering) and then 6-18 in 2020.
Philadelphia Phillies reliever Archie Bradley on IL with oblique injury
Bradley, 28, revealed the injury to Phillies brass after giving up a run on two hits in Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s not something I can pinpoint,” Bradley said on Sunday afternoon. “It wasn’t one particular act that I felt it on.”
Bradley was a major offseason addition to the Phillies’ bullpen, which had a historically bad season in 2020. He gave up runs in two of his four appearances this year before heading to the injured list.
This is Bradley’s first experience with an oblique ailment, which can take considerable time to heal, depending on the severity. The righty wasn’t sure on a timetable for his return.
“It’s not something I felt doing baseball activities,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I don’t know where it came from.”
The Phillies recalled lefty JoJo Romero from the alternate site to take Bradley’s place on the roster. Romero was a late cut from spring training but is now needed just over a week into the season.
“He’s throwing the ball pretty well,” manager Joe Girardi said of Romero.
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