It’s been a healthy debate throughout the offseason regarding if the Red Sox
truly need a defined ace heading into 2015.
But shouldn’t the most important voice on the matter come from the man who will be charged with guiding the starting staff through the season, with or without that No. 1 guy?
Talking on the phone from his home in North Carolina, Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves weighed in on what has become one of this winter’s weightiest matters.
“Other than that first turn through the rotation, whomever goes out there every fifth day, I’m a firm believer, that’s my ace,” Nieves said. “I also think team generally win without having five aces, but if you have three or four pitchers pitch like a one or a two for two or three months and pitch like a three for the rest of the year, that pitcher is going to win a lot of games. And when that five pitches like a three and gives you some deep innings and some eight-inning outings, and even pitches like a strong No. 2 for a few months, that’s when you see teams winning and never go in slumps. I think overall I’m a firm believer that my five guys in the rotation are my five aces. Whomever is out there for me is my ace.”
Nieves’ philosophy has merit, especially considering it was born from what the Red Sox starters accomplished during their World Series run of 2013.
While Jon Lester was ultimately identified as the team’s no-hold’s-barred ace, it would have been difficult to designate him such on Day 1. He was coming off a 2012 season which encompassed a 4.82 ERA. The guy who ended up as the staff’s No. 2, John Lackey, hadn’t even pitched the year before. Clay Buchholz, who pitched in the No. 2 spot to being the season, had totaled a 4.56 ERA in ’12. And, when it all said and done, the inconsistencies of Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront ultimately forced the Sox go out and get Jake Peavy at the non-waiver trade deadline.
But, to Nieves’ point, what worked for that group in ’13 was that each pitcher went on at least one top-of-the-rotation-type run during that season.
Before his injury, Buchholz began the season with a 9-0 mark and 1.71 ERA over 12 starts (in which the Red Sox went 11-1). Doubront rattled off 15 starts in the heart of the season in which he accumulated a 2.55 ERA, while averaging 6 1/3 innings per outing.
Dempster managed a pair of runs, one coming to start the ’13 season in which he carried a 2.93 ERA over his first seven starts. The other stretching in June and July when he managed a 3.86 ERA over 11 outings, during which the Red Sox went 7-4.
Of course, while it is important to find such stretches from those considered in the middle of on the back end of one’s rotation, it is equally urgent to get a couple of pitchers who can sustain such excellence for even longer period of time. In that case, that’s where Lester and Lackey came in.
So, does this group have what it takes to make Nieves’ way of thinking hold up?
As previously mentioned, Buchholz has gone down this path before. It is also easy to find a similar stretch of dominance from Justin Masterson (although he only went more than two starts in between allowing five or more runs once in ’14, and that was a three-start period).
Joe Kelly experienced success similar to Buchholz in ’13, totaling a 9-3 mark with a 2.28 ERA as a starter in 15 outings. And last season, Rick Porcello’s first three months included an 11-4 record and 3.12 ERA in 16 starts.
There is also obvious hope when it comes to Wade Miley, as well, with the lefty finishing off a subpar ’14 with a 3.43 ERA in his last nine starts. His best stretch? Probably a two-month period in which he managed a 1.96 ERA over 10 starts in the middle of ’13.
So, if Nieves’ theory holds up, there is hope for this current group of Red Sox starters. Now it’s just the question of if they can find enough stretches of ace-level pitching from this bunch.