We drown in numbers and statistics these days, but here's one that sums up the crumbling state of the Boston Red Sox quite eloquently: Following Josh Beckett's implosion on Thursday night, Red Sox starters have now allowed five-plus runs in 14 starts; Nationals starters have done so once.
Here's another way. Fifty-three American League starting pitchers are qualified for the AL ERA title. Here's where Boston's five starters rank:
32. Jon Lester (4.29)
38. Daniel Bard (4.83)
46. Felix Doubront (5.29)
51. Josh Beckett (5.97)
53. Clay Buchholz (9.09)
OK, ERA can be a little misleading early in the season. Here's where those five guys rank among AL starters in strikeout/walk ratio:
The Red Sox are 12-19 for a lot of reasons: injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey; a slow start from Adrian Gonzalez; a couple bullpen implosions; Bobby Valentine using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in a tie game.
Those are all factors, but despite the injuries on offense, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored; the bullpen has five losses, but 14 teams have more; and Valentine is more lightning rod than explanation.
No, the responsibility rests with the starting rotation. Bard and Doubront have perhaps predictably been mediocre, but they've actually been improvements over Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, so the blame falls on the supposed big three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz.
Beckett started in Fenway against Cleveland on Thursday, his first start since April 29 and first since the infamous "he cares more about golfing than pitching" story leaked to the media. Beckett actually had pitched pretty well since his five-homer disaster in his first start, posting a 2.93 ERA over his next four starts. While I'm happy to report that I didn't see any greasy fried chicken stains on his jersey, his evening was yet another May disaster for the Sox.
In the top of the second, with one run already in, Jack Hannahan hit a 2-2 changeup to right field for a two-out home run. Not surprisingly, the Fenway faithful let go with more than a few loud boos. In third inning, Jason Kipnis crushed a 3-2 cutter over the bullpen in right-center. After Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Beckett got ahead of Travis Hafner with two strikes but then threw four consecutive balls. Shin-Soo Choo doubled to right on a 2-0, four-seam fastball to score Cabrera. Michael Brantley fell behind two strikes, then lined a double into the gap in left-center on a 1-2 curveball, scoring two more runs and knocking Beckett from the bump in what would be an 8-3 Indians victory.
You can see the issues here: Even when he got ahead of batters, Beckett was unable to put them away. He used the whole tool box -- changeups, four-seamers, cutters, curveballs; the Indians hit them all. Six of the seven hits off Beckett went for extra bases.
I blurted out on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that Beckett is the most overrated pitcher of the past decade. That's probably unfair to a pitcher who has been good for a lot of years, a guy who had dominant postseason runs in 2003 and 2007 in leading the Marlins and Red Sox to World Series titles. Those playoff performances did inflate his reputation a bit, as his regular-season performances haven't been consistently at that level. He has received Cy Young votes just twice in his career (finishing second in 2007 and ninth in 2011). He hasn't exactly been CC Sabathia when it comes to durability, reaching 200 innings just three times and never topping 215. With the Red Sox, he's had two seasons of ERAs over 5.00.
Maybe 2012 is going to be one of those down years; Red Sox fans who saw Beckett and Lester collapse down the stretch expected leadership from Beckett, not reports on his golf swing.
Speaking of Lester, what has happened to the dominant left-hander of a few seasons ago? In 2009, he averaged 10.0 strikeout per nine innings, but that figure has dipped to 6.0 this season. His walks are up more than one per nine innings since 2009. His velocity is still fine; as Curt Schilling has pointed out, his command isn't, with Lester especially struggling in pitching to the outside corner against right-handed batters. Going back to his final 11 starts of 2011, Lester has a 4.16 ERA and a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 86/50. The stuff is still there, but we're going on 18 starts now of mediocre pitching.
Buchholz is an even bigger disaster, the worst starter in the majors so far. Unable to get the ball down in the zone, Buchholz has been pounded like a punching bag. Opponents are hitting .343 and slugging .613 off him. Essentially, the average hitter against Buchholz is David Ortiz. The Red Sox can't afford to keep sending him out there; he probably has one more start before a demotion to Triple-A or stint on the disabled list is necessary.
Eric Karabell made a good argument on the podcast: the Red Sox were 14-17 a year ago and only a historical collapse prevented them from reaching the playoffs. They're only two games worse now, he would suggest, so rationally they're far from out of it. Eric could also point out that Detroit and Arizona were both 14-17 after 31 games a year ago and won 95 and 94 games, respectively.
Eric is right, of course. The Red Sox aren't dead.
But with a 1-8 record in May and a starting rotation in shambles, they certainly look it.
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