Nine thoughts on Red Sox pitching

Playing nine innings (special commemorative all-pitching edition) while figuring the Red Sox should have traded for Gavin Floyd just so they wouldn’t have to face him …

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1. The most important start of Clay Buchholz‘s career was Game 3 of the 2009 American League Division Series against the Angels. He allowed two earned run in five innings, left with a three-run lead, but Jonathan Papelbon melted down and the season ended with a 7-6 loss. His second-biggest start? It’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it might be tonight. April is not a traditionally strong month for the 27-year-old righthander — he has a 5.00 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP in 18 career starts during the month, allowing 16 of the 49 homers he’s permitted in his career. But those numbers are skewed further by his horrendous start this year — he has an 8.87 ERA in four starts, with 10 walks, just 11 strikeouts, and 6 homers allowed. They are an accurate representation of his stuff. Blessed with the deepest repertoire on the Sox’ staff, his changeup has fooled no one, in part because his fastball hasn’t had it’s usual buzz. According to Fangraphs’ PitchFx data, Buchholz averaged 94.1 miles per hour on his fastball in 2010, when he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA and finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. This year, his fastball has averaged 91.9 mph. Gulp. It’s fair to wonder whether he’s still shaking off the rust from the back injury that ended his season in mid-June or still wary of letting it fly. But with Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard pitching well at the back of the rotation, if Buchholz gets lit up by the A’s tonight, his spot could be the one in jeopardy presuming the Red Sox call up Aaron Cook by tomorrow, when he can opt out of his deal at Pawtucket. Big start for Buchholz tonight. Big, big start.

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2. Presuming Buchholz gets his act together tonight, there are two solutions to the potential log-jam in the rotation. Put Cook in the bullpen, or go with a six-man rotation. While I’d vote for the former, the latter isn’t unreasonable given that the Sox have a 20-games-in-20-days stretch coming up from May 4-23.

3. Tailoring their rotation around Cook’s opt-out clause does strike me as unnecessarily drastic, and I doubt the Red Sox will do anything major unless there’s a revelation about Buchholz’s health. Cook is a decent depth guy, and they could have used about three of him last September. But he’s also a pitcher who had a 4.53 ERA in the National League over the course of his career, and as a sinkerballer, he’s not exactly going to benefit from having the Youkilis-Aviles tandem backing him up on the left side of the infield. They should keep him because there’s value in his competence, just as they should have kept Kevin Millwood last year, but making room for him in the rotation is going a step too far.

4. In his last three appearances, Alfredo Aceves has held a one-run lead to earn the save. I’d say he’s taken to the role, and should he continue to pitch well, I hope Bobby Valentine does become comfortable using him for more than an inning at a time when the situation calls for it. Part of Aceves’s value is his ability to go multiple innings without requiring much maintenance afterward.

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5. Happy trails down I-95 to Justin Thomas, your 2.571 WHIP, and the inexplicable hold you apparently had on your manager, who more than once put you in situations that called for a pitcher of greater accomplishment, experience, and repertoire. It’s no fault of your own, but when the story of the 2012 Red Sox is complete, you’ll be relegated to the dust-bin at the back of our memories, where you’ll find kinship with Dennys Reyes ’11 and Bobby Jones ’04 and others whose best days as a Red Sox pitcher were in Ft. Myers.


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6. With the arrival of Rich Hill and the encouraging start to the season by Junichi Tazawa (who is the anti-Michael Bowden in that he doesn’t appear to throw anything straight), I’m convinced more than ever that Daniel Bard should remain in the rotation. He’s been even better than I anticipated in his early days as a starter, particularly his secondary stuff. (He’s throwing his fastball just 50 percent of the time, when he was never lower than 67.7 percent as a reliever.) And you’re not going to convince me otherwise, though as always, you’re encouraged to try.
7. It’s curious that there are such mixed opinions on Mark Melancon‘s makeup. You hear that he’s mentally tough and has a tremendous team-first personality, and you also hear in the wake of his disastrous beginning with the Red Sox that the Yankees were skeptical when he was in their system that he had the guts to succeed in a big market. Despite the 49.50 ERA he brought with him to Pawtucket, I still tend to believe it’s the former. The guy saved 20 games last year, with a 2.78 ERA. Yes, I know it was for the Astros, who probably wouldn’t have won the Pacific Coast League title. But there’s pressure in trying to earn the save and nail down a victory for your team no matter which uniform it is you’re wearing. Melancon thrived. I think he will here before this summer is through.
8. And it is encouraging that Melancon has been lights-out at Pawtucket, though I can see this also aiding the argument of those who believe he can’t thrive under pressure. (Whaddaya mean, Pawtucket’s not a big market?) In four games, he’s faced 19 batters. He’s allowed exactly two to reach base — both via a hit-by-pitch.
9. As for today’s Completely Random Baseball Card:

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Randy Niemann is the Red Sox’ assistant pitching coach. Related to nothing, he’s also a dead-ringer for the ninth grader who enjoyed ricocheting me off my locker and demanding my lunch money every day when I was in seventh grade. (Including the beard, excluding the Stargell-starred Pittsburgh Pirates hat.) If I ever see him at Fenway, I may just throw my wallet on the ground in run in the other direction if for no other reason than ancient habit.

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