Assigning blame for the Red Sox rotation

Juan Nieves definitely was in much better mood when this photo was taken in 2013 than Thursday when he was fired as the Red Sox pitching coach.
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

By Jeff Sullivan

There’s nothing real surprising about what just happened. Pitching coach Juan Nieves was fired by the Red Sox, the organization citing the under-performance by the starting rotation. Said rotation has been under the microscope since the team went through the offseason without acquiring a front-line ace, and the ERA at this point is terrible. When ERAs are terrible, and when they’re terrible in higher-pressure situations, heads roll, and they frequently belong to pitching coaches. Or, they frequently belonged to pitching coaches. Anyway.

The news has primarily drawn two responses, related to one another. One is that, well, someone had to pay for the early-season disaster. It’s called accountability. Two, Nieves is being scapegoated. It’s not his fault the Red Sox never got around to adding an ace. Ben Cherington is just getting the performance he deserved. Absolutely, it’s true that Nieves isn’t to blame for the lack of a higher-profile transaction. It’s not his fault Jon Lester‘s in Chicago. But it wouldn’t be fair to put this on the front office, either. Blame gets spread around. Hell, maybe there’s no one to blame at all.

Think about what’s being implied by those who argue this is a scapegoat. The underlying assumption there is that this rotation was always going to be bad. That there’s nothing surprising about this, because the Red Sox rotation has sucked from Day One. Without question, the rotation appeared underwhelming. Without question, the rotation would be better with a Lester, or a Cole Hamels, or some other ace. But this wasn’t a certain wreck. The group seemed fine enough.

Five pitchers have started for the Red Sox. I looked at their performances over the previous three years, as starting pitchers. Then I weighted their numbers by the innings they’ve thrown in 2015. This isn’t too different from just looking at projections, but I know some people don’t like that word. Here, we’re using stats that’ve already happened. Based on the 2012 – 2014 performances by these five pitchers, the Red Sox could’ve expected a 103 ERA-, and a 101 FIP-. Vicinity of average. Not good, but not dreadful. Good enough, for the time being.

Nieves has been let go because that same rotation has actually combined for a 131 ERA-. This goes way beyond blaming Cherington for not finding a No. 1. That’s not the problem here. There have been way more runs than would’ve been reasonable to see coming.

Then there’s the funny bit. Maybe you already know. That same rotation? Those same five guys with the 131 ERA-? They also have a 99 FIP-. Right on what would’ve been expected. The point is not that the ERA can be totally dismissed. Bad things have most certainly happened. But this is a complicating factor. This introduces the element of bad luck, which might always be present, even when people don’t want to acknowledge it.

Cherington isn’t blameless — he knew the rotation wouldn’t be a strength. Luck isn’t blameless — any gap that big between ERA and FIP is unsustainable. And Nieves isn’t blameless — it seems he just didn’t have a connection with the group the Sox put together.

That’s what the Sox say, anyway, and I’m inclined to believe them, since it’s not like they wanted a guy to lose his job. If they had their druthers, everything would be peachy. They thought, here, something had to change, in order to potentially salvage the year. It’s worth considering how a pitching coach might look very different between just a few years, since it wasn’t long ago Nieves was treasured.

It’s easy enough to spot flaws with the Sox rotation. The ERA sucks! The zone rate is third-lowest in baseball. The first-pitch-strike rate is third-lowest in baseball. Pitchers haven’t been working ahead, and this isn’t a group known for its swing-and-miss stuff. In a word, the pitchers by and large haven’t been sufficiently aggressive. This is something that hasn’t gotten better.

Why might Nieves have been experiencing particular trouble? Rick Porcello is new to him. Joe Kelly is fairly new to him. Wade Miley is new to him. Justin Masterson is new to him. All these new identities, and everybody responds differently to instruction. It doesn’t make sense that a good coach would be equally good with all of his players. What works for one guy might not work at all for another. Perhaps Nieves was successful in helping get Lester back on track, but Wade Miley isn’t Jon Lester. And to this point it doesn’t look like Nieves has been good for Wade Miley. That’s too simplistic to justify a dismissal on its own, but one has to remember, when circumstances change, so might a coach’s effectiveness. A good player will be a good player anywhere. A good coach might be a good coach only in context. Some coaches might always be good. Others, not so much.

Looking at the arms, there are clear struggles. Clay Buchholz continues to be one of the most frustrating starters in baseball. Miley’s taken a step or two back. And Masterson is of particular interest. He explained a down year in 2014, with reduced velocity, by pointing to knee problems. Presumably, now, his knee is better, but his velocity is down even more, and his hittability is up. Compared to just two years ago, Masterson’s average fastball has lost four and a half ticks. It’s easily the biggest drop among starters. I don’t know how fixable he is, but Juan Nieves did nothing to fix him. It’s one data point.

So Nieves is gone, and the Sox will scramble to find a replacement. The replacement might not be any better, but this is just step one toward attempting to fix the starting rotation. Maybe they’ll benefit from a different voice. Next, perhaps, we’ll see the Sox make a promotion. Henry Owens has seemingly declined in Triple-A, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, but Eduardo Rodriguez has been impressive. He could join the rotation within weeks. And then there’s the trade possibility. We always knew it could come to that, and arms will be available in June and July. The Red Sox will go with what they already have for now, because they’re too smart to overreact to a month, but they’ll learn more over two or three months. They’ll have a better idea who’s on track, and they’ll have a better idea who ought to be replaced. Maybe Rodriguez could take over for Masterson. Maybe Rodriguez isn’t sufficiently ready.

The Red Sox built this rotation, consciously, and they won’t abandon the plan in a matter of weeks. They can see the ERA, but they can also see the peripherals, the strikeouts and walks that suggest things aren’t as bad as they appear. By ditching Juan Nieves, the Red Sox are hoping that better communication can help those runs allowed. Or maybe time will do all necessary healing. It’s not clear that Nieves deserved all the blame. It’s not clear how much anyone deserves to be blamed for anything. But someone had to do something, right? Might as well start here. It usually starts here.

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