I didn’t spend the time to click through each team in the Steamer projections, but I’m guessing the Red Sox are one of few teams, if not the only team, to have the five guys projected to pitch the most innings each be projected for 2+ WAR. They may not have an elite starter, but their rotation has nice depth.
Although not elite, Jon Lester isn’t a bad first option. He’s going on six straight years of 190+ IP, and he topped 200 IP in five of those six years. From 2008 to 2011 he coupled the workhorse inning totals with a sub-3.50 ERA. But the wheels came off in 2012. He lost velocity, and his ERA ballooned up to 4.82 while his strikeout rate fell to league average. Luck also played a part in the down year as his HR/FB rate was about four points higher than his career average, which contributed to a career low strand rate that was about seven points below his career average.
Not that we should have seen such a blow up coming, but the signs were there in 2011 that Lester was in decline. His strikeout rate had hovered just above 26% in the two years prior to 2011, but it fell to 22.8% that year. That contributed to the highest ERA (3.47) of that four year stretch and the first time in three years that his SIERA was above 3.50. At that point it was probably safe to assume that a slow decline had begun. Given that Lester’s ERA finished at 3.75 last year, maybe we should have expected to land in the 3.60 range in 2012 if all else had been equal.
Lester got a little of his velocity back last year, but his return to the land of above average ERAs was primarily due to his home run rate and strand rate returning to a normal range. We should assume his slow decline will continue, and Steamer and Oliver agree wholeheartedly with projected ERAs of 3.89 and 3.93, respectively. That will come along with essentially league average strikeout and walk rates and a win total in the low-to-mid teens.
Being able to count on that is probably more valuable for the Red Sox than it is for fantasy owners, so he’s not someone who should be headlining your fantasy staff. And his lack of upside makes him even less appealing specifically for fantasy owners. But reliability is a nice thing if the price is right. And Lester’s is. I’d call him a number four starter in mixed leagues, which is right in line with his ADP of 40 among starters.
To some degree, the career path I just tracked for Lester could be used to describe Lackey’s career albeit with a few significant differences. Lackey was in the slow decline phase of his career when he get to Boston, but things fell off a cliff quickly. And the cliff off which Lackey fell was much bigger than Lester’s. Lackey’s ERA was above 4.00 for the first time in six seasons in his first year in Boston. Then it skyrocketed over six in 2011, and he missed all of 2012 after Tommy John surgery. But because his fall was bigger, his rebound was bigger as well. The fact that John freaking Lackey posted a 3.52 ERA last year with an xFIP and SIERA to back it up is nothing short of astounding. You most definitely cannot predict ball.
Another way in which what I said about Lester applies to Lackey is that they could end up with very similar numbers this year. Steamer actually thinks he’ll be a little better than Lester, but Oliver isn’t nearly as convinced. The Fan projections think Lackey will finish about like Steamer and Oliver think Lester will, but the fans are much more optimistic with respect to Lester.
Lester is obviously much, much safer and given that I think Lester is a number four fantasy starter, that probably means the less reliable Lackey is a spot starter in mixed leagues. In 10/12 team mixed leagues I’ll usually own five starters that I roll out in basically every start and use two to three other spots for steaming. I don’t quite feel comfortable relying on Lackey to be one of those five every start starters.
If you’re looking for upside in the Boston rotation, Clay Buchholz is your guy. In 2010 and 2011 he displayed an ability to outperform his peripherals. Groundball rates above 50% helped with that, but it was really his above average strand rate that was helping with the run suppression. In 2010 the high strand rate made some sense as he had the 7th lowest HR/9 among qualified starters (0.47). But in 2011 his HR/9 jumped to 1.09 while his strand rate remained at exactly 79%. The next year his home run rate remained high, and his strand rate went in the tank (69.7%) and took his ERA right along with it (4.56). But then last year his home run rate was back down at a freakishly low level, and his strand rate and ERA were sublime.
The most maddening things about Buchholz’s 2010/2011 strand rate driven success were the below average strikeout and walk skills. His K%-BB% in those two seasons was 7.7. Had he had enough innings to qualify in 2011, he would have had two of the eleven lowest ERAs among pitchers with a K%-BB% of 7.7 or lower in the last decade. Again, the ground ball rate was helping, and he wasn’t giving up many line drives either. Either Buchholz was this anomalous combination of weak skills and weak contact, or he was living on borrowed time. His 2012 line would make you think borrowed time. But his 2013 line makes you wonder if he really is an anomaly.
The difference with what he did last year is that his strikeout rate jumped up well above league average (23.1%). The walk rate was still below average, but if he could strikeout that many batters and combine it with his ground ball heavy, home run light routine, he could really be something. The problem, as noted by Colin Zarzycki in Buchholz’s Fangraphs+ blurb, is that those gains came on looking strikeouts, which do not have the sustainability of swinging strikeouts. Regression in that department can be expected.
Buchholz has done all the things you need to do to have success, but he’s never done them at the same time. And some of the things were a result of luck as opposed to skill. As a result, you can’t count on him doing all the good things at once. The other thing is that we’re four paragraphs into a discussion of Buchholz and haven’t mentioned that he’s averaging only 138.5 innings per season in the last four years.
With so many holes in his track record, I’d have him more in the Lackey spot starter range (70ish ADP) as opposed to Lester (40ish ADP). But his early ADP is in the forties right behind Lester. I understand the appeal of a guy who could potentially put it all together and outperform his draft day price, but I don’t think the chances of that are very good here. And the downside seems pretty significant.
Jake Peavy is the opposite of Buchholz in that he has skills (although declining) but lets too many balls fly out of the park. He’s a lot like Buchholz in that he has trouble staying healthy. Because of the health issues, you can’t draft Peavy to be one of your five every start starters, but he will be a solid spot start option when healthy. How good he’ll be will largely depend on whether he can keep his home run rate in check. To be safe, you might look to spot start him away from Fenway, which had the third highest basic park factor last year.
Rounding out the rotation is likely to be some combination of Felix Doubront and the newly signed Chris Capuano. Thanks primarily to good control, Capuano has had a K/BB ratio of three or better in three straight seasons, but he’s had issues with home runs in the past, which are likely to crop back up in Fenway. As for Doubront, he probably has a little more upside in the strikeout department, but he’s shown no signs of being able to reign in his walk rate enough to ever have a sub-4.00 ERA.
Steamer likes Doubront’s strikeout rate to tick back up a bit and his walk rate to improve slightly and has him seeing the majority of starts out of the fifth spot. But regardless of who sees the most work, neither guy is an option in mixed leagues. If one of them clearly grabs the job, they’ll be a decent addition to the back half of an AL-only staff.