Let's not mince words. The Red Sox are losing games because their starting pitching stinks. They've also been losing because their bullpen stinks too, but that's more recent, and it's been exacerbated by the fact they've needed to use the bullpen for so many innings. Daniel Bard appears fried, and Matt Albers has been so bad recently that it's hard to envision him on the playoff roster.
In the second half, the Red Sox are 30-22 with a mediocre 4.09 ERA. If that 4.09 ERA were evenly distributed, that would be one thing, with the way the Red Sox score runs. It's not though. Check out the player stats so far in the second half:
Two of the starting pitchers, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and two relievers Alfredo Aceves and Jonathan Papelbon are pitching excellently. The rest of the staff has been bad, going 14-18 with a 5.25 ERA.This is how we start talking ourselves into John Lackey as the #3 starter in the playoffs - he's been bad, but not obviously so against the other guys. Bedard has pitched pretty well, but his health is always up in the air, and he is missing his next start. Much has been made of Tim Wakefield's struggle to win his 200th game, but the fact is, he generally hasn't pitched well enough to earn it - his numbers above don't reflect the fact that he has 12 unearned runs already in the second half. This puts his RAA at 7.29. And Andrew Miller seems long removed from the promising project he was in June.
Lester, Beckett and Papelbon are supposed to be the pillars of this staff. Even with both Beckett and Papelbon coming off subpar years in 2010, all three were counted on, and all three have delivered. Aceves, though, has been a revelation. With the Yankees, he had been hurt often, and gained a reputation as an uncoachable headcase. So, despite still being under team control, with options, he was nontendered by the Yankees. When the Red Sox scooped him up, they were planning to stretch him out in Pawtucket as a starter, but when the need came in April for more consistent bullpen work, the call went out to Aceves. With all due respect to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Aceves is the man who has most gone above and beyond expectations. As he closes in on 100 innings, it is his durability that has been most important, consistently stepping in when starters are getting blown out.
As his 9-2 record can attest, the idea that Aceves has "kept the Sox in the game" this year has been more than just an easy empty narrative. Win-loss record is obviously not a great judge of performance, but there are times when it helps with the narrative - Aceves has entered 8 times when the Red Sox trailed by 5 or fewer runs in innings 3 through 6 - in those 8 games, he's pitched 20.3 innings, allowing only 4 earned runs. In five such games in the second half, he has pitched 11 scoreless innings, allowing the Red Sox to come back in two of those games.
Maybe two games doesn't sound like much, but we're talking about occassions where the starting pitcher has been knocked out before completing the sixth inning. When the bullpen has a go-to guy who can pitch multiple innings and give his chance to win some of these games, that's a huge advantage.
Which begs the question - if Aceves is so often better than the guy he's called in to replace, why doesn't he get a chance to start? Well, some might say it's because he's been better out of the bullpen than he has been starting. However, that's true of almost everyone - knowing you're only going to pitch an inning or two makes it easier to "let it fly" as they say, without worrying about pacing. That's why so many good relievers are failed starters while you'll almost never see starters who are failed relievers. On the other hand, one may argue that Aceves was mediocre as a starter this year, going only 21 innings in his four starts, with a 5.14 ERA and 13 walks to 13 strikeouts. Two points: 1) in five starts with the Yankees in 2008-09, Aceves pitched 26.1 innings with a 3.42 ERA, giving him a career 4.18 ERA as a starter; 2) even that 5.14 ERA would make him better than Tim Wakefield and Andrew Miller and maybe even John Lackey. (Aside. Look, I love Tim Wakefield, and I want him to get to 200 wins. But if he's going to give up 5 runs in 5 innings every time he pitches, he's going to struggle to get there, no matter how much people want to blame Daniel Bard.)
Of course, I understand that Aceves is an important member of the bullpen. When the playoffs start, that's where he will belong, and he would become especially important if a game were to go into extra innings. Right now though? The Red Sox are losing games because their starters stink. Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard are both missing their next start, leaving a rotation of what apparently will be Lester, Lackey, Weiland, Wakefield and Miller. Maybe winning the American League East isn't one of managements goals, but winning a few games probably should be, and that rotation isn't good enough. Give Aceves a couple spot starts down the stretch. If he gets shelled, Aceves goes back to the bullpen and the Red Sox are none the worse for it. If he pitches well? Maybe that 3rd starter they've been looking so hard for has been under their nose this whole time.