In a discussion about just how good the Boston Red Sox‘s starting rotation is, there are two options: Going over it with a fine-tooth comb, or just buying into it as the greatest thing since the last greatest thing since sliced bread.

Given that the genesis of this discussion only began last week, it’s oh-so-easy to choose Door No. 2. 

If by some chance you missed it, the Red Sox acquired ace left-hander Chris Sale in a winter meetings blockbuster. This would be the same Chris Sale who’s finished no lower than sixth in the American League Cy Young voting five years running now. He hasn’t actually won one yet, but that could change.

Not that the Red Sox need that in order to claim a former Cy Young winner in their rotation, of course. David Price won it in 2012. Rick Porcello won it this season. The insta-analysis of them now joining forces with Sale: That’s some trio!

Arguably even the best in baseball, for that matter. But I’ll leave that to Chris Bahr of Fox Sports:

However, this is baseball we’re talking about. The translation rate of offseason hype into on-field results isn’t overwhelmingly positive. Just look at the 2015 San Diego Padres or the 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks. Or rather, please don’t. It’s not pretty.

Strictly based on that principle, some skepticism about Boston’s supposed super-rotation is warranted. Then there’s what the fine-tooth comb turns up.

Although he’s been the best lefty not named Clayton Kershaw since 2012, Sale appears to be past his peak dominance. He’s followed a 2.79 ERA between 2012 and 2014 with a 3.37 ERA the last two seasons.

And it’s no secret that there was a concerning wrinkle in his most recent effort. After pushing his average fastball up to 94.5 mph in 2015, Sale’s average dropped to 92.8 mph in 2016. His strikeout rate also fell, from 11.8 per nine innings to 9.3. 

According to the man himself, this year’s velocity drop was intentional. Sale told Scott Merkin of that he wanted to stop throwing “every single pitch as hard as I can every inning, every out.” If so, it’s possible he could turn the velocity back on if the Red Sox asked him to.

What’s more likely, though, is that his best velocity is gone for good. With his age-28 season due up, Sale is already past the point where FanGraphsBill Petti found that starting pitchers begin to leak velocity. 

The Red Sox are already going through something similar with Price, who they have signed through 2022. He’s fresh off an age-30 season in which he finished with a modest 3.99 ERA. His average fastball was down to 92.9 mph from 94.2. That helped push his strikeout rate further south of its peak.

Worse, bad things happened to Price when the ball was put in play off him. He served up a career-high 30 home runs, and he allowed career-worst hard-hit and pull percentages.

For his part, sitting at just 90.2 mph with his heat didn’t bother Porcello as he carved out a 3.15 ERA in 223 innings in 2016. Nor did he suffer from striking out only 7.6 batters per nine innings. The 27-year-old was the same pitch-to-contact guy he’s always been.

Except, only far more successful than usual. Porcello‘s batting average on balls in play plummeted to a career-low .269. Conventional sabermetric thinking says that what goes down must now come up.

So, there you have it. These are the reasons to worry about Boston’s trio of aces. It could turn out that two of them are past their prime and one of them got seriously lucky when he broke out as an ace.

But for every “Yeah, but…” there’s an equal and opposite “Well, actually…”

Porcello‘s exit velocity and other batted-ball data send mixed signals about how good he was at managing contact in 2016. But after Craig Edwards of FanGraphs dove deeper into the numbers, he calculated that even Porcello‘s adjusted batting average on balls in play still would have been well below average.

That is, he truly earned his roaring success on balls in play. How? By pitching!

“He’s really improved as an overall pitcher,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who also oversaw Porcello with the Detroit Tigers, told’s Scott Lauber in November. “Just the ability to change speeds, I mean, his changeup, his curveball, he cuts the ball. He’s really got a better pulse of changing the [hitter’s] eyesight on various pitches. You really see the growth. I think he’s taken another step further from what he was in Detroit.”

Brooks Baseball backs up Dombrowski on all of this. Porcello does have a cutter now. He does change speeds better than he used to. He is more willing to change eye levels as well.

Put another way: Even Porcello‘s rate of 1.3 walks per nine innings in 2016 doesn’t capture how in command he was when he took the mound. He’s always been a strike-thrower. He’s now a strike-thrower with a purpose.

Same goes for Price. The veteran lefty walked only 2.0 batters per nine innings in 2016, continuing a longstanding trend of him being well under the league average. And despite all the hard contact he gave up, it wasn’t like he was consistently putting the ball right down the middle. Per Baseball Savant, he actually did that far less often than he did in 2015, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting.

So despite his 3.99 ERA, it’s no wonder Price was just aces for most of 2016. He was terrible in his first seven starts. After that, he had a 3.39 ERA in his last 28 starts.

Speaking of finishing strong, it’s a good look that Sale didn’t need an uptick in velocity to go from an 8.9 K/9 in the first half of 2016 to a 9.7 K/9 in the second half. This points to two things.

One: Even with less velocity, Sale’s stuff is filthy. Per Baseball Prospectus, the action on his four-seamer, sinker, changeup and slider all rated as elite. Here’s a taste:

Perhaps because he had been watching Porcello, Sale also started being more proactive changing eye levels in the second half. He began locating his hard stuff (namely his four-seamer) higher and his off-speed stuff lower.

Sale had to take matters into his own hands in part because White Sox catchers were doing him no favors. As Mike Petriello covered at, Sale lost more runs to bad pitch framing than any other American League starter.

Simply switching uniforms will help solve that, and Sale could even end up on the other side of the spectrum if Christian Vazquez seizes Boston’s everyday catcher gig. Baseball Prospectus gives him 20.7 career framing runs in the majors, an absurd amount for a guy who’s only played in 112 games.

Vazquez’s framing would obviously also help Price and Porcello. And it’s worth noting none of Boston’s starters should suffer from the team’s defense.

The Red Sox were 12th in defensive efficiency in 2016. The only threat to their defense going forward is Pablo Sandoval returning to third base, but he figures to be on too short a leash to become a major threat. Meanwhile, Mitch Moreland should be a sizable defensive upgrade at first base.

It’s a big ol‘ complicated picture, but the bottom line is that the Red Sox will be happy with their rotation trio if the particulars live up to their most recent performances. Had the Red Sox had Sale, Price and Porcello in 2016, they would have combined for a 3.50 ERA and a whopping 679.2 innings.

There are indeed tangible reasons to believe this won’t happen, but they’re overwhelmed by the essential truth of the Sale-Price-Porcello trio: It’s a group of truly good pitchers. One of them has never thrown hard and the other two don’t throw as hard as they used to, but all three have proved they don’t need power to survive.

In basic terms: Believe the hype. These guys are good.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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