The Boston Red Sox All-Time Starting Rotation

Imagine you are responsible for selecting a fantasy starting rotation and pitching staff to represent the Boston Red Sox. Your staff would have to face the fantasy staffs of all the other major league teams. Who would make your rotation? Who would you select for back up and relief roles?

You have access to all pitchers in Boston history, but only how they performed for the Red Sox. Awards and performance for other teams can’t be lumped in to affect selection or performance. Starting pitchers must have pitched 1000 innings to be eligible for the team. Relievers need to have 250 games they appeared in for the team in order to be considered.

The Red Sox, a charter American League club, borrowed their name from the Boston National League team from the 19th century, later to be known as the Braves.  For much of their existence they were known as the Red Stockings. Now this was a name that was borrowed from the original professional team in Cincinnati named the Red Stockings. The owner moved the team from Cincinnati to Boston and decided to keep the name. They were a charter team of the National Association.

The location of the team was originally planned for Buffalo, b ut Ban Johnson, original American League president, decided to move the team to Boston to compete with the National League team.

The name Red Sox, however, wasn’t given to the team until 1908. From the advent of the American League, the team was known as the Americans. Soon after gaining the Red Sox name, a new park was built, and the team has played at Fenway Park since its completion in 1912.

The team won the very first world series in 1903. They won the pennant the next year, but John McGraw refused to play a post season. The teens saw the team win four pennants and World Series, even in 1918 under a reduced schedule. It must have seemed like the team couldn’t lose in the post season!

Instrumental to the team’s early successes was pitching great Cy Young, and a nice staff in the teens of Smokey Joe Wood, Dutch Leonard, and later Carl Mays and Babe Ruth. 

Selling players was not a new activity in baseball, and the Yankees were very acquisitive in the late teens, buying up star players left and right. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees during the off season in 1919 to help finance an off broadway production of the original No, No, Nanette .

Ruth and his power hitting went on to bring about the advent of the live ball era as a hitter, not the pitcher the Red Sox had known.  The twenties and thirties were a down time for the Red Sox. Even after Yawkee bought the team in ’33 and brought in star players (Lefty Grove, Wes Ferrell, Jimmy Foxx and Joe Cronin), the team didn’t see another post season until Ted Willliams came back from the war in ’46.

In fact from 1918 until 1986, the team appeared in three World Series—1946, 1967 and 1975, but narrowly missed bringing home any titles.  Since ’86, the team has appeared in the post season 11 times, winning two World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.

Great pitching has been spread throughout the Boston team history.  Some of the great names in pitching history have taken their turn in Boston.  As in other articles, we will break down the team history into an early rotation, including pitchers up through 1950 or so, and a modern rotation, covering 1950-present.


The Early Rotation 

No. 1 Cy Young, 1901-’08, 192W, ERA+ 147, 38 SHO. Young joined up with the brand new team and league for the 1901 season.  He was already an established pitching star.  He had great success during his first few years in Boston, re-inventing his pitching style to become much more of a control pitcher.  In 1904 he issued only 29 BB in 380 innings!  Young’s greatest features were his ability to produce a high volume of quality work and his longevity.

Young had a couple of down years in Boston, but came back in top form by 1907 and 1908. He moved on to Cleveland in 1909.

No. 2 Smokey Joe Wood, 1908, ’15, 117W, ERA+ 149, 28 SHO. Part of the team’s return to success beginning in 1912 can be attributed to their star pitcher, Joe Wood. Wood was at his dominant best in 1912, winning 34 games while only losing five. He led the league in wins and in shutouts with 10.

By the next season however, he had hurt his arm, and went on with more limited success in a more part time role for the next few years. The level of Wood’s pitching reached such a pinnacle that it was often said to be as dominant as Walter Johnson’s at his peak.

No. 3 Lefty Grove, 1934-41, 105W, ERA+ 143, 15 SHO. Grove Joined the Red Sox for the 1934 season. He had just finished a period beginning in 1927 of unparalleled dominance of the American league. From 1928-1933 he went 142-41. He had been the ace of the Athletics’ pitching staff that had appeared in three consecutive World Series 1929-’31.

Grove had a rough first year in Boston, but found his way to one more 20 win season in ’35.  Although his dominance was in decline, Grove pitched with success for the Red Sox, posting winning seasons until his last year.  In ’37 he seemed to experience some more arm trouble, and beginning in ’38 his innings were cut back to preserve his arm so he could recover between starts.

He pitched until he won his 300th game in the ’41 season.

No. 4 Tex Hughson, 1941-’44, 1946-’49, 96W, ERA+ 125, 19 SHO. Born “Cecil Carlton” Hughson, he became known as Tex because of where he was from, having attended the University of Texas at Austin. He pitched his entire career with the Red Sox in the 1940s.  He was known for his hard fast ball, over hand curve and for brushing hitters back off the plate.

He pitched from ’41-’44 and ’46-’49, winning 20 games twice, and leading the American league in Ks, IP and wins once each. He doubled up in CG (’42, ’43), and in K/BB ratio, (’44,’46). His second twenty win season in ’46 came during the push for the pennant.

No. 5 Dutch Leonard, 1913-1918, 90W; ERA+ 129, 25 SHO. At age 22 in 1914 Leonard in his second year in the major leagues set the modern record for lowest season ERA at 0.96. In addition Leonard pitched well in the post season for Boston in ’15 and ’16. 

After he was traded to Detroit before the 1919 season, Leonard became the pointed target of much abuse from then Tigers manager Ty Cobb. It was a difficult situation with Cobb as manager. Leonard eventually accused Cobb and Speaker of fixing games. When he didn’t show for the hearing (after his life had been threatened if he did), both Cobb and Speaker were cleared.

While with the Red Sox, Leonard was extremely effective.

Honorable mentions: Joe Dobson, 1941-’59, 106W, ERA+ 115, 17 SHO. Babe Ruth, 1914-’19, 89W, ERA+ 125, 17 SHO. Carl Mays, 1915-’19, 72W, ERA+ 124, 14 SHO.


The Modern Rotation

No. 1 Roger Clemens, 1984-’96, 192W, ERA+ 145, 38 SHO. Fortunately for this report and the Red Sox legacy, the time he spent with the Red Sox team can be considered a more normal part of his history, probably not as influenced by Performance Enhancing Drugs as his later years. These are fine numbers indeed he posted for the team, including a Cy Young and MVP performance in ’86.

It is comments made after his great performance that year that begin to establish his rather sketchy reputation as a hot head and selfish player. Hank Aaron had made the comment to the media that he felt that MVP awards should be reserved for everyday players, and not for pitchers. Clemens retorted that he wished Aaron was still playing so he could crack him in the head.

Clemens tied Cy Young for the most team wins with 192, and for the most team shutouts with 38.  His performance in the ’86 World Series was less than spectacular. It is the only time Boston made the World Series during his time on the team.  Three more times the team made the playoffs, but Clemens and the Red Sox were unable win a single game.

After the ’96 season, he hadn’t won more than 11 games in five seasons.  Dan Duquette was probably correct in evaluating that Clemens was in decline (his total of 192 wins at this point has been insufficient enough to keep other pitchers out of the HOF, but his overall success in his career and three Cy Young awards might be enough for him to be considered a HOF pitcher without the rest of his career).

No. 2 Pedro Martinez, 1998-’04, 117W, ERA+ 191, 8 SHO. Pedro Martinez hit Boston baseball right as he was peaking as one of—if not the —premiere pitchers in either league.  Martinez managed to lead the league in wins one time, but gathered five ERA titles and three Cy Young awards along the way.

He attacked the strike zone with abandon. He used an assortment of fast balls, and breaking pitches with different arm angles, while maintaining pinpoint control. He had great torque and movement on his pitches.

Pedro’s postseason record is good if not great. He is 6-4 with a 3.64 ERA. His other peripheral numbers are close to his season levels.

No. 3 Mel Parnell, 1947-’56, 123W, ERA+ 125, 20 SHO. Parnell is the premiere lefty in Boston history, (followed closely by Dutch Leonard). He pitched his entire ten year career for the Red Sox, and posted two 20 win seasons, winning 25 in ’49. Overall he had five very fine years for the team.

After his career was cut short by a torn muscle in his pitching arm, he went into broadcasting for the team. Many of his calls for the ’67 miracle team are part of Red Sox lore and he is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

No. 4 Luis Tiant, 1971-’78, 122W, ERA+ 119, 26 SHO. The Red Sox took a chance on Luis Tiant when they hired him in 1971. He had suffered a broken leg the year before while pitching for the Twins. To the Red Sox credit, they stuck with him after a dismal first year when he won only one game for the team!

By the next year he was magic, having reinvented his delivery and style of pitching. Now he was no more the flame thrower from the 1960s, but a crafty and determined foe to all opposing hitters, with a variety of breaking pitches. His new delivery involved turning away from the batter, and then a complete turn of his body toward the plate.

Tiant won the ERA title in ’72 and had the league’s lowest WHIP in ’73. He was also a postseason hero in ’75, shutting down the A’s in the playoffs and winning two games against the Reds in the World Series.

No. 5 Tim Wakefield, 1995-’10, 177W, ERA+ 109, 3 SHO. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield has worked both as a starter and reliever for the team. His contributions have been long and consistent. He has been invaluable filling in as both starter and reliever as the team has needed.


A Unique Development

Boston has helped define the role of the spot starter. Throughout their modern history they have had several pitchers successfully move in and out of starting and relieving roles. Mel Parnell, Bob Stanley, Ellis Kinder, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield have all been successful as spot starters for the Red Sox, and deserve recognition for their success.


The Relievers

Jonathan Papelbon, 2005-’10, 299 games, 168 save, ERA+ 229.

Dick Radatz, 1962-’66, 286 games, 104 saves, ERA+ 147.

These two relievers kind of act as bookends for the relief pitching history of the Red Sox.  Papelbon is the current reigning closer, and one of the best in the majors today. Radatz stormed MLB in 1962, leading the league in saves. On top of his save totals, he won 49 games pitching only as a reliever from ’62-’65. Within two years his career was over, but he was incredible while it lasted!


The Combined All-Time Rotation

No. 1 Cy Young , 1901-’08, 192W, ERA+ 147, 38 SHO.

No. 2 Roger Clemens , 1984-’96, 192W, ERA+ 145, 38 SHO.

No. 3 Lefty Grove , 1934-’41, 105W, ERA+ 143, 15 SHO.

No. 4 Pedro Martinez , 1998-’04, 117W ERA+ 191, 8 SHO.

No. 5 Smokey Joe Wood , 1908-’15, 117W, ERA+ 149, 28 SHO.

Spot Starters – Dutch Leonard, Tex Hughson, Luis Tiant, Mel Parnell

Relievers – Jonathan Papelbon, Dick Radatz


In Conclusion

Much like the history of the team as a whole, the history of Red Sox pitching is full of colorful characters and great performances. I think what is unique in review is how each great pitcher the team has had only gave part of their career to Red Sox history. Cy Young was there for the later part of his career, as was Lefty Grove and Luis Tiant. 

Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens each had significant peaks for the Red Sox, but went on to pitch elsewhere, essentially being let go by the team. Babe Ruth, Dutch Leonard and Carl Mays were traded away during a controversial period in the team’s history.

Smokey Joe Wood, Mel Parnell, Tex Hughson and Dick Radatz all had careers shortened by injury.

All in all this is a rotation of great distinction, almost unmatched in performance and name recognition among any teams studied thus far.  Even the spot starters provide a group of pitchers rich in big game savvy and determination.

Boston fans can be thankful for so many great pitching memories to cherish, and look forward to more as the team continues its successful ways supplied by their rich farm system.

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