Tomase: Red Sox' rotation woes extend beyond sticky substances


The Red Sox rotation suddenly stinks, and the easiest reaction is to blame it on the Bullfrog.

It may very well be that MLB's looming crackdown on sticky substances like the aforementioned sunscreen has exposed Red Sox pitchers for what they are -- an assemblage of average arms that doctored their way to enhanced results.

That's the easiest explanation, but is it the most likely?

Considering that we're talking about not just a couple of weeks of truly horrific starts but a couple of months of declining ones, it would seem there are probably some other forces at work, too.

"It's been a horrible week for us, pitching-wise," said manager Alex Cora. "Obviously, we had some comebacks and all of that, but for us to keep going and stay where we are, we have to pitch."

Let's examine the most likely culprits after Sunday's embarrassing 18-4 loss to the Blue Jays.

1. Sticky substances

Might as well start here, since a narrative is forming after a run of 39 innings in which Sox starters have allowed 40 runs. Cora, left-hander Martin Perez, and pitching coach Dave Bush dismissed the impact of MLB's renewed focus on sticky stuff, with Perez noting, "I'm not a cheater pitcher."

Because the principle benefit of substances like Spider Tack is to increase spin rates and therefore movement and explosiveness, the obvious place to start would be to ask how Red Sox pitchers are spinning the ball.

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As Chad Jennings laid out at The Athletic, spin rates for Red Sox pitchers have recently either been in line with their career numbers, declined slightly, or in the case of right-hander Garrett Richards, actually increased. Eduardo Rodriguez's spin rates from start to start have been an incomprehensible mess, which tracks with his schizophrenic season.

Just because spin rates haven't changed doesn't mean Red Sox pitchers weren't/aren't doctoring baseballs. The practice is considered widespread and had previously been tacitly accepted. But the numbers don't make an obviously compelling case that the league's vigilance is suddenly to blame.

"We're leaving a lot of pitches right down the middle and those guys are taking advantage of them," Cora said.

So what it might be?

2. Quality of competition

The simplest explanation might actually be the best: The Red Sox have run into two really good offenses. They allowed 28 runs in four games vs. the Astros and have already served up 30 runs in three games vs. the Jays.

Houston and Toronto rank No. 1 and No. 2 in baseball in OPS, with the Astros leading the game in runs (358), average (.274), and OPS (.789), while ranking dead last in strikeouts. The Jays, meanwhile, lead MLB with 99 homers -- helped in no small part by the eight they launched at Fenway on Sunday -- and are second in batting average (.264) and OPS (.781).

"I know certainly today and yesterday, we left too many balls over the middle of the plate," Bush said. "Sometimes it happens in bunches and against good lineups, you're going to pay for it."

If it's indeed mostly about the competition, then good news -- the Braves and Royals, their next two opponents, are hitting .236 and .239, respectively.

Then again, maybe it's less about the competition, and more about attrition.

3. Workload

It's worth noting that most pitchers are in the process of blowing past last year's innings thresholds. Lance Lynn led baseball during the truncated 2020 season with just 84 innings pitched, a total that has already been matched by eight hurlers.

Red Sox starters ranked at the low end of that spectrum last year. Perez is their only starter who hasn't reached last year's innings total, and he's one out shy of it at 61.2 innings. Everyone else has already thrown considerably more this year than last, from Nathan Eovaldi (72.1 to 48.1) to Garrett Richards (70.1 to 51.1) to Nick Pivetta (69.1 to 10) and, of course, Rodriguez (62.2 to zero).

"I mean, look, we're past where last year was," Bush said. "All of the starters and probably most of the relievers have passed their inning totals from last year, so there's definitely a fatigue factor. We knew that coming in. We planned for a longer year, so there's going to be some natural dips along the way, but I'm sure that's part of it.

"We're also in a stretch where we don't have any off days for quite a while and we're playing some tougher lineups lately. So I think you put all of that together. A little bit of fatigue, no time off, they're out there every five days right now instead of getting an extra day occasionally."

The plan had been to find rest throughout the season by making targeted use of minor-league pitching depth, but injuries to Tanner Houck, Connor Seabold, and Thaddeus Ward -- not to mention preseason Tommy John surgery for right-hander Bryan Mata -- have blown that strategy out of the water.

It's particularly damaging to a team like the Red Sox, whose top three starters have battled injury and durability issues throughout their respective careers.

"The plan coming into the season was to kind of use the depth of our pitching, and we haven't been able to do that in a while," Cora said. "You know, push them back."

4. Track records

Because last season's pitching was unwatchable, and because 2021 started so well, it's easy to forget the Red Sox filled their rotation with what the NBA might term mid-level exceptions.

Eovaldi entered the season with a lifetime ERA of 4.27, and he's currently at 4.11. Given ballpark factors and current league averages, Richards's 4.09 ERA is roughly in line with his lifetime average of 3.66. Nick Pivetta's 4.28 ERA is still a career-low after pitching himself right out of the rotation in Philadelphia. Perez is a 4.50 guy if ever there was one.

The only starter producing well below his track record is E-Rod, and he didn't pitch at all last season. His struggles shouldn't come as a surprise.

Neither should this recent downturn overall, because Red Sox starters have quietly been trending south for a while. They posted a 3.94 ERA in April, a 4.45 ERA in May, and now a 5.68 ERA in June, per @redsoxstats on Twitter.

Their struggles actually pre-date any mention of sticky concoctions, and that's not necessarily good news. It suggests that a lack of Spider Tack might be the least of their problems.

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