Red Sox have the edge in the arms race as they chase crown

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When the Red Sox showed up in Anaheim this past weekend, you could forgive any Angels hitter who wasn’t excited about the series.

Cy Young frontrunner Chris Sale was poised to take the mound on Friday night, followed by 2012 Cy Young winner David Price on Saturday and Rick Porcello, the man who won the same hardware last year, on Sunday.

When Boston’s plane headed north for Seattle on Sunday night, Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz were ready to take the ball before the calendar flipped back to Sale. This is the way the Red Sox drew it up. Though Steven Wright’s season-ending injury cost Boston some depth, for the first time this season, the Red Sox had a starter who was intended to be part of the regular rotation take the ball five nights in a row.

While Price and Rodriguez spent time on the disabled list, Boston weathered 18 mostly-awful starts from Wright, Brian Johnson, Kyle Kendrick, Hector Velasquez, and Doug Fister. Through it all, Red Sox starters have been the best in the American League, at least by Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement. Through Sunday’s games, their collective 4.10 ERA is third in the league, their 3.89 Fielding Independent Pitching is second, and they’ve accumulated a league-best 597.1 innings.

Replace those starts from the depth guys with more Price and Rodriguez and this rotation is a true force. Sale leads all of baseball in innings (141.1), strikeouts (200), and WAR (6.1), far outdistancing any other AL pitcher by nearly any meaningful metric.

Pomeranz has impressed as well, with a 3.51 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 102.2 innings pitched. While he struggled to pitch deep into games earlier in the season, he’s finished the sixth inning in six of his past seven outings, surrendering more than two runs only once in that stretch.

Here, dear reader, is where you may disagree with me, for I’m about to tell you that Rick Porcello is another good pitcher having a strong season. You may point to his four wins and 13 losses, or to his 4.52 ERA and tell me his season leaves a lot to be desired, and you would not be wrong. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that Porcello’s 133.1 innings pitched are tied for third in the AL and his 121 strikeouts rank seventh, while his 25 walks are tied for 60th. Despite some trouble with the longball, his 4.25 FIP is far better than league average (4.58). Porcello’s troubles stem from a .349 batting average when opponents put the ball in play, which is likely to regress toward the mean as the season rolls on and balls start finding more gloves than grass.

Price has seen mixed results since returning from the disabled list. He’s kept his ERA under 4 while striking out almost a batter per inning, but 22 walks in just 66 innings are a sign that he might not be pitching at full health. That said, he recently shut out the Yankees over eight innings and the Rangers over six and is certainly capable of vintage-Price outings.

While Price tries to reconnect with past dominance, the 24-year-old Rodriguez is beginning to demonstrate the consistency that’s always stood between him and ace status. In the same 66-inning workload as Price, he’s struck out even more batters (73), but has walked more (25) as well. Most importantly, he’s had just two outings all year in which he gave up more than three runs, whereas in years past, Rodriguez tended to trade dominating performances with blow-ups.

Health in baseball is never a guarantee, particularly when it comes to pitchers. The Mets started 33 of their first 95 games this season with a pitcher outside their top five on the mound. The Houston Astros, the only American League team with a better record than Boston’s, have gotten 23 starts from pitchers they hoped to keep in Triple-A or the bullpen. Such is baseball.

If we neglect the 18 starts by fill-in pitchers, Red Sox starters have struck out 10 batters, walked 2.4, and yielded 1.2 home runs per nine innings this season, pitching to a 3.56 ERA. The average American League starter has a 4.55 ERA with 7.9 strikeouts, 3.2 walks, and 1.4 homers served up per nine. This is a rotation full of hard throwers with great stuff, elite command and the ability to pitch deep into games.

It’s not just the Angels who should be afraid.

Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.