With the playoffs set to begin next month and the Red Sox having all but locked up a chance to go on a post season run, the biggest topic of discussion among Red Sox Nation revolves around Boston’s playoff rotation. Obviously the Red Sox, just like any other team, will enter the Divisional Series in hopes of a 3 out of 5 game sweep. For that reason, Boston will look to roll out their top three starters in succession.
As the rotation is constituted right now, there’s no question that Boston’s the top 3 starters are Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey. But while the discussion of who makes up the top 3 rotation arms isn’t much of a discussion at all, the question of how those three pitcher are arranged is what has most fans and media buzzing. The topic of the Red Sox playoff rotation often starts from the third spot and works its way up. So for the sake of sticking with that model, most everyone is in agreement that John Lackey should be the game 3 starter. This year was finally the year that John Lackey found his form in Boston. After 2 years of underperformance and a third year that was lost to Tommy John surgery and subsequent recovery, Lackey has been one of Boston’s most consistent arms. Although his record of 9-12 doesn’t suggest any semblance of dominance, at times, Lackey has been just that. In 27 starts, the tall right hander has logged 174 innings with a WHIP of 1.19 and a K/BB ratio of 4.00. On top of that Lackey has been able to limit the oppositions impact on the score board by allowing more than 4 earned runs just 3 times this season. Against future divisional series foes such as the Rays, Rangers, and Indians, Lackey has started 5 games, throwing 28 innings while allowing 14 earned runs. In immeasurable circumstances, Lackey has gained a reputation around the league for being a pitcher who thrives when the spot light is on him. Given the list of possible scenarios, game three of the divisional series could be when the spot light is shinning its brightest. This is where it gets a little controversial. With Lackey pegged for the number three spot, our playoff rotation pool is now down to just two-- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. If Clay Buchholz flirted with the performances that he was turning in before he missed 92 games on the disabled list, he would be the obvious front runner for the number one rotation spot. But instead, Buchholz was sidelined with shoulder bursitis and wasn’t able to build off the best start to a season that he’s ever had. From the beginning of the season to the beginning of June, Buchholz was one of the games marquis arms. Over his first 12 starts the 29 year old threw 84 innings pitching to the tune of a 1.71 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .195 batting average. This run of oppression across the majors is marked by his 11-0 record and is further magnified by the fact that he never allowed more than 4 runs through his early season Cy Young Award campaign. Since Buchholz has returned from the disabled list, it’s fairly remarkable at how little rust he shown despite missing a large chunk of the year. In his first start back from his shoulder injury, Buchholz blanked the wild card leading Tampa Bay Rays over 5 innings of work; striking out 6 and walking just 1. But while his second and most recent start saw his innings rise, it also revealed that his control isn’t where it needs to be. Over 6 innings, Buchholz walked four batters which seemed to be a byproduct of the inability to control his fastball. While Buchholz does have two starts remaining in the regular season, his chance to campaign for the number one spot is still exists. From the Red Sox standpoint, they can’t really go wrong whether they decide to pitch Buchholz two or one but someone needs to be the second starter and if I’m John Farrell, I’m penciling in Clay Buchholz. For Jon Lester it’s been almost a “tale of two halves” kind of theme. Through the left handers first 20 starts he posted an ERA just under 5.00 while registering 125 innings and allowing 64 earned runs. Over that span of time opposing batters were hitting .260/.329/.416 off of Lester and were averaging over a hit per inning. It wasn’t all bad though, Lester did spin a complete game one hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays and he did pitch into or past the 7th inning in half of his starts. But it was inconsistency that hurt Lester throughout the first half. So far in the second half, though, Jon Lester has pitched like a true staff ace. In 11 starts the 29 year old has started 11 games and is pitching to the tune of a 2.38 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .234/.283/.348 slash line. While Lester has had far fewer starts in the second half compared to the first half it should be noted that he has allowed more than 3 earned runs once. The rest of the time Lester has beaten the likes of the Rays, Dodgers, and Yankees. Perhaps the apex of Lester’s resurgent second half came on September 3rd when he out dueled the Detroit Tigers Cy Young front runner, Max Scherzer, by throwing 7 innings of 8 hit, one run baseball while striking out 9 and not walking a batter. When entering the postseason, it’s always wise to pitch the hot hand first which is why it makes sense to send Lester out first. While Clay Buchholz has shown his ability to be the teams staff ace, his trip to the disabled list and subsequent recovery period seems to have allowed fans and media to regain their confidence in Jon Lester. In all honesty, the way I see it there really isn’t a right or wrong way to go when picking who should kick off the Red Sox first trip back to the post season since 2009. But in a 5 game divisional series the number one starter could potentially pitch twice barring a sweep. Therefore, the question of “who do you want to pitch with the series on the line?” comes into play. Jon Lester’s resume in October is certainly more robust than Clay Buchholz. As you can probably recall, Lester played a large role in the Red Sox 2007 World Series run as well as subsequent playoff runs in 2008 and 2009. In his career Lester has thrown 42 post season innings with a 2.57 ERA and a .213/.272/.356 opponent slash. Clay Buccholz, on the other hand, has only pitched in one playoff game which was back in 2009 against the Angles where he threw 5 innings of 6 hit, one run baseball. Of course, playoff experience should factor into the decision when it comes time to roll out a playoff rotation which tips the scale further in Lester’s favor. When it comes to the playoffs, it seems to be all about catching lightning in a bottle. As the cliche goes, the most talented team doesn’t win, the hottest team does. For the Red Sox, their rotation certainly has the potential to take both attributes. Jon Lester seems like he will enter the playoffs on a roll and Clay Buchholz seems like he should be 100% healthy and settled in once October comes around. Whatever way John Farrell decides to assemble the starting rotation in the playoffs he can rest assured that all of his available options will help make the 2013 Red Sox playoff run as special as they can.