No Papi: Three Pitchers Who Must Step Up for the Red Sox

Graphic by Kaiwen Zhou

By Jacob Denninger
Sports Columnist

Big Papi has retired. After 16 years with the Red Sox, star slugger David Ortiz hung up his spikes at the end of last season. Next year, Boston will have to find a way to win without Papi, an idea that no Red Sox fan ever wanted to think about.

The Sox have solid offensive foundations. Veterans Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia will provide power and consistency at bat, respectively. Young standouts Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi will continue to improve. Most importantly, the young Mookie Betts proved himself to be a star at the plate last year. He had the highest batting average on the team at .318, and lead the hit count with 214 hits. He was also second on the team behind only David Ortiz in home runs (31), RBI (113), and OPS (.897).

That being said, it will be difficult for the Red Sox to replace Ortiz’s production. His 127 RBIs represented a disproportionate 14.5% (over 1/7) of all of the runs Boston scored last year, and he was the only member of the Red Sox with an on-base percentage of over .380.

Ortiz’s projected replacement in the starting lineup is first baseman Mitch Moreland, who hit only .233 compared to Ortiz’s .315 and had only 60 RBI (less than half of what Ortiz had) in 147 games last year. It seems unlikely Moreland, or any other foreseeable replacement, will come close to matching Ortiz’s production.

So how does a team keep winning when it’s leading run producer is gone? The answer is simple: allow fewer runs to compensate. Last year the Red Sox got to the ALCS by scoring 878 runs and allowing 694. To continue the same level of success, the have to bring down their runs allowed by at least as many runs as losing Ortiz will cost them on the offensive side.

Pitching, in general, will need to be strong if the Red Sox are going to limit the number of runs they allow. The performance of three starting pitchers, in particular, will be crucial: Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello. Together, these pitchers should form a sort of “big three” at the beginning of the Red Sox starting rotation.

This “big three” will have to keep their combined earned run average well below the 4.28 runs per game Boston allowed last year.

Chris Sale, who was acquired in a trade with the White Sox during the offseason, has a career earned run average of 3.00. If he can continue that in Boston, it will help the Sox lower the number of runs allowed, and compensate for the loss of Ortiz’s production. It would be even more helpful if Sale could return to his 2014 form when his ERA was 2.17.

David Price underperformed last year. He did not pitch at all like the ace he was supposed to be. His 3.99 ERA in 2016 was almost the same as the team 4.00 ERA, which was extremely disappointing after his 2.45 ERA in 2015.

Before last year, Price had not had an ERA above 3.49 with the exception of his first full season in 2009 (when it was 4.42). That included 3 seasons with an ERA under 3.00. Price will need to return to ace form in 2017 to give the Sox any chance of returning to the playoffs without Big Papi.

Then there’s Rick Porcello, the 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner. Porcello threw 223 innings last year, had a record of 22 wins and 4 losses, and had a career best 3.15 ERA. However, Porcello’s Cy Young campaign is a statistical anomaly compared to the rest of his career. Prior to 2016, he had had an ERA well above 4.00 in five of his seven seasons. His career ERA, even including last year’s mark, is 4.20. That is way too high to bring down the number of runs the Sox allow. Porcello will need to be better than he has been in the past and continue his Cy Young form if Boston is to return to the playoffs.

The Red Sox will have lesser run production without David Ortiz, but they can still succeed again in 2017 if they make up for it by allowing fewer runs. This effort will depend on Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello. All three must be up for the task for the Boston Red Sox to have a shot at the playoffs and a ninth World Series trophy.