Coming into the 2017 season it looked like starting pitching was going to be a strength for the Red Sox. They had just acquired Chris Sale, Rick Porcello was coming off a Cy Young season, David Price was primed for a patented “2nd Year in Boston Comeback”, Eduardo Rodriguez ended the 2016 season with a 3.24 ERA after the break, and Stephen Wright had an All Star caliber year. And then there was Drew Pomeranz.
Coming to Boston as a pre-deadline trade that saw one of the farm’s top pitching prospects, Anderson Espinoza, sent to San Diego immediately put a lot of pressure on Pomeranz to produce. And produce he did not. Before the trade, Drew put up an All Star quality 2.47 ERA with a 10.2 K/9 in 17 games started. With those numbers he would have been the best starting pitcher in Boston, with an ERA over 100 points better than Porcello (3.66 in 18 starts) and a K/9 equal to David Price through 19 games.
With those kinds of numbers it made excellent sense for Dave Dombrowski to trade away a top prospect for the 27 year old with better numbers than his whole starting staff. As it turns out, Dave didn’t have all of the information on Drew when he made this trade. The Padres had concealed medical information from the Red Sox (and the Marlins and the White Sox among others) surrounding their players in an act that eventually resulted in a 30 day suspension for Padres GM A.J. Preller.
The Red Sox were offered a chance to reverse the trade and send Drew back to San Diego, but by the time this information had come out, the trade deadline had passed and the Red Sox would had no more options to fill the hole in their starting rotation, so they held on to Pomeranz.
Unfortunately once Drew put on the Red Sox uniform, he was an entirely different pitcher. In 13 games started (and one appearance out of the bullpen after he lost his starting job) Pomeranz posted a 4.59 ERA and a 9.4 K/9. He struggled to go deep into games, only making it through the 6th inning 5 times. In fact, there were 3 games where he didn’t even make it into the 4th. Perhaps his biggest problem was his home run tendencies, allowing 14 homers in Boston at a staggering rate of 1.8 HR/9.
That's not to say he wasn't fun to watch at times, with that absolutly nasty curveball.
To say his first year in Boston was disappointing might be an understatement. This was obviously not the guy Dombrowski envisioned when he made that trade. While the Red Sox weren’t ready to give up on him just yet, this offseason was full of speculation that Drew would start the season as a long reliever out of the pen. After all, if you’re not going to last longer than 4 innings anyway, that might be a valuable guy to have in your bullpen. Plus he has some experience from the pen, appearing in 9 games for the A’s in 2014 posting a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings.
But then David Price got injured and it began to look like things had sorted themselves out. After all, you can never have too much starting pitching.
The questions still remained as Pomeranz went into his first start on April 11th, which pitcher were we going to get this season? The Dr. Jekyllesque All Star San Diego Padres Pomeranz? Or the Mr. Hyde version who seemed to be playing most of last season in Boston.
As it turn out, so far this year we have seen a bit of both. He’s off to a frightening 5.23 ERA this year, however that is inflated by his inability to get deep in games. In his 6 starts this season, he’s given up 2 or fewer earned runs 4 times. He’s only really gotten rocked twice this year (May 9th vs MIL and April 16th vs Tampa), but he’s only made it through 6 innings in two of his starts.
His home run tendencies are still there this year. He’s given up 7 so far, including an absolute monster to Eric Thames on May 9th, for a HR/9 of 2.0, even higher than where he finished last season.
So why does it seem like it’s a toss up every time PomPom gets the start? It has a lot to do with the type of pitcher he’s transformed into this year. He’s pretty much a two pitch kind of guy, with a low 90s fastball and a low 80s curve. He’s got a cutter, a sinker, and a changeup but we’ve very rarely seen him break those out this year, instead primarily leaning on his two main pitches a whopping 95.4% of the time.
That’s not altogether surprising, after all it’s totally realistic to be a really solid pitcher only using your fastball to set up the breaking balls. That’s more or less pitching 101. Even Chris Sale uses his 95mph heater to set up his breaking balls, the difference being he has a top end slider, changeup, and sinker. When you’ve only got one solid breaking ball like Pomeranz, your room for error is much lower. It has to be on, or else you’re going to be, in the words of Dennis Eckersley, “serving up salad”.
Here’s some visuals of a good curveball day for Drew, and a bad curveball day.
Here's the movement on his curve from his first start of the season. He went 6.0 innings, gave up 1 ER on 4 hits and 0 home runs. Possibly his best start of 2017 so far. Looking at the movement on his curve, it's not surprising. He was generating excellent movement both horizontally and vertically. It's pretty hard for a batter to sit on a curveball when it's coming at you +/- 2.5 inches in any given direction and at any speed from 77 - 85mph.
Comparing that to his latest start against the Brewers, it’s not surprising to see that Milwaukee had an easy time putting up runs on him. When those low velocity curves are all clustered in the same area, that tells us that his curveball just didn’t have the kind of movement needed to generate swinging strikes. Coupled with Miller Park being very home run friendly, and the Brewers leading the league in homers, it’s not shocking that he was taken for a ride. Look at the graph, he just didn’t have it.
It’s looking like this is just how it’s going to be for Pomeranz right now. Hopefully he’ll start to get his pitch efficiency up and last at least 6+ innings in the majority of his starts. He should be able to provide the Red Sox with some solidity in the #4 or 5 starter spot once Price returns from injury. With a starting rotation of Sale, Porcello, Price, Rodriguez and Pomeranz, it should be fine to get the occasional rough start from Drew.
After all, he’s better than Clay Buchholz would had been in that spot. Think about that. Without that trade last season, Clay would have been our #5 guy right now. And he’s already out for the season.
So I’ll take the occasional bad start from Drew if it means I never have to watch Buchholz pitch in a Sox uniform again.