Entering the 2019 season, the excitement driven around the Red Sox starting rotation was palpable. Headlined by one of the best arms in baseball in Chris Sale, it was almost as though the offense could take a slight step back from last season because hey, there won’t be many runs up on the opponent’s side of the board, right?
So far that notion has proven to be very, very wrong.
The Red Sox starting five has been nothing but below average to begin the season ranking dead last in the league with a 7.18 ERA. And that criticism goes right up the ladder to Chris Sale as well. Aside from a few strong starts here and there, the most recent by David Price, the starting pitching has been a cause for concern for the Red Sox as they attempt to maintain their rating as one of baseball’s best.
We’re now sitting here 17 games in, and this World Series hangover of sorts seems to be rearing its ugly head in Boston and no matter how hard the team tries to shake it, it won’t go away.
The question’s been ringing since about game five because of the high expectation. Is it time to panic? Is this team due for a dud season after three consecutive postseason appearances?
With the latest move made by the Red Sox, it appears as though they’re feeling the heat, at least with their starting pitching, as the Red Sox decided to essentially dump Blake Swihart in order to bring back the pitchers’ favorite backstop, Sandy Leon.
Leon has always been known for his phenomenal in-game managing coupled with his elite defensive skillset. But aside from his unbelievable hot-streak in 2016, his offensive prowess is essentially non-existent. And in 2019, he hasn’t exactly started off hot himself in Triple-A where he currently has just three hits in 25 at-bats.
So is it worth recalling Leon and giving up on Swihart just because of the rotation’s lackluster start?
At this point, absolutely.
The sole reason why Swihart was on the major league active roster was his spring training numbers at the plate. If it’s one thing that this team has lacked over the prior couple of seasons or for many seasons now, as a matter of fact, it’s a catcher that can put up decent offensive numbers. And due to his performance down in Florida this February and March, it appeared as though Swihart could fill that void as he posted a .406 BA with a 1.018 OPS. And he certainly kept that idea going as the regular season began. But since then he’s fallen off, now showing a batting average of just .231.
So while those numbers are certainly better than what Leon posted last season–.177 BA in 89 games–his lack of productivity made it that much tougher to justify keeping the veteran catcher down in Pawtucket while he remains on the major league roster.
The thought of personal catchers has always irked me to the point where I was almost happy that the team had placed Leon on waivers because I thought we could finally squish this notion that someone like Chris Sale could only pitch his best when “his guy” was behind that plate.
Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball and is certainly one of the best that we’ve seen over this past generation. He was successful in Chicago with catchers not named Sandy Leon, so why would that change here if he had to throw to another guy who is more known for his glove rather than his bat such as Christian Vazquez?
The splits over his tenure with the Red Sox between pitching to Leon and Vazquez are actually quite shocking.
Sale has pitched to Vazquez in just 14 games over his career with the Red Sox. And over those 14 games and 66 IP, his ERA sits at 4.50 where he has allowed an opponents batting average of .235 with an opponents OPS of .711. With Leon behind the plate, in 49 games and 319.1 IP, those numbers shrink to an opponents batting average of .193 and opponents OPS of .561 with an ERA of 2.42.
And these large gaps in numbers don’t solely appear in Sale’s statistics. David Price has experienced the same pattern with the two catchers.
Through his career here in Boston, Price has pitched 17 games to Vazquez and 13 games to Leon. In his 17 appearances with Vazquez behind the plate, Price holds a 4.68 BA with an opponents batting average of .256. With Leon doing the catching, his ERA sits at 2.37 with an opponents batting average of .199.
The team’s two aces in their staff have shown significantly better success with Sandy Leon behind the plate on gameday. So again, the idea that a pitcher performs better with certain catchers over others has always rubbed me the wrong way. It’s always been simple. If you have the stuff to be a dominant pitcher at the major league level, you just have it. But the numbers appear to tell a different story. And this comes with some of the starting five even being vocal about it in the past.
Back in August when Eovaldi was first traded to the Red Sox and had shown exceptional success to start out, he credited Leon for using his strengths to his advantage and said that he trusted him with what he wanted to do. “I feel like he’s just done an exceptional job using my strengths to my advantage and also, me trusting him on certain pitches on what he wants to do.”
The move to keep Leon down in Pawtucket, while it made sense at the time, proved to be one of the few mistakes that Cora’s made so far through his early tenure as Sox skipper.
Swihart has gotten a raw deal through his time in Boston since being drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft. He’s dealt with multiple hurdles, obvious mismanagement and an ankle injury that sidelined him in 2016 while he was playing left field. And it appeared as though 2019 would finally be his year to make his stamp as a regular starter at the major league level. But that plan has changed.
This move in the grand scheme of things works. We understand at this point that the pitchers just work better with Leon. Is it a panic move? Of course, it is. But now that we sit 17 games in and the reigning World Series Champions still look lost with little sign of improvement, something had to be done.
You have Chris Sale who you just gave an extension to, David Price who has opted in to remain in Boston for another four seasons, among the rest of the staff who for the most part, appear to trust Leon with their lives. While it’s tough to essentially give up on Blake Swihart who had such a promising future, if the team now goes on a strong run with their starters performing well, this recall will be worth it.
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