Looking ahead to 2012, the Red Sox look to be pretty good at the top of the rotation, assuming health. Jon Lester is coming back as the staff ace, and he should improve a bit on his slightly disappointing 2011. I am not too worried about Lester, as last year was his first in which he did not eclipse the 200 inning plateau, and he still threw 191 innings. The question that I intend to find an answer for is just what can we expect out of the number two and three starters, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, who I have horribly named "The Killer B's".
First, I will take a look at Josh Beckett. He is coming off a very good year in which, according to Fangraphs, he was worth 4.3 wins above replacement. Let me start this off by saying that the odd-year/even-year thing people love to say about Beckett is idiotic, and I refuse to mention anymore about that. He was able to have success last year despite a drop in his ground ball rate, which fell from around 46% down to 40%. He compensated for this by dropping his home run-rate below 1 for the first time since 2008 and dropping his walk-rate from 3.17 per 9 down to 2.42. Beckett's low ERA misrepresented how he actually pitched, though. His FIP was 3.57, compared to his stellar 2.89 ERA. A big reason for the discrepancy was his career-low and likely unsustainable .245 opponent's BABIP.
Looking ahead to next year, Beckett is due for some regression when it comes to ERA, but he can still be almost as valuable as he was in 2011. His velocity has been on a slight, but steady, downward trend, and averaged exactly 93 MPH last season. I'd expect it to drop a bit in 2012, but not to a detrimental extent. He has compensated by increasing his cutter and changeup usage, both of which showed marked improvement in terms of quality last year, as they were both above average pitches. If he can continue to throw his secondary pitches well, he should have similar success. Beckett's ground ball rate should also increase a bit back up to the mid-40's%. His K-rate is also in a steady decline, but it should stay above 8 per 9 innings, so there is nothing to worry about in his ability to miss bats. I expect a similar K/BB ratio as last year, which ended up at 3.37. All things told, Beckett's biggest key to this season will be his health. If he can stay on the mound, he should bring quality innings to this rotation, and contribute about 3-4 fWAR.
Buchholz is a must harder case to project. The 27 year old experienced a breakout of sorts in 2010, but was injured in June of last season and was unable to return for the rest of the season. Durability is the biggest question plaguing the Red Sox number three started. 2010 was the first season he pitched a full season at the Major League level, and even then he managed only 28 starts and 173.2 innings. As far as his actual pitching ability, he should be a very solid middle of the rotation starter if he can stay on the field. He induces ground balls about half the time, leading to a lower-than-usual opponents BABIP. Opponents have hit .279, .261, and .264 on balls in play the last three years, respectively. He doesn't have dominating strike out totals, with a K-rate in the 6-per-9 range the past three seasons. Buchholz also posts a decent mid-3's walk rate. Home runs are probably the biggest issue with him. In the breakout 2010 campaign, he held his HR-rate to 0.47, the only time in his career he's held that number below one. He probably won't sniff a rate that low again, but he can probably keep it around 0.8, assuming he is still able to keep the ball on the ground. Defense will be a big key for Buchholz. If the infield can keep balls in front of them, he should see some success as a ground ball pitcher. As long as he stays healthy, a 2-3 win season is very realistic for Buchholz, with a 3-4 win season as his probable ceiling. However, that is very valuable for a team with two very good pitchers at the top of their rotation, and one of the best lineups in the league.
The back end of the Red Sox rotation remains largely a mystery. Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt and Joe Saunders all still lurk in free agency. Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves are both expected to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training. The team also added Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva to minor league deals for depth, have Felix Doubront on the horizon, and are reportedly looking at Vicente Padilla as well. With all those question marks, it is important the top of their rotation is sound. Jon Lester should be a capable ace, and the Killer B's should compliment him well, just so long that they can stay on the mound, which is a pretty big if when it comes to the two of them.