The three moments that left the Red Sox pitching weak, and doomed to failure

Red Sox

The pitching staff’s performance has nosedived over the last month due to reasons that might have been out of their control, but they failed to deliver in the one area they had control.

Tanner Houck’s scary and unlucky injury caused the Red Sox’ bullpen to be overused through much of the summer. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Are you enjoying one of the worst Septembers in Red Sox franchise history?

That’s saying something, as we’ve seen some doozies just in the plenty successful modern era. The collapse of 2011’s “Best Team Ever,” with seven starting pitchers all unable to produce an ERA under 5.00. The fork-in-the-back 2012 bunch under Bobby Valentine, who were actually worse by record — 7-22, to the prior year’s 7-20. The mutiny bunch of 2001 under miscast fill-in Joe Kerrigan. The last-place double of 2019-2020.

These Red Sox might outdo them all on the raw numbers. After Brayan Bello’s egg on Wednesday in Texas, the staff’s September ERA rose to 5.51 — tied with 2012 for second-worst in franchise history, behind only 2011 (5.84). And that’s with them putting together a pretty good week, the full rotation — Tanner Houck, Bello, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, and Kutter Crawford — all throwing six innings back to back in the immediate aftermath of Chaim Bloom’s firing.

It doesn’t much matter. The formal playoff ouster came Wednesday night, the crowning of a new baseball operations boss will come in time for an offseason rebuild, and we will reconvene in the spring with some level of optimism about whatever it is they did.

Consider how quickly those awful Septembers above gave way to contending ones, and how thin the barrier is between playoffs and not in the modern game. (If Houston slips from a playoff spot, half the October 2023 field will be different than the 2022 one.)

There will be time enough to consider the directions to take to make that jump. Let’s think about how this went so wrong. Three happenings leap immediately to mind.

Zach Eflin chooses the Rays

Bloom’s last winter with the Red Sox featured a good amount of turnover, but almost none of it included the starting staff. Masataka Yoshida, Justin Turner, and Adam Duvall for the lineup. Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin, among others, for the bullpen. Corey Kluber was the big add, and even before the 37-year-old floppped, expectations were low.

Would Eflin, who leads Tampa Bay with 30 starts, a 15-8 record, and a 3.44 ERA after he fanned 10 in five innings Thursday, have been a savior of the season? Probably not alone; in the top fifth of the league for groundball rate, Boston’s defense would have dinged those numbers.

He absolutely would’ve changed the perception of the staff, though, and very well might have earned Bloom another winter.

An Orlando native who had an affinity for both teams growing up, the Sox pushed hard to add the former Phillies swingman, but reportedly offered the same three years and $40 million that the Rays did and Eflin opted for his hometown club.

Stings a bit more given his results, and that the franchises are not exactly on equal financial footing. At least on the latter point, the Sox offer was — according to the Globe — used as leverage with Tampa, and they did not get the option to raise it after the Rays matched.

Tanner Houck’s bad break

In the Garrett Whitlock and Houck pairing, Whitlock has long been viewed as the more likely starter given a deeper mix of pitches. Houck, a sinker-slider righty in his first three seasons working primarily out of the bullpen, sought to change that by adding a cutter for 2023.

The results were mixed: Used about 20 percent of the time against lefties, they missed it on about a fifth of their swings. Though it has a .234 batting average against for the year, Houck had largely stopped using it by the time he took a liner to the cheek on June 16 against the Yankees.

And to be fair, he had a 5.44 ERA in the nine starts prior to that night, the Sox winning just two of those games. But they also scored two or fewer runs in all seven losses, and Houck had established himself as able to work deep into games in a way the team lacked all year.

His time in the rotation was already an admission that injuries had left the Red Sox thin. They largely turned to bullpen games for his turn across the two months he missed. From June 17-Aug. 21, Sox relievers threw the second-most innings in the sport, a grind that’s hardly slowed since his return.

And since Houck’s return, the Sox bullpen has a 5.46 ERA, the fifth-worst in baseball.

The silence at the deadline

You could make the case that each of the above items were largely out of Bloom’s control. He can’t make the Red Sox be closer to Orlando, and he couldn’t do anything about a fluke injury.

He could, however, have made the hard decision and sold on this team in either of the last two years.

Since Bloom’s firing, the stories have come out about some of the trades he didn’t make. Sale, and all of the money he was owed, after his broken finger in 2022. Soon-to-depart free agents Nate Eovaldi and Rich Hill last summer. James Paxton this summer, as well as Turner, who according to the Globe could’ve gone to the Marlins for “Edward Cabrera — a 25-year-old righthanded starter with a potentially dominant fastball — and more.”

Ultimately, the baseball boss tried to thread the needle between contention and selling last season, whiffed on his big potential addition last winter, and chose to cross his fingers this summer that a team of “underdogs” could put together a run to a wild card spot.

It was a questionable bet at best in the moment — I was more OK with it than most — and it only gets worse by the day. If history remembers it at all, it’ll likely be as the final inaction that cost Bloom his job.

And helped lead to another ugly September around these parts, on which another administration will hopefully have the success building as those who’ve come before.


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