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Which Starting Pitcher Should Be the Red Sox Ace Come October?

After dominating the Dodgers, is Jake Peavy standing in the shadows to start Game 1 of the playoffs for the Red Sox? (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Boston Red Sox lead the American League East by one-and-a-half measly games over the Tampa Bay Rays. If I learned anything from 2011, it’s never to assume the Red Sox will make the playoffs. (Thankfully my glasses are protecting me from my natural instinct of clawing my eyes out at the mere mention of that season.)

For whatever reason, though, I’m not that panicky about this team, and the question raised on Sunday Night Baseball by Dan Shulman and Curt Schilling intrigued me: who would manager John Farrell send to the mound for the Red Sox in Game 1 of the playoffs, or (heaven forbid, unless the alternative is missing the playoffs entirely) the wildcard play-in game?

Let’s take a look at our eligible bachelors:

Jon Lester

(27 GS, 172.1 IP, 12-7, 3.97 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, .258 AVG, 7.36 K/9, 2.98 BB/9)

Prior to 2012, Lester had long been tabbed as the next Red Sox ace. It always seems like a least a handful of talking heads pick him to take home a Cy Young at the end of the upcoming season. Lester hasn’t bounced back from last year’s disastrous line (9-14, 4.82 ERA, a paltry 0.4 Wins Above Replacement), undergoing a rough middle part of the season that saw him sport a 7.62 ERA for the month of June. He seems to have turned a bit of a corner (fingers crossed) in his last four starts, giving up just four earned runs over 29 innings. Dating back to the beginning of July, he’s given up three runs or less in eight of his last ten appearances. Red Sox Nation knows Lester has the stuff and pedigree of an ace; the question remains if he can maintain this level of excellence into October, or whether he’ll hit another lull/swoon/epic collapse, just like he did following a scorching start in April.

John Lackey

(23 GS, 147.2 IP, 8-11, 3.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, .249 AVG, 7.92 K/9, 1.95 BB/9)

If you’ll pardon the overwrought baseball pun, Lackey’s 2013 season has been a complete curveball out of left field. Coming off one of the worst seasons ever for a starting pitcher (6.41 ERA, -2.1, I repeat negative two-point-one WAR) before missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, Lackey has been remarkable on the mound. Despite the losing record, Lackey leads the team in ERA and quality starts (16 out of 23). In fact, By my count, Lackey has eight quality starts in which he’s either left with a no-decision or been saddled with a loss. No Red Sox starter has been

Jake Peavy*

(5 GS, 32.2 IP, 2-1, 3.31 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, .220 AVG, 5.51 K/9, 1.38 BB/9)

*Only accounts for his starts in a Red Sox uniform

Even with the bevy of web gems coming from the glovework of Jose Iglesias, it’s hard to argue with the results of the trade for Peavy. Outside of one rough start against the Kansas City Royals, Peavy has been even better than advertised, giving up no more than two runs in four of his five starts for Boston. His latest was particularly masterful, a one-run, three-hit complete game against the hottest team in baseball, the pre-September 2011 Red Sox Los Angeles Dodgers. If he can spin such gems, why not throw the former Cy Young winner into the Game 1 fray? If anything, he might unnerve opposing batters by constantly screaming at himself – if that’s how he treats himself, what’s he going to do to the guy digging in at home plate???

Felix Doubront

(23 GS, 140.0 IP, 9-6, 3.79 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, .255 AVG, 7.84 K/9, 3.73 BB/9)

Sadly, I think we’re a ways off from Doubront challenging Felix Hernandez for the title of “King.” Don’t get me wrong; Doubront has been surprisingly effective all season (unless you’re baseball whiz Jonah Keri), with 14 quality starts on the year. If you would have told me in March that Doubront would tally just one less quality start than Lester by this point, I would have responded by shaking my head and muttering curses about the last place Red Sox. But let’s be honest – Doubront is as likely to start Game 1 in the playoffs as he is to abdicate the title and throne of King Felix.

Ryan Dempster

(25 GS, 145.1 IP, 6-9, 4.77 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, .260 AVG, 8.17 K/9, 3.96 BB/9)

If someone asked me if Dempster should start in the playoffs – let alone Game 1! – I would only have one possible response. So let’s not waste time pretending Dempster will be doing anything other than pitching out of the bullpen a la 2012 Tim Lincecum come October.

Clay Buchholz

(12 GS, 84.1 IP, 9-0, 1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, .193 AVG, 8.64 K/9, 3.09 BB/9)

I know, I know, he just required 38 pitches to make it through all of two outs at Single-A Lowell. His candidacy for #1 starter on the Red Sox is almost solely based on the nostalgia surrounding his magical start to 2013 before his Achilles heel turned out to be in his collarbone/AC joint. (Moral of the story: always make your kids sleep at the foot of your bed with the dog.) But considering there was no better pitcher in baseball through his first 12 starts, Buchholz can’t be ruled out entirely.

Unfortunately, there’s no one pitcher who inspires supreme confidence, since the Red Sox boast more depth than top-level star talent. And the potential jinx factor this post contains may render this entire debate pointless. (That seems like it should be an advanced metric – Potential Jinx Factor, or PJF, which could be sabermetricized further into isolated PJF or xPJF. Make it happen, Nate Silver!)

But barring the return of the Curse of the Bambino, or a sudden return to form from Buchholz, I suppose I’d roll the dice with Lester or (dare I say it?) Lackey in that first game of the 2013 postseason, depending on the concentration of lefties and righties in the opposing lineup. Unless anyone thinks Schilling might be interested in a comeback? After all, he could probably use the money.

About Nick Bohlen - @ndbohlen

Nick is an editor and regular contributor for the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox sections of SoB. (Despite growing up in Vermont, just a short drive from Canada, hockey never really caught on with him.) Follow him on twitter: @ndbohlen

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