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What We’d Like To See In September – Part Three – The Bullpen


With the calendar turned to September, we reach the final stretch of the baseball season.  The Red Sox hold a comfortable lead in the American League East (8.5 games over the Yankees after this weekend’s games) and will have ample time to get the pieces in place for another October playoff run.  Last week we began a series in which we look at different parts of the Red Sox and identify what we’d like to see from them over the final month of the season.  Part One focused on the Red Sox starting pitchers.  Part Two focused on the position players.  In this final installment, we look at the group that will likely be the difference between a World Series berth and another first round playoff loss – the bullpen.

Photo courtesy of chowdaheadz.com
If this Red Sox bullpen does not concern you going into the postseason, then you simply have not been paying attention.  It started horribly on Opening Day, got moderately better through most of the season, but has taken a serious downturn in the past few weeks.  In other words, the unit is going in the wrong direction as they head into October.  The traditional eighth inning slot has been a revolving door all season, with no one performing well enough to lay claim to the job.  Just when you thought someone might be “the guy”, he quickly imploded. 

Photo courtesy of youtube.com
Closing Time

The only slot in the bullpen not in question, at least from a personnel perspective, is the closer.  Craig Kimbrel is one of the top closers in the game, but this is not to say he hasn’t had his issues this season.  Kimbrel was virtually light’s out in 2017, with a 1.43 ERA and a 0.681 WHIP.  This season, Kimbrel’s appearances have been an adventure. This season his ERA is nearly a run higher (2.41) and his WHIP up to 1.018.  Most telling is the jump in walks per 9 innings (1.8 in 2017, 4.3 in 2018) and decrease in strikeouts per 9 (16.4 in 2017, 13.8 in 2018).

Kimbrel missed most of Spring Training, and was managed carefully in the early part of the season.  With the large number of comfortable wins the Red Sox have had this season, they have not had to repeatedly run Kimbrel out to lock down games.  I believe this has been his problem, and one of the main reasons he has not been sharp all season.  With six games left against the Yankees and three against Cleveland, the Red Sox should have more tight games in which Kimbrel will be needed. 

The Red Sox also need to revisit the idea of Kimbrel getting multiple inning saves.  With the volatility of the rest of the bullpen, they will not have the luxury to wait for Kimbrel to start a clean ninth.  While most pitchers need rest going into the postseason, Kimbrel needs the work to get where he needs to be.


Setup to Fail

Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly:  Everyone in this group has had their opportunity to be the late inning – high leverage pitcher, (a.k.a. eighth inning guy).  None has taken advantage of the opportunity.  Add in Tyler Thornburg and Brandon Workman, and you essentially have six pitchers who are interchangeable.  All have mid-to-high 90’s fastballs (average in today’s MLB) with not much movement, average breaking balls, and lack of overall command.

Since August 1st, the situation has seriously deteriorated.  Let’s take a look inside the numbers.

Name
IP
ERA
H
ER
HR
SO
AVG
OBP
SLG
WHIP
BB/9
17.2
2.04
14
4
3
12
.226
.314
.383
1.25
4.1
16.0
2.25
13
4
1
17
.217
.246
.364
0.94
1.1
16.2
3.24
18
6
1
18
.277
.329
.387
1.384
2.7
14.2
4.30
18
7
3
12
.305
.397
.492
1.77
4.9
9.2
6.52
12
7
3
11
.293
.383
.600
1.86
5.6
11.1
7.94
13
10
4
18
.277
.346
.587
1.50
3.2

As the numbers indicate, the bullpen has had difficulties with not only allowing baserunners, but home runs as well.  Barnes, who appeared to be the frontrunner for the role, has taken the largest fall of the cliff.

At the present time, Red Sox fans hold their breath when any of the relievers above come into a close game, and these fears were realized in the first game of the weekend series against the Astros when the combination of Brasier and Kelly wasted another brilliant start by David Price by squandering a two run lead on route to a 6-3 loss.  If that was indeed a preview of the ALCS, I’ve already seen it, and don’t need to see it again.

At least two, if not three of this group needs to return to some level of consistency for the Red Sox to have any hopes of getting beyond the first round this year.  Who that will be is anyone’s guess at this point.  Don’t be surprised of at least two don’t make the playoff roster.

Middle Men

The recent trend in the playoffs has been for starters to only pitch four or five innings, before turning it over to the bullpen.  If the Red Sox are forced into this strategy, it will be a quick exit.  None in the group above instills enough confidence to bridge a three or four inning gap to Kimbrel.  However, a former starter may be the answer for an inning or possibly two (one turn through the order).  The possibilities here include either Nathan Eovaldi (assuming he isn’t a starter) and Steven Wright. 

Eovaldi has the greatest potential to be productive out of this group.  He has the stuff (100 MPH fastball and cutter) to be an effective two inning reliever.  If Alex Cora has any thoughts of using Eovaldi in this role, the transition should start sooner rather than waiting for the playoffs.  That may be the plan with Eovaldi following Chris Sale in Sale’s comeback start on Tuesday.

Wright can be an effective option as well, and contributed exactly that in Sunday night’s win over the Astros.  A knuckleballer is always a risk for walks and passed balls, but given few other viable options, Wright may be the best choice. 

Bottom Line

The 2013 went through three closers before settling on Koji Uehara.  But Koji had pitched well all season and only had to prove he had the ability to close games.  This Red Sox are hoping a few key members of the bullpen suddenly find their “A” games for this postseason as Koji did in 2013.  Hope may be all this team has at this point.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT.

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