Opinion

Is Jalen Beeks the lefty the Red Sox need?

Jalen Beeks deserves a closer look as a reliever

Mandatory Credit for featured image: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of conversation around Red Sox circles as to whom will occupy the fifth spot in the rotation come Opening Day. Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright are both question marks to start the season healthy, with Wright also having to worry  about a potential suspension after being charged with domestic assault over the winter. The perception seems to be that neither will be ready to begin the year, meaning the Red Sox will need someone else to fill the role.

Assuming Boston is looking internally, they have five pitchers to choose from: Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, Roenis Elias, Chandler Shepherd and Jalen Beeks. All five are on the 40-man roster, so it is logical to speculate one will get the nod. Each has a valid case that they should be “the guy,” and for quality of content purposes, I’ll briefly — like, really briefly — talk about their respective merits.

  • Brian Johnson (LHP): He’s out of minor league options and made five decent starts for the Red Sox in 2017. His stats, minor and major league, aren’t all that impressive, though.
  • Hector Velazquez (RHP): Purchased from the Mexican league, he is probably the best run suppressor of the group. He also appeared in eight games for the Sox last year. It is a plus he is right-handed because Boston has three lefties penciled in the rotation (Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz and David Price).
  • Roenis Elias (LHP): He has the most major league experience of the group and, similar to his friends above, pitched for the BoSox in ’17. It works against him that he is a southpaw (probably) and there’s also the fact he hasn’t been a quality pitcher since 2015.
  • Chandler Shepherd (RHP): He has pretty impressive peripherals and, at 25, should still have some upside. Currently, he is trying to convert from reliever to starter this spring training, limiting the likelihood he will get the call right away. In 125 games pitched for the Red Sox’ organization, he has started in three of them.
  • Jalen Beeks (LHP): At the ripe age of 24, he is the youngest of the group, while arguably having the best peripherals. He is a lefty, though, and has three minor league options.

I told you that would be succinct. The favorites to occupy the last spot in the rotation are Johnson, Velazquez and Elias. Beeks and Shepherd aren’t huge contenders, barring otherworldly spring training performances. Even if I had to pick, it wouldn’t be Beeks. I would probably go Velazquez, maybe Johnson. So, yeah, that contradicts the title of the post, doesn’t it? I just threw a big curveball at you and might be thinking: “where the hell are you going with this?” Well, allow me to explain.

Boston has an obvious potential need in the back of their rotation. I mean, I just spent 400+ words talking about it. They also have some other polarizing roster spot battles going on — think, Blake Swihart. While all the attention is being given to these sexier occupation (fifth starter and bench warmer), many are losing sight of the fact the Red Sox could probably use a more reliable left-handed reliever out of the bullpen.

Currently, Robby Scott, who held left-handed hitters to a .119 batting average in 20.2 innings pitched in ’17, is their southpaw. I’m not going to lie, that’s kind of a good number. Left-handers did not do their best hitting against the 28-year-old last season, but it may not be entirely because of Scott’s pitching prowess.

Perhaps he is just not a big strikeout or command guy, relying more on the weak batted ball, but his 4.51 FIP against lefties in a small sample size last season, is not particularly impressive. Just looking at peripherals is foolhardy, though, and there is something to be said for the fact that, according to Fangraphs, he posted the 12th-best Soft% (soft contact) against left-handed batters among pitchers with at least 20 innings. That’s a very meaningful stat, despite the sample size.

With that said, among pitchers with a minimum of 20 IP, Scott had the lowest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) at .111 against left-handed hitters in 2017. The second-lowest was Felipe Rivero with a .149 BABIP. Now, pitchers have some control over their BABIPs, sort of. If you induce softer/weaker contact, like Scott did last season, you’re obviously going to be more likely to have a lower BABIP. But a .111 BABIP? That’s very much unsustainable. A lot of those balls will begin to find holes in the defense and Scott’s numbers won’t look nearly as alluring against lefties going forward.

In fact, since 2002, using the same innings minimum (20), Scott’s 2017 BABIP against left-handed hitters is the lowest of pitcher in a single season. Wow, this sounds eerily familiar. What’s up with Red Sox’ players and BABIPs against lefties on both sides of the diamond?

Anyway, expect negative regression, here. Scott still profiles as an above-average pitcher against lefties in ’18, but he was worth -0.4 fWAR for Boston last season. He is terrible against righties and not as good against lefties as people think. Even though he is a lefty-specialist, there are going to be inevitable times when he faces righties. In 15 innings last year, Scott produced a 6.42 FIP facing right-handed batters.

Combine these factors and it’s questionable whether Scott should be their left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. Above everything, this should tell us he should definitely not be the only southpaw out of the ‘pen, which is what Roster Resources projects at the moment.

This perfectly transitions us to Jalen Beeks, the subject of this post. He pitched almost 100 quality innings in Triple-A last year, so he should be ready to face big league competition, if manager Alex Cora were to go this route. Below, I have a table, with an extra row I don’t know how to delete, but a table nonetheless. The table shows Beeks’ statistics over the past two seasons. You should be able to see the improvement.

Season IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
2016 (A+) 67.1 7.35 3.21 3.07 4.90
2016 (AA) 65.1 7.71 3.86 4.68 4.22
2017 (AA) 49.1 10.58 4.01 2.19 3.18
2017 (AAA) 95.2 9.13 3.10 3.86 3.77

After being a middle-of-the-pack strikeout guy in ’16, the southpaw utilized his new-found ability to miss bats in ’17 to achieve better results. His stint in Double-A last year was phenomenal, despite some problems in the command department. The next stop in Triple-A was very good, as well, posting one of the lowest BB/9 of his career while still maintaining above-average strikeout numbers.

The takeaway is Beeks has been a pretty good pitcher in the minors. He has improved with age and has the ability to miss bats while not issuing too many free passes. All of those are good signs. He also has been basically equally effective opposing lefties and righties in his minor-league career, therefore, he won’t be the lefty-specialist that Scott is.  So, why in the world would you want to convert him from a starter to a reliever?

Well, the truth is Beeks probably fits better as a reliever than as a starter. I’ll let SoxProspects.com’s summation of the young lefty explain why.

Profiles best in a middle relief role due to size, delivery, and past arm issues. In shorter stints, Beeks could sit 94-95 mph with two effective off-speed pitches from the left side, allowing him to be effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters.

Retweet. Further in the summation of Beeks they said he has the potential to have a nice four-pitch mix, which is wonderful if he were to continue the path of a starting pitcher. However, as they said, he would likely gain velocity on his pitches out of the bullpen. If this were the case, it is certainly feasible to imagine him having an uptick in his strikeout numbers, which thereby would lead to better results.

Beeks is young and talented but he’s not a top prospect by any means. At his current trajectory, he profiles as a fringe back of the rotation piece. This isn’t to say he can’t take a significant step forward. He could! Anyone can, especially a 24-year-old. If he can fix his erratic delivery, then maybe we are talking about a guy with better control, ergo better numbers.

We cannot live in a realm of hypothetical, though. At present, we have an idea of what Betts is. He is a left-handed pitcher who can get outs regardless of the handiness of the hitter and is likely better suited for relief work. As such, does replacing him with Scott make perfect sense? No, but he is better a pitcher than him, probably. Plus, Scott has two minor league options remaining, so he wouldn’t be out of the system if this were the case.

I don’t know. Maybe replace him with Heath Hembree? He has been okay for two years but has a legitimate home run problem. How sure are we that Thornburg is going to perform like the aberration year he had in 2016? Relievers are fickle beasts. Additionally, it’s not a bad thing to have two lefties in your bullpen.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is he starts the year in the minors, converts to relief work and comes up when he proves his worth or an urgent need arises. It’s an easier path for him to become a left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen than as a starter for the Red Sox, anyway.

Truthfully, I’m not completely devoted to the idea of Beeks starting the year with the big league club. I am, however, bullish and intrigued with the idea of him converting to a reliever. I would love to see how his stuff would play up in that capacity and I think you, dear reader, would too. He may not be the left-handed pitcher we deserve, but he may be the one that Boston needs right now.

You’re damn right I ended the article with a Dark Knight reference.

 

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