Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Feb. 19, 2018 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox bullpen has been one of the stronger units in the league and is about to get even better. Right-handed reliever Tyler Thornburg has been throwing rehab outings with the Pawtucket Red Sox and should join the roster sooner rather than later. (Update: Thornburg was promoted to the major league roster on July 3rd). It’s been a year and a half since acquiring the talented reliever, and many fans have forgotten how he fits into the big picture. Make no mistake, Tyler Thornburg’s return is a welcome addition that will only make the club even better.
Tyler Thornburg’s return affects the Red Sox in a big way
Who is Tyler Thornburg?
It wasn’t that long ago that Thornburg was one of the best young relievers in the game. His 2016 season was so good that it inspired Dave Dombrowski to ship over Travis Shaw, Mauricio Dubon, Josh Pennington, and Yeison Coca for his services. While Thornburg will never be good enough to justify trading away that much talent, he’s certainly capable of being a big arm in the Red Sox bullpen.
In his last healthy season, Thornburg showed an ability to be a three-pitch reliever, consistently getting guys out with his fastball, changeup, and curveball. Per Fangraphs, Thornburg’s fastball sits around 95 miles per hour, so he has good velocity. Additionally, Thornburg’s curveball is so good that he threw it just under 25% of the time in 2016.
Thornburg finished his 2016 season striking out just under 35% of the batter he faced while walking just 9.5%. Batters hit just .161/.247/.294 against him, and Thornburg’s 2.15 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 2.83 FIP are phenomenal numbers. These numbers likely won’t be as good in 2018, as Thornburg held opposing batters to an unsustainably low .229 BABIP. However, Thornburg is still a great pitcher capable of getting hitters out in big moments.
What is Thornburg’s role?
If there’s one thing that first-year manager Alex Cora has made abundantly clear, it’s that he will not rush players back and risk re-injury. With that in mind, Thornburg will probably spend the first few weeks on the roster with a very limited workload. Chances are, he won’t pitch in back-to-back games or go more than one inning at a time for a little while.
While this may be frustrating to some, as bullpen depth is something of an issue on this team, it is undoubtedly the right move. Thornburg lost the past season and a half of baseball to injury, and the Red Sox can’t afford to lose him again. It’s far more important to have him in September than July, and Cora’s been playing the long game all season.
However, when he can handle a full workload, expect him to step up as either the second or third option behind Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel just recorded his 300th save, becoming the youngest pitcher in MLB history to do so. He’s arguably the best reliever in the game, and Thornburg will never be better than him. Current setup man Joe Kelly hasn’t allowed a run since his Opening Day implosion. (Update: Joe Kelly has allowed a run since Opening Day, but his stats are still solid. Kelly currently owns a 3.57 ERA and a 3.79 FIP). Quite frankly, Kelly’s been one of the best members of the team ever since punching out Tyler Austin, and the setup role should be his so long as he keeps up this pace.
This leaves the 7th inning to Thornburg, and this trio should form one of the best late-inning groupings in baseball. Thornburg, Kelly, and Kimbrel can shut down any lineup, so if the starting pitcher can make it to the sixth inning with the led, the game’s basically over.
The Unfiltered Take
Basically, Tyler Thornburg can take this bullpen to a whole new level. Kimbrel has no active peer, and Kelly has been pitching out of his mind, but there’s not much depth behind them. With Thornburg on the roster, that three-headed bullpen monster can hold a lead against any offense in baseball.
A lot of this relies on Thornburg finding his 2016 form, which is obviously anything but a given. However, he’s shown potential Pawtucket, and his pitch movement looks as good as ever. Doing it against minor leaguers is obviously different than doing it against the pros, but Thornburg looks like he still has his top stuff. Just look at this curveball. Babe Ruth would struggle to hit that.
Thornburg’s presence also allows players like Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree to take on more specialized roles. Both players are capable of serving a role in a major league bullpen, but neither should serve as setup men. With Thornburg present, they won’t have to.
Boston already has a top-five offense and one of the best starting rotations in baseball. Up to this point of the season, their bullpen has merely been “good”. With Thornburg, the bullpen has the potential to be great. If the righty reliever can recapture his old form, the Boston Red Sox will no longer have a weak link on the roster and become that much harder to beat.