Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Sept. 17, 2018 – Source: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox bullpen blew another late-inning lead Tuesday night, dropping a 3-2 loss to the New York Yankees. Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox bullpen has blown 12 leads, tied for the most in baseball with the Miami Marlins. While most of Red Sox Nation is panicking over the state of the bullpen, all of this is completely reactionary and unnecessary. There’s no reason to worry about the Boston Red Sox bullpen, as the unit will be fine for the postseason.
The Boston Red Sox Bullpen Will Be Fine
While most assume that the Red Sox bullpen is bad, the numbers do not back up that assessment. As of this posting, the Red Sox bullpen currently has the sixth-best ERA (3.55) and seventh-best FIP (3.80) in all of baseball.
These numbers were even better at the halfway point of the season. Entering the second half of the year, the Red Sox bullpen had the seventh-best ERA in baseball (3.15) and the sixth-best FIP (3.29). By every measurement, this bullpen was one of the best in the league and is still one of the better units in baseball. That said, there has been a drop in production over the second half. However, when looking at the causes for said production drop, there’s really no reason to worry about poor performances in the playoffs.
Why the Second Half Hasn’t Been As Good
For one, the Boston Red Sox bullpen has been asked to pitch an absurd amount of innings. After Tuesday’s action, the bullpen had pitched 204.2 innings in the second half, eighth most in the majors. Naturally, throwing more innings leads to more runs and forces manager Alex Cora to use more relievers than he’d like. Some of this poor production is artificially inflated because the Red Sox bullpen is simply being asked to do too much.
This problem should solve itself as the season comes to a close. Chris Sale missed a sizable portion of the second half, but he will be back for the playoffs. Sale, among other things, is a master at eating innings and going deep into games. With Sale’s return, Brian Johnson will move back to the bullpen. A typical Johnson start is lucky to go five innings, so that’s saving the bullpen two to four innings of work every five games.
While this is a partial reason for the bullpen struggles, it’s not the only one. Several players have had poor second halves, but most of those guys won’t be on the postseason roster. Additionally, Alex Cora’s long-term philosophy has led to some short-term struggles in order to ensure long-term security.
The Bad Performances
When looking at the recent bullpen struggles as it relates to the postseason, it’s important to take out the data from players who stand no shot of making the postseason roster. Take Drew Pomeranz, for instance. In the second half of the season, Pomeranz has pitched 18.2 innings to the tune of a 5.79 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. Pomeranz has been terrible by just about every measure, but there’s no real reason to worry about him because he will not be on the postseason roster. This team already did everything it needed to in the regular season, so all of Pomeranz’ struggles become null and void when preparing for the postseason.
Likewise, Tyler Thornburg has also been a trainwreck in the second half. Through 20.2 second-half innings, Thornburg owns a 5.66 ERA and an atrocious 6.78 FIP. If he were projected to make the Red Sox postseason roster, there would be a very real reason for concern. However, he is not, so there’s no reason to worry about how bad he’s been.
Pomeranz and Thornburg aren’t alone here. Several other players like William Cuevas and even guys like Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez have poor second-half numbers but find themselves on the outside looking in for playoff spots. The bullpen would be in bad shape if these players and their terrible numbers were likely to make the playoff roster. However, the Red Sox are in good enough shape that they won’t need these players for October baseball.
The players who are slated to pitch in October have actually done a pretty good job of late. Craig Kimbrel, who struggled in August, has yet to allow a hit in September, much less a run. Steven Wright, fresh off the disabled list, has yet to allow a run through seven innings of September baseball. Ryan Brasier has a 2.16 ERA and a 2.67 FIP. Matt Barnes should be healthy for the postseason, but even if he’s not, these three are more than capable of finishing a game.
There’s another reason why the Boston Red Sox bullpen has allowed an MLB-worst 12 blown leads in the second half, and it comes down to situational usage. With the division all but wrapped up, manager Alex Cora has basically used the final month of the season as an extended spring training. He’s used players in situations he never would in the playoffs in order to find out what his players can and cannot do.
Tuesday’s loss to the Yankees is a perfect example of this. The Red Sox entered the top of the seventh with a 1-0 lead, and Cora sent out Brandon Workman, not Ryan Brasier, to start the inning. Workman struggled, and Brasier came in with two runners on base. Brasier then proceeded to allow a three-run home run, causing fans across Red Sox Nation to lose their collective minds.
If this game were played in the postseason, the seventh inning script would have been completely different. Workman’s a solid arm, but Brasier is clearly the better choice for a clean inning. Similarly, while Brasier is great in clean innings, he struggles with inherited runners. Prior to yesterday’s loss, Brasier allowed seven of 15 inherited runners to score. Heath Hembree, meanwhile, owns the 11th-best stranded rate in the majors at 75%.
If I know about these numbers, then you can bet that Cora does too. Were Cora managing this game in the postseason, he would have either started the inning with Brasier or turned to Hembree after Workman got in trouble. However, since wins and losses don’t really matter anymore, Cora wanted to see if Brasier and Workman could handle different roles. Yesterday, they couldn’t, and that’s fine. It’s better to learn these things in meaningless regular season games than in the playoffs.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Cora’s made several unconventional moves over the past few weeks all in the name of learning what his players can and cannot do. Whether that means using Steven Wright in save situations (it worked) or putting in Brasier with inherited runners (it didn’t), Cora’s using the final month to determine players strengths and weaknesses. Overanalyzing the results of an experimental procedure like this is a fruitless exercise.
Unfiltered Thoughts on the Red Sox Bullpen
While the Red Sox bullpen has blown 12 leads in the second half, there’s no reason to worry. Just about all of the bad results are due to an overstressed bullpen, poor performances by guys who won’t make the postseason roster, and experimental usage which won’t carry over into the postseason.
Come playoff time, none of these problems should be an issue. Getting Chris Sale back will help relieve strain on the bullpen, and thus the Red Sox relievers can be more effective. Genuinely bad players like Drew Pomeranz and Tyler Thornburg won’t be pitching in the postseason, and their bad numbers make the Red Sox bullpen look a lot worse than it is.
Additionally, once the playoffs roll around Cora will go back to using players in roles which better suit their strengths. Ryan Brasier will stop coming in with inherited runners, and guys like William Cuevas will stop pitching in the eighth inning.
All this is one long way of saying the Boston Red Sox bullpen will be fine. While it’s not a perfect bullpen by any means, it’s still one of the better units in baseball. And it’s more than good enough to bring home another World Series title.