The underrated Red Sox bullpen
The Boston Red Sox have an effective, deep and underrated bullpen
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 27, 2018 – Source: Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America)
Since before the 2018 season even began, people have been clamoring for the Boston Red Sox to improve their bullpen. The group from last year, which is nearly identical to this year’s rendition, was perceived as too inconsistent and thereby unreliable. This perception stuck, despite the fact the 2017 Sox bullpen posted the second-lowest ERA (3.15) in baseball. There seemed to be too much Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree for people’s taste and it seemed impossible that triumvirate could be key cogs in the ‘pen the following season.
Well, the 2018 season is here (and beautifully so) and Barnes (2.75 ERA and 0.4 fWAR), Kelly (2.11 ERA and 0.7 fWAR) and Hembree (4.91 ERA and 0.2 fWAR) are the top three in innings pitched among BoSox relievers. In fact, they have thrown 62 of the 159 innings Boston’s relieving corps has compiled to date, which, for those math whizzes out there, is approximately 40 percent of the total innings.
Kelly has kicked it into another gear, increasing his K/9 from 8.07 in ’17 to 10.13 thus far in ’18. Correspondingly, Tyler Durden (sorry, I meant Joe Kelly) is eliciting swinging-strikes at the highest percentage of his career with an 11.8 SwSt%. He also has not allowed a homerun at this point, which is neat but probably unsustainable. Regardless, the right-hander leads all Red Sox relievers in fWAR, even edging out the immortal Craig Kimbrel in that category.
Meanwhile, Barnes has also decided to ballon his K/9 from 10.72 in ’17 to a robust 12.36 in ’18. If you have followed the right-hander’s career closely (or look at his Fangraphs page), you will notice he has increased his K/9 considerably every single season since his 2014 debut. I do not know how much further this trend can continue but he seems determined to accumulate more and more punchouts annually.
Anyway, with the good comes the bad (I guess), and 2011 1st-round selection has seen his BB/9 shoot up to an unsightly 5.49. The MLB average for a reliever is 3.66. Yikes. Still, the quality of contact against him has been virtually the same (1.73 GB/FB in both ’17 and ’18) and the savory amount of strikeouts has covered for his walk problem. He’s been more valuable the past two years than people like to give him credit for, even with his erratic tendencies.
Lastly, Hembree, who likely holds the prestigious honor of being the most berated of the three, has looked a lot better than his relatively-high ERA. For starters, his 3.61 FIP (fielding independent pitching), which strips out batted ball luck and looks at what a pitcher can control, is markedly superior to his ERA. His 10.64 K/9 is a slight improvement over last year and he is walking guys at a slightly below-average rate.
He also, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, ranks 14th among qualified relievers in SwSt% at 15.8%. This illuminates his stuff is not nearly as hittable as the perception would have you believe, as only Kimbrel possesses a better SwSt% than Hembree within the Sox’ bullpen. Moreover, the righty has surrendered the third-lowest percentage of hard contact (Hard%) of any reliever in the league at an amazing 18.8%. I mean, he has also given up the fourth-highest percentage of medium contact (Medium%) among qualified relievers, but medium is better than hard, anyway.
Kelly, Barnes and Hembree have been instrumental to Boston’s bullpen success so far. Even if you “cringe” at the terms “Boston’s bullpen and success” being next to each other in a sentence, there is no denying the numbers. The squad boasts the ninth-best ERA (3.51) in MLB with an even better 3.38 FIP, which places 6th in the league. FIP has more predictive value than ERA, too. Altogether, the boys in the Boston bullpen rank 4th in MLB in fWAR at 2.3.
Additionally, it is imperative to understand how much the bullpen has been worked. The Houston Astros ‘pen has the best ERA and FIP, but are still below the Sox in the fWAR column because they have not needed to compile as many innings (have you seen that rotation?). On the other hand, the Sox relievers have been used an average to slightly below-average amount, attaining the aforementioned 159 innings of work, which is the 19th-highest total. Boston has a good rotation, so this is not the least bit shocking. The intended takeaway, though, is the fact the bullpen has been of such high-caliber with as many innings as it has logged.
Craig Kimbrel is still one of the best relievers in baseball and certainly the best in the Sox bullpen (sorry, Jim Buchanan), in spite of this weird, unsustainable (hopefully) uptick in homeruns. Carson Smith was my dude before his injury and subsequent off-putting comments, but now it just feels like I am reminiscing about an ex-girlfriend so I shall say no more. Hector Velazquez, currently on the DL, has an impossible 1.80 ERA paired with a lowly 4.80 K/9 and is the guy to pitch to weak contact. Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden have combined for close to 25 innings and 0.4 fWAR (each bringing 0.2 fWAR to the table), even though they are just “depth pieces.”
Brian Johnson has a horrendous ERA but his underlying stats (strikeouts and walks) do not look nearly as bad, while we just saw Steven Wright return to the bigs and he looks pretty decent. It helps that both these guys, as well as Velazquez, are long men and can be used to shuffle the deck in the contingency of a rotation injury or displacement.
Tyler Thornburg, who cost the Red Sox Travis Shaw, is a thing and his rehab seems to be going well. The expectations for him to be an impact-guy may be a bit lofty, but his 2016 season was so nasty, you have to feel hopeful about his eventual presence in the Red Sox bullpen. He could be an outstanding 7th-inning man.
Austin Maddox, who was on the postseason roster for the BoSox last year, is also rehabbing on the low and could be a nice depth piece for the Sox. Brandon Workman also exists in the depths of Pawtucket’s bullpen and has proven he has the potential to be, at the very least, an adequate alternative in the bullpen.
I do not know if you have been keeping count, but I just listed 13 (12, if you do not include Smith) relievers who have proven something at the big-league level. Sure, I may have been optimistic on a few guys, and maybe you could squint and do this with most bullpens in the league, but this is an extremely underrated group. Not only has it performed remarkably well, especially relative to perception, but there seems to be quite a bit of depth here.
Perhaps Boston’s bullpen lacks a reliable 7th-inning guy, especially with Smith on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time. However, they do not need one because they have a lot of relievers who are above-average, even if they do not fit the role of a traditional “7th-inning guy.” I may hold my breath when Hembree and Barnes enter a high-pressure, late-game situation, but, if I move past my bias and am honest with reality, my next breath will be one of relief as I watch them finesse there way (for the most part) through opposing lineups. After all, this group has the 4th-best fWAR among MLB bullpens.