Sports

Blasberg ’18: Red Sox’ bullpen is team’s most attractive asset

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, March 2, 2017

After they were swept in last fall’s American League Division Series, the Boston Red Sox have reported to Fort Myers, Florida for spring training. Expectations for this year’s team have been soaring with the return of last season’s Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello, and MVP runner-up, Mookie Betts. While the Red Sox were the offensive leader in almost every category last season, the front office traded for five-time All-Star pitcher Chris Sale, giving the Red Sox three aces in their starting pitching staff in Sale, Porcello and David Price to complement their offense. Despite the Sox’ potent offensive weapons and starting pitchers, their greatest strength lies in their bullpen.

Great pitching wins championships. As baseball evolves, though, less of that pitching needs to come from the starter, while the bullpen takes on a much heavier role, both eating up innings to get the team through the season and shutting down opposing offenses in tight, late-game situations. The Red Sox have a history of overlooking their bullpen needs and having bad luck with the relievers they do get. Often, the Red Sox pass up good relievers for power-hitting righties who have the right swing to hit balls over Fenway’s Green Monster. These acquisitions, like Wily Mo Peña and Yoenis Céspedes, rarely pan out, as the hitters often get too pull-happy and stop hitting for average.

In the bullpen last season, the Red Sox got unlucky with the two relievers they acquired in Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel. Smith needed season-ending Tommy John surgery just one month into the campaign and Kimbrel was ineffective for a large portion of last season due to knee issues. This increased the load for the other pitchers and took a toll toward the end of the season.

The outlook for the Red Sox’ bullpen this season is positive. With Kimbrel — who is now healthy — Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes, they have three pitchers who consistently throw in the high 90s. When Smith returns to the field — probably in June — the Sox will have three quality lefties in the bullpen with Smith, Fernando Abad and Robby Scott. This simply gives the team more options and favorable matchups in close-game situations.

There are a few key offseason events that led to this year’s bullpen looking so promising. First, Kelly has fully transitioned from a starter to a reliever. Last season, Kelly’s role with the team was in limbo as he spent a chunk of time in the minor leagues with the Red Sox’ AAA team, Pawtucket, as a starter. But late in the season, the team’s needs took him from Pawtucket to the Boston bullpen. Although he was a reliable bullpen arm, his mid-season transition left a lot of room for error in managing him.

Another major improvement to the bullpen will be Kimbrel’s recovery. He came to the Red Sox in a blockbuster trade but struggled to get quick outs, especially in non-save situations. He was on the disabled list for about a month in July after knee surgery, and he may have come back too early, as his confidence and command often wavered. The offseason gave Kimbrel a chance to fully recover, and reports from spring training indicate that he is healthy and throwing confidently again. The third key event was the acquisition of Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers. The promising, young pitcher who can handle a hefty workload was a footnote in the offseason that brought in Sale, but his arrival eases the job for the other relievers while giving American League opponents a look that they are unfamiliar with.

While the media likes to focus on the stars, like Mookie Betts and Chris Sale, the Red Sox’ relief pitchers may be the players who make the difference between playoff appearances and playoff victories.

Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at charles_blasberg@brown.edu.