Reimer: Red Sox bullpen is bad enough to sink this all-time great team

Alex Reimer
August 13, 2018 - 12:11 pm

USA Today Sports

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It sounds ridiculous to express concern about the Red Sox right now. They’re 50 games over .500 and already have 85 wins on the season –– matching their total from 2000, when Pedro won his second straight Cy Young and enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons ever. With a nine-game lead over the Yankees, they’re poised to coast into October. The Red Sox are the best team in baseball, and with the Astros scuffling, there isn’t even a clear second place. 

Then you watch Craig Kimbrel surrender a game-tying home run to Jason Smoak, Heath Hembree give up a game-tying blast to Joey Rickard, or Joe Kelly walk everybody in sight. All of a sudden, it sounds sensible to foster some questions about how the Red Sox will fare in the postseason. In fact, it even makes sense to harbor some doubt.

Bullpens have played an increasingly important role in October. Last season, for example, starters only threw 62.2 more innings than relievers in the playoffs. In 2016, starting pitchers worked roughly an additional 86 frames compared to their bullpen brethren. 

Over the last couple of years, managers have started to deploy their pitchers the way they should –– much to the chagrin of viewers who hate mid-inning pitching changes. It’s well-known that hitters are infinitely more successful when facing a pitcher for the third time in a single game, so skippers have shorter hooks. During last year’s wild card game, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi pulled Luis Severino with just one out in the first inning. New York won the game behind 8.2 stellar innings from its relief corps.

The Red Sox will add at least one more power arm to their bullpen in October, with Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez likely being the two hurlers who get the call. But barring an unlikely significant August waiver claim –– the Red Sox get last dibs on any player placed on waivers –– they’re going to enter the playoffs with their current group: Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Ryan Brasier and Tyler Thornburg.

When Thornburg, who missed all of 2017 and most of this season due to injury, is counted on to be a difference maker, there’s a problem. 

The biggest trepidation lies with Kimbrel, who has been lousy since the All-Star Break. He’s thrown 8.1 innings so far, allowing six runs to go along with six walks and one hit batsman. His ERA stands at 6.48 during this stretch. 

More startingly, Kimbrel has only pitched three clean innings since June 22. 

Kimbrel’s peripherals have been trending downward for a few seasons. His WHIP and walk-rate increased from 2015-16, in addition to his FIP, which attempts to calculate ERA without the variable of luck. While of those numbers rebounded in 2017, Kimbrel is down again this season, with an FIP of 3.36 –– nearly a full run higher than his ERA of 2.57. 

The main culprit for Kimbrel’s struggles, like most relievers, is lack of control. He’s walked nine batters in 15.2 innings since July 1, making him more susceptible to the long ball. Kimbrel has allowed a career-high seven homers this season. Even worse, he’s been charged with runs in five of his last seven appearances, including Saturday night in Baltimore.

There’s been lots of handwringing over Dave Dombrowski’s decision to bypass upgrading the bullpen at the trade deadline. Those are fair criticisms, considering 22 relievers were dealt in July. Dombrowski’s bullpens with the Tigers frequently imploded in October, which forebodes doom for this year’s Red Sox cast.

But even if Dombrowski did land one of the cadre of relievers who’s switched teams –– Jeurys Familia, Brad Hand, Kelvin Herrera –– that wouldn’t protect the Red Sox against Kimbrel’s seeming explosion. They’ll need him in the playoffs, whether they acquired the immortal Brad Ziegler or not. (There’s also no guarantee that deadline pickups work out. Zach Britton has been booed off the Yankee Stadium mound twice, including Saturday.)

The Red Sox’ bullpen concerns go deeper than Kimbrel as well. Since the All-Star Break, Kelly, Barnes, Hembree and Thornburg have thrown 36 innings and allowed 17 runs and 36 hits. Their average ERA is 4.13. 

The one speck of hope is Brasier, the wayward right-hander who's only allowed two runs in 15 appearances this season. While Brasier came out of nowhere, he's earning more high leverage innings. If the Red Sox are to fulfill their championship aspirations, it looks like he must morph into a reliable late-inning option. That's a big ask for a pitcher who last pitched in the big leagues in 2013. 

Recent history says a bad bullpen could be more than enough to bring down the best offense in baseball and a rotation headlined by Chris Sale. What a bummer it would be if Heath Hembree was the guy who wound up sending the Red Sox home.

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