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Tony La Russa reveals one obvious way to torch a bullpen, which Red Sox couldn't avoid in August

John Tomase
September 04, 2018 - 12:36 pm

Tony La Russa basically invented the modern bullpen, with its specialists and setup men clearing a path to the closer. And when he discusses the ideal of mix of complements, he hits upon the issue that plagued the Red Sox relief corps perhaps as much as anything else in August.

It's all about not wasting bullets.

Appearing on OMF recently, La Russa laid out a problem area he tried to avoid.

"Here's one of the principles, that's real obvious, but some people just skip it, and that is, say you have your four top bullpen guys -- you have your left-handed guy, the guys who pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, your closer, and two or three other guys -- you really don't want those key guys to pitch innings that are not really critical," La Russa said. "If you're way ahead or way behind, anytime you're short in the bullpen and they have to pitch three outs, that's wasted pitches."

Red Sox manager Alex Cora knows this and has done his best to avoid it, but August presented unique challenges, with starters Chris Sale, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez sidelined for some or all of the month, and his bullpen depth pushed to the limit.

That led to overuse among his principal setup men -- Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg -- with disastrous results. While Kelly pitched pretty well after an awful July, Hembree and Barnes in particular looked gassed.

Barnes allowed an OPS of 1.044 for the month, with Hembree at 1.033 and Thornburg checking in at .914. There wasn't much Cora could do about it, because long men Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez were pushed into the rotation.

"Length in the bullpen, like if you have an injury to Price the other day or a case where the game has gotten away, where you can finish the game, stay competitive because you've got a great offense and might jump into it and only use up one or two pitchers," La Russa said. "So if you could have length, preferably a righty and a lefty, and then you have some versatility with your guys so they're not just specialists."

A snapshot of the issues the Red Sox faced last month came in a 19-12 victory over the Orioles on Aug. 10. The Red Sox trailed 8-3 after three innings and 8-5 entering the sixth following a putrid start from Nathan Eovaldi. The Red Sox rallied to take leads of 11-8 in the sixth and 14-10 in the seventh, burning through their entire bullpen in the process.

Hembree took the sixth, Ryan Brasier the seventh, Barnes the eighth, and Kelly the ninth with a 19-11 lead. With Velazquez scheduled to start the second half of a doubleheader the next day and Johnson unavailable because he had just thrown seven innings two days earlier, the Red Sox had nothing in the way of length.

So Cora had no choice but to waste bullets.

With September here and rosters expanded, reinforcements have arrived. Knuckleballer Steven Wright will audition as an innings-eating setup man. William Cuevas can absorb some lumps in a blowout. Bobby Poyner and Robby Scott are available for, say, the ninth inning of 19-11 games.

That should allow Cora to back off his horses in ways the roster simply didn't allow a month ago. It sounds obvious, but there's wisdom in La Russa's words: Don't burn your best pitchers in situations that don't matter.