Despite implosion, Red Sox Bullpen will be just fine

Apr 15, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel pitches during the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 15, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel pitches during the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox bullpen woes will prove to be an aberration, as their stuff is simply too good to fail.

This past weekend’s series versus the incumbent American League East champions functioned to elucidate exploitable imperfections in the Red Sox roster as presently constructed, as illustrated by the comprehensive and thorough dismantling of the Red Sox bullpen.

However, as a glass-half-full type of guy, it is my intention to prove with the assistance of relevant and irrefutable statistics that, while tragically substandard, said bullpen meltdown was, in all probability, an aberration as opposed to the norm. Nevertheless, I can just visualize John Gibbons strolling up to his post-game press conference on Sunday and, in the immortal words of Denny Green, proclaiming, “They are who we thought they were.”

This weekend’s series will forever be referred to as “The great disorder north of the border,” as the Blue Jays seized two games from the Red Sox, and, very easily could have emerged victorious in all three contests.

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Late Sunday afternoon, only after the carnage had been cleared and the smoke had settled, could the damage to the Red Sox bullpen be accurately assessed. Not unlike the $4500 estimate rendered by your local body shop, despite merely scratching the bumper of the car in front of you, the statistics engendered by Boston’s bullpen during this past weekend’s series were preposterous. In just ten innings of activity, the bullpen yielded 14 hits, conceded nine earned runs, and surrendered the tying, go-ahead, or winning runs, in the eighth inning or later, on an unfathomable four occurrences.

The aforementioned performance elevated the bullpen season ERA from 3.02 to 3.34. Nonetheless, in all fairness, I must admit that despite such a spectacular escalation, the Red Sox Bullpen ERA still prominently remains the fourth lowest in the Junior Circuit.

Although the Red Sox emerged as the victor on Sunday, said victory was Pyrrhic in nature. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Sox leading by a run, Heath Hembree grooved a 1-0 fastball to Edwin Encarnacion, which the Toronto designated hitter deposited into the second deck of the Rogers Centre, leaving a vapor trail in its path and squaring the contest at three. As a result, the Sox soon became participants in an extra innings affair, and on a 1-2 count, with one out in the top of the 11th inning, Dustin Pedroia smoked a 1-2 offering from Toronto’s Drew Storen into the right center field gap for a ground-rule double, plating Blake Swihart for what eventually turned out to be the decisive run.

Perhaps I am over-dramatizing Hembree’s mistake to Encarnacion, as the Red Sox only played an additional two innings, while still earning the victory. In addition, the bullpen actually performed admirably, pitching 4.2 innings while permitting only that one run. Lastly,  Clay Buchholz’s maiden voyage out of the bullpen could be deemed nothing short of a success, and Koji Uehara closed out the game with dramatic flair, throwing a perfect inning with two strikeouts.

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To be completely candid, our bullpen’s meltdown throughout the series, particularly on Friday and Saturday, as our two top guys were tattooed, prompted me to declare DEFCON 5 throughout my residence, much to the chagrin of my roommates! Nonetheless, I affianced in profound research, the conclusions of which I will share with the reader that, hopefully, convinces the Nation’s citizenry to remove themselves from the ledges that they presently occupy.

First, I will address Uehara and then advance onto Kimbrel. In terms of velocity, Uehara has never been a hard-thrower, as he relies upon the velocity differential between his fastball and split to attack hitters. Thus my concern was that the differential in speeds between those two pitches had constricted and that said constriction was the causal agent of his somewhat inflated ERA. I am happy to report that his average fastball velocity remains unaltered from last year, holding steady at a blistering 87 mph. (Koji, if you are reading this, please understand that the aforementioned comment was written in fun, and I humbly request that it not be taken seriously)!

In addition, his split is also being thrown at the identical velocity as last season, just a tick under 79 mph and his strikeout rate, calculated by taking the number of batters struck out and dividing that value by the total number of batters faced, is even superior to last year’s clip, sitting at 31.3%. His peripherals remain solid and there exist no egregious deviations from his past production to warrant even a reference. It is my professional opinion that Koji will be just fine.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

The only reasonable concern regarding Kimbrel, other than his performance on Saturday, is his inherited runner numbers. Inherited runners are those runners already on base, placed there by a previous pitcher, upon entrance of the game by a relief pitcher. By rule, if those runners were to score, despite doing so as a result of actions taken by the relief pitcher, they are assessed to and are figured into the ERA of the pitcher who enabled them to reach base safely, having no effect on the ERA of the relief pitcher. As closers typically are summoned into the game at the commencement of an inning, this is a topic that is largely irrelevant to them; however, occasionally, as was the case on Saturday, closers may enter the game in the middle of an inning.

This season, Kimbrel has allowed four of six inherited runners to score and, while that may not seem like many, in the five seasons between 2011 and 2015, inclusive, Kimbrel only allowed, in total, four of 30 inherited runners to score. Nonetheless, save this one troubling statistic, Kimbrel is throwing the baseball as well as ever, to which the following statistics will attest.

Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity is a blistering 97.3 mph, the highest of his career, and the second highest in all of baseball, among pitchers who have thrown a minimum of 20 innings. In addition, that velocity is still producing swings-and-misses, often the most frequently cited measurement for overpowering stuff. Kimbrel’s swinging strike%, calculated by taking the number of times a batter has swung at a pitch without making contact and dividing that value by the total number of strikes a pitcher has thrown, is at 28.6% for the year, the sixth-highest in baseball, among pitchers with a minimum of twenty innings thrown, and the second highest of Kimbrel’s career.

Lastly, Kimbrel’s 3.10 ERA, nearly double that of his career mark, would seem to be cause for concern, and while concern would clearly be a reasonable assumption, such an assumption lends credence to the well-known statement regarding the unpleasant consequences of assumption.

If history is our teacher, Kimbrel has historically been a slow starter to which the following numbers attest. Kimbrel’s career ERA and OPS in the months of April and May combined are 2.78 and .568, respectively, while from June through October, regular season only, his career ERA and OPS are 1.13 and .419, respectively.

Yes, boys and girls, I think I can assert with considerable certainty that this weekend’s debacle, while disappointing, will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Uehara’s peripherals and measurables, such as velocity, and velocity differential, are well within normal range. As for Kimbrel, one could make the argument that he is throwing the baseball as well as ever and based on his career numbers, this relatively sluggish start is par for the course and in is no way indicative of a problem or decline.

Next: Red Sox battle Orioles for first place

Having placated myself, I sincerely hope that I have been able to alleviate the trepidations of Red Sox Nation. May I suggest that everybody relinquish their positions on those ledges, reach out to their closest buddies, and throw a few shrimp on the Barbie; after all it is Memorial Day, and life in the Nation could not be any sweeter.