Boston Red Sox need a reliever to fill Andrew Miller type role

Sep 30, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians pitcher Andrew Miller (24) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians pitcher Andrew Miller (24) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /

An early playoff exit has shown the Boston Red Sox that they may need to rethink their bullpen strategy heading into the 2017 season.

If there is one thing that we’ve learned in this postseason it’s that teams don’t have to save their best relievers for the ninth inning. A new blueprint for managing bullpens has been provided, one that the Boston Red Sox should consider when constructing next year’s roster.

Twice during the Cleveland Indians’ sweep of the ALDS we saw Terry Francona turn to Andrew Miller in the middle innings rather than hold his best reliever for the glorified save situation in the ninth. Miller threw two scoreless innings in both appearances, shutting down a powerful Red Sox lineup at a point where the game was still in doubt.

Perhaps it was Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter‘s blunder that inadvertently sparked this trend when he failed to use Cy Young candidate Zach Britton in an extra-innings Wild Card loss. Buck reserved his All-Star closer for a save situation that never materialized, wasting the opportunity to use his best pitcher, who was coming off of a historically great season. In other words, he Buck-ed up.

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Since then we’ve seen other teams get more creative with their bullpens. None more so than Cleveland’s usage of Miller, but other teams are following their lead. The Los Angeles Dodgers brought closer Kenley Jansen into the seventh inning of a decisive Game 5 of the NLDS, where he escaped a jam and shut down a Washington Nationals rally. Jansen would end up recording seven outs before handing the ball off to Clayton Kershaw for the final two outs.

Using your ace in a save situation is unheard of, yet brilliant. Granted this was an elimination game in the postseason, where managers may resort to drastic measures, but does this method have to be reserved for these unique situations? Pitchers typically have days where they throw on the side between starts, so using them for an inning out of the bullpen a couple of days before their next scheduled outing is feasible.

Could we see the Red Sox use David Price in a key spot during a tight game sometime next season? It’s not necessarily a tactic they want to rely on often, but it could be a useful strategy that could net the team an extra win or two over the course of a season. Perhaps if the Red Sox had used such urgency down the stretch they wouldn’t have surrendered home-field advantage in the postseason.

Even if using starters out of the bullpen is a bit too unconventional for the tastes of most managers, the way relievers like Miller and Jansen have been utilized this postseason may alter the approach teams use next season.

One of Dave Dombrowski’s biggest tasks in his first offseason at the helm was rebuilding a Red Sox bullpen that was among the league’s worst in 2015. Those plans were spoiled to a degree by the season-ending injury to Carson Smith and a lengthy absence from Koji Uehara, but the Red Sox bullpen did rise into the top five in the league, so they were on the right track.

Now they need a versatile reliever that can do for them what Miller has done for Cleveland. Someone capable of filling the closer seat, but comfortable in virtually any situation.

Craig Kimbrel doesn’t appear to be that guy. He’s still an elite closer, despite a spike in ERA and troubling uptick in walks. His strikeout rate remains among the best in the game and he hasn’t lost the velocity on his scorching fastball that reaches the upper 90’s. Kimbrel converted 31 of 33 save opportunities while posting a 2.41 ERA in those situations.

The problem is that Kimbrel hasn’t shown that same level of success when there isn’t a save on the line. This season he tossed 19 1/3 innings in non-save situations, producing a brutal 5.12 ERA. This is hardly a new trend or a mirage from a small sample size. Kimbrel has never been quite this bad before, but over the course of his career his ERA is nearly a full run higher in non-save situations (2.46) than it is in save opportunities (1.60).

Kimbrel is the type of pitcher that needs the adrenaline rush of having the game on the line in order to be most effective, which explains why his numbers are worse in non-save situations. Except the game isn’t always on the line in the ninth inning. If it’s a tight game then that adrenaline should be there regardless of if it’s the fifth inning or the ninth. Baseball players are creatures of habit, so Kimbrel’s struggles may be the result of any alteration to his routine bringing him out of his comfort zone.

What the Red Sox need is a shutdown reliever that can work in the middle innings, occasionally getting more than three outs when necessary. Most pitchers don’t have the versatility that Miller has, which is part of what makes him special, but he’s not the only elite reliever capable of filling this role. They are out there, but there may not be on on this Red Sox roster.

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Smith has closing experience to show he can handle pressure situations, but can’t be entrusted with this role coming off Tommy John surgery. The Red Sox may bring Uehara back, but at his age he can’t be counted on for a heavy workload and remains an injury risk. Perhaps Joe Kelly has what it takes. Like Miller, he was a failed starter that the Red Sox converted into a reliever with encouraging results, but we haven’t seen quite enough of him in this role to assume he can give this team anywhere near the value Miller brings to the Indians.

That may lead the Red Sox to dip into a free agent market that could include Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon. Their current teams aren’t going to want to let them go, but that doesn’t have to stop Dombrowski from trying to outbid them. It will be expensive, but the Red Sox have spent more in the past on back of the rotation starters that didn’t pan out. Why not spend that money on a game-changing reliever instead?

Look at it this way – the Red Sox could pick up the $13 million option on Clay Buchholz‘ contract so he can compete for the No. 5 spot in the rotation or they can spend that money on one of the aforementioned stud relievers, combining them with Kimbrel to form a two-headed monster that could dominate late in games.

Boston had the chance to bring Miller back when he hit free agency in 2015, but balked at the $9 million per year price tag. Instead they gave $9.5 million to reclamation project Justin Masterson, who gave them a grand total of nine starts while producing an ERA well north of 5.00. Think they might be kicking themselves for that decision now?

Yes, there is a drastic difference in the number of innings a starting pitcher provides compared to any reliever, but we are seeing how valuable pitchers like Miller can be out of the bullpen.

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We saw the Kansas City Royals ride a dominant bullpen to a World Series title a year ago and now teams like the Indians and Dodgers are taking it to another level. It’s time the Red Sox got on board and followed the trend. They made solid progress in the moves they made last winter, resulting in a return to the postseason, but there’s still another step that could make them a champion.