Red Sox bullpen has become elite despite key injuries

Apr 17, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) pitches during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) pitches during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

While the Boston Red Sox have had their fair share of issues keeping pitchers healthy, the arms they do have in the bullpen have been outstanding.

The Boston Red Sox have 99 problems, but a bullpen ain’t one.

So far this season our attention has mostly been diverted to the lineup’s glaring lack of power, an increasing string of injuries and a few controversies – both on and off the field. Those story lines have overshadowed one of the bright spots for the Red Sox.

Their bullpen has become one of the best in baseball.

We’re only about a month into the season, yet the early returns have been promising. Boston’s bullpen is second in the majors with a collective 2.12 ERA. Red Sox relievers have held hitters to a .190 batting average (4th in MLB), .274 OBP (2nd) and .554 OPS (1st).

The bullpen’s success starts where it finishes, in the ninth inning with closer Craig Kimbrel. After an uneven debut season in Boston, the five-time All-Star is back to being the dominant reliever that he was in his heyday with the Atlanta Braves.

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Kimbrel leads the American League in saves, having converted 10-of-11 opportunities. His stellar 1.35 ERA is fifth in the league among relievers who have recorded more than one save and his 0.53 WHIP is third among AL relievers with at least 12 innings pitched. The fire-breathing closer has struck out 24 batters in 12 2/3 innings for a dominating 16.20 K/9. He also has an 0.6 WAR that stands as the fourth highest among the league’s relievers and puts him on pace to challenge his career-high 3.3 WAR set in 2012.

As great as Kimbrel has been, he’s had fantastic support from his fellow relievers who have been able to bridge the gap to their closer with the lead intact.

Heath Hembree is blowing away the numbers he produced in his breakout season in 2016. He leads Red Sox relievers with 14 2/3 innings of work and has produced a career-best 1.23 ERA and 10.4 K/9. His ability to be counted on for more than one inning, which he’s done in four of his appearances already this season, has made him an invaluable asset. Hembree leads the AL with 7 holds, while quickly becoming one of manager John Farrell‘s most trusted options.

Robby Scott has taken over as the top reliever to deploy against left-handed hitters. He’s only been asked to face one hitter in many of his appearances, which is why he’s only logged 5 innings over 11 games, but he’s thriving in this role. Scott has held lefties to a .100 average and .200 OPS. He hasn’t been as effective when asked to stay in the game against right-handers, yet has still managed to hold them to a solid .250 average and .775 OPS.

Joe Kelly‘s low strikeout rate remains baffling and the eight walks he’s allowed over 14 1/3 innings are equally as concerning. He tries to nibble around the corners too much for a guy with enough gas to blow most hitters away, yet it’s hard to argue with the results. Kelly owns a 2.51 ERA and has held opposing hitters to a .180 average and .513 OPS. He’s allowed only two extra-base hits all season, both doubles. He hasn’t quite been the power arm we expected, but it’s working.

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Arguably the biggest surprise in the bullpen has been Ben Taylor, who has allowed only one run over 7 2/3 innings for a 1.17 ERA. Only Noe Ramirez, who tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings during his brief call-up, owns a better ERA on this Red Sox roster this season. The five walks Taylor has issued should sound some alarms, although his modest 2.6 BB/9 rate in the minors suggests it won’t remain a long-term problem.

Then there is Matt Barnes, the interim setup man fresh off of a four-game suspension. Setting that controversy aside, Barnes has been solid in the eighth inning. His 2.84 ERA pales in comparison to many of the other relievers in this bullpen, although that numbers is inflated by one meltdown appearance in Toronto when he coughed up three of the four earned runs he’s allowed all season. Take out that one messy appearance and Barnes has been everything the Red Sox could have hoped for filling in for the injured relievers that were expected to fill the setup role.

Speaking of injured relievers, the most impressive part of the bullpen’s success is that they’ve managed to accomplish this without the services of two key pitchers. Tyler Thornburg was acquired to fill the eighth inning void this season, only for a shoulder injury to put him on the shelf in spring training. Carson Smith was brought in a year ago to contribute in that role, but if you blinked last season you may have missed his limited appearance before he was shut down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.

Two power arms with proven success in high leverage situations at the big league level and nobody knows when either of them is coming back. Yet the Red Sox bullpen hasn’t missed a beat without them.

We’ve seen how elite bullpens can alter the postseason landscape. The Kansas City Royals won a World Series two years ago by riding a lights-out core of relievers, while the Cleveland Indians came up just short last season after a tremendous run fueled by the unconventional use of the brilliant Andrew Miller.

Next: Hernandez injury depletes infield

There is still a long road ahead, but if the Red Sox make it to October then they have the makings of a bullpen that can thrive in the postseason.