Despite emerging triumphant in three World Series since 2004, The Boston Red Sox bullpen has been bereft of anything resembling this current collection of league-leading fireballers.
The game of baseball is changing. Long gone are the days that the starting pitcher provides eight strong innings, or even eight innings period, on a semi-regular basis. After all, the exact definition of a “Quality Start” is one in which a starting pitcher acquires a mere eighteen outs prior to surrendering three runs or less.
In other words, the hurlers who start each baseball contest are considered to have authored a “Quality” performance, despite only tossing less than 70 per cent of the game, while producing what frequently amounts to a single-game ERA of 4.50. I cannot be the only baseball fan who finds something inherently inaccurate about the term “Quality Start.”
Nonetheless, this composition is not intended to be the spark that ignites a discussion regarding the amount of “quality” that is present in what is deemed a “Quality Start.”
Major League Baseball, by reducing the expectations placed upon the starting pitcher, has served to escalate the importance of those hurlers who enter the game upon said pitcher’s exit. In addition, if the game’s outcome is still in doubt at the time, and it frequently is, then the closely-knit group of seven or eight pitchers of whom the bullpen is constituted will determine the contest’s outcome.
As a result, it does not require a nuclear physicist to recognize the increasing prominence of a strong bullpen.
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Despite emerging triumphant in only one World Series, although they probably would have won two if not for some guy named Madison Bumgarner, the 2014/2015 Kansas City Royals provided the blueprint for winning championships in the current baseball environment.
The 2015 Kansas City Royals, winners of the MLB Championship, finished a very respectable fifth in seasonal margin of victory, often the best indicator of a team’s dominance. They outscored their opponents by 83 runs over the course of the season. Just for comparison, the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays finished first in seasonal margin of victory, outscoring their opponents by 221 runs over the course of the season; nonetheless, the Royals needed six games to defeat them in the ALCS.
How did the Royals accomplish such a feat, despite a run differential that was approximately one-third as great as that of the Blue Jays? The answer lies in the enormous disparity in bullpen production. Of Kansas City’s four wins against Toronto, three of them were attributed to the bullpen. In fact, in the Toronto series alone, the Royal’s bullpen was 3-0 with a 2.66 ERA. Said bullpen, chock full of elite, unhittable arms, tossed 23.2 innings against the Jays, while their starting pitching unit tossed 28.1 innings, less than five innings more than the bullpen.
The Toronto bullpen, for the series, was 0-1 with a 9.18 ERA. By all accounts, Toronto should have won the series; however, the late-game superiority of the Royal’s bullpen proved to be the difference. Great pitching always beats great hitting, and the power arms of the Royal’s bullpen neutralized the powerful Toronto sluggers.
In fact, the elite arms of the Kansas City bullpen won eight games that postseason, while the starters were credited for just three of the team’s eleven wins.
It is a well-established fact that power arms win in October. Although they also win in the regular season, opposing batters are just a tick tardier in getting to the baseball in October, especially after a rigorous 162-game season.
While I understand that the Red Sox were crowned 2013 baseball champions, Red Sox brass had appeared to neglect the importance of power arms in the bullpen. According to Fangraphs, in the five years between 2012 and 2016, inclusive, the Red Sox ranked 24th out of 30 teams in bullpen fastball velocity, at 92.3 mph. In 2014, they finished 30th, dead last in said category. Further illustrating the relatively impotent, recent history of the Red Sox bullpen is that between the years of 2012 and 2014, not a single reliever could lay claim to an average fastball velocity in excess 95 mph. In 2015 and 2016, our bullpen had two players with an average fastball velocity over 95 mph: Matt Barnes in both years and Craig Kimbrel in 2016.
Fangraphs also illustrates that the 2017 Boston Red Sox bullpen is positioned atop the AL leaderboard in average fastball velocity, sporting a blistering 94.7 mph.
Of the 94 relievers in the AL whom have thrown a minimum of 20 innings, Joe Kelly is first in average fastball velocity at 98.8 mph, while Craig Kimbrel is third in average fastball velocity at 98.3 mph. Matt Barnes is ranked 20th, with a cool 95.6 mph, while Heath Hembree ranks 25th, bringing the heat at 95.0 mph. Lastly, Blaine Boyer, with only 17 IP and a fastball just shy of 95 mph at 94.4, is another power arm upon which John Farrell can rely.
If History is a teacher, the Red Sox appear to be well positioned for a deep October run.