Red Sox bullpen needs a diversity of talent, may already have it

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 12: Steven Wright
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 12: Steven Wright /

The Boston Red Sox bullpen is very good, but maybe a tweak is needed for pitching diversity? They have that with Steven Wright.

Bullpens are inconsistent, flighty, disappointing, spectacular and essential to a successful baseball team.  The current vogue in baseball is apparently to build from the back and go down.  The historical watershed moment for this philosophical shift culminated with a World Series victory in 2015 by the Kansas City Royals.

An examination of the Royals staff shows that they were ranked dead last among American League starters in 2015 with an fWAR of 7.9. More traditional statistic placed them in the lower echelon, but the obvious was, well, obvious – the rotation was sub-par.

The bullpen was the mirrored opposite and we were all subjected to the hype as a series of arms came in with 100 MPH heat or a physics-defying assortment of pitches. Copycat was now full-blown and starters – long the pitching rock stars – were now relegated to a keep us in the game status.

The 2017 Red Sox bullpen is very good, but it is not great.  The primary reason is what I mentioned earlier – in relation to the Royals. Is too much speed a bad thing? Are they all too similar?  Is there any arms beside Craig Kimbrel’s that give the fan or – if they are honest – the player’s the confidence that it is over? I simply don’t see it.

The Red Sox bullpen has a quite passable fWAR of 6.0. They have tossed 469 innings, which ranks them thirteenth in the American League. Despite the fact that it seems that a reliever walks the first batter they face it is simply a fallacy.  The bullpen has a 3.05 BB/9 which is twelfth. Going a bit deeper into the ever ex[anding metrics is a 3.80 xFIP, 1.18 WHIP, .287 BABIP and the very traditional 3.17 ERA. All among the best. I care not to define the ‘pen as great.

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So what is my problem? There is a political term I will now somewhat misused called “Doughface.” That applies to politicians who are very similar in their views – and usually have zero flexibility. I see this current bullpen as doughfaces. Very similar. If the Red Sox bullpen was an ice cream shop with 20 flavors they would all be vanilla.

Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly and even the extremely impressive Austin Maddox seem all the same molds. All throw heat, but occasionally it is desirable to have something that is not so standard on the menu. Lighting up the radar gun near 100 MPH does not necessarily mean instantaneous success.

The mechanics of pitching are relatively simple in scope – move the ball around, keep the batter guessing and has a reasonable location. A sub 90 MPH fastball can certainly be pumped up by stealth and the ability to have a hitter frustrating and not hitter friendly change of pace.

The Red Sox had one for a few seasons and Red Sox Nation witnessed what an arm that rarely has a 90 MPH fastball can do.  Koji Uehara had that exquisite control and the ability to freeze batters with a Keith Foulke like soft stuff.

When and if the Red Sox retool their bullpen my personal addition would be a non-doughface pitcher or two, but they potentially have one. Someone who gives a far different look than what is expected. Replacing a Kelly with a Barnes and then a Hembree does little in the way of a dramatic paradigm shift, but toss in a reliever who can – as the scouts say – “Pull the string” you have a different look. Just think if a now recovering Steven Wright moved to the bullpen?

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Wright is certainly quite capable of bullpen work and the Red Sox do have a nice history with Tim Wakefield in that role. Wright tossing a few innings with his knuckleball after batters have faced Chris Sale would represent the ultimate in fastball downsizing. Or sandwiched between a Kelly and Kimbrel?

Wright’s value may be as a starter, but let’s start to make a few assumptions.  The first and most obvious is David Price returns to form. The second is everyone stays healthy. That would mean a solid five-man rotation with Wright consigned to the bullpen. Wright – like Wakefield – is certainly more capable of quickly moving back to the rotation if needed.

The other possible change of pace that the Red Sox have is Doug Fister.  Fister is much maligned but does have a limited history of bullpen duty.  This season that has not been the type of performance that would instill any great confidence, but it may be worth a look unless Fister moves elsewhere. Fister does have desirable 48.4 GB%. Reality check – Fister is a long shot.

Next: Red Sox prospects on their way to the AFL

In the great scope of potential changes, this certainly is nowhere near the need of adding a bat or two that can get you 30+ home runs, but sometimes a series of little incremental changes impact as well as one big one.