Red Sox have bullpen problems they need to address

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Craig Kimbrel
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Craig Kimbrel /

The Red Sox bullpen looked good on paper, but a closer look shows major flaws. If they want to win a World Series with this core, they’ll have to address it.

With MLB free agency on the horizon, the Boston Red Sox still have a bitter taste in their mouth.

Boston was bounced from the playoffs in the first round. They only managed to muster up one win against the eventual World Series champion Astros. John Farrell lost his job after 5 years with the team. This, I’m sure you already know.

With the negative narratives surrounding the team all season, people clung to the bullpen as a positive.

Considering they would be without Tyler Thornburg until 2018, and didn’t know what to expect from Carson Smith, the bullpen looked okay.

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They got strong contributions from Joe Kelly and Addison Reed. Smith returned from the DL in September. He and David Price pitched well enough to find their way on to the playoff roster. Craig Kimbrel converted 35 of 39 save opportunities, sporting a 1.43 ERA. The bullpen did its part, boasting a 3.15 ERA for the season.

But come playoff time, the manager left many of the pitchers that contributed to that success off the postseason roster. Matt Barnes (69.2 IP, 3.88 ERA,) Heath Hembree (62 IP, 3.63 ERA,) Brandon Workman (39.2 IP, 3.18 ERA) and Robby Scott (35.2 IP, 3.79 ERA) were all left to watch from the bench. If the bullpen was such a strong suit why did most of the bullpen not play in the postseason? Why would you leave four guys who pitch 40 percent of your relief innings throughout the season off your postseason roster?

Because outside of Kimbrel, frankly, they were never really that good.

That 3.15 ERA I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that figure fails to show a large enough picture. Through painstaking math, I found that Red Sox relievers had a 2.77 ERA against sub-.500 teams. The inverse of that being a 3.48 ERA against teams above .500. If you take Kimbrel out of the equation, the bullpen pitched to a 3.41 ERA. Not the bullpen you thought you had.

What were their major flaws?

Barnes, who served as the team’s eighth-inning man, is a prime example of statistics looking better than performance.  He had, to put it nicely, comfort issues, and his splits reflect that. Barnes pitched to a 5.28 ERA on the road, and a 3.69 ERA in the eighth inning. Farrell used Barnes in 70 games last season.

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Hembree did not fare much better than Barnes. He allowed 48% of inherited runners to score, and opposing hitters had a .348 batting average with runners in scoring position against him. Farrell employed his services 62 times in 2017.

Journeyman Blaine Boyer was another pitcher that Farrell relied heavily upon. Boyer was deployed in 32 games with 41.1 IP. His status as a long reliever led to Boyer being used in many low leverage situations. The problem here? Boyer struggled in those low leverage situations, allowing a .313 opponents BA and surrendering 12 runs in said situations.

Not to mention the fact that all of the pitchers the manager had to rely upon were barely above replacement level. Of all relievers who amassed more than 25 IP, only three had over 1 Win Above Replacement (WAR): Kimbrel (3.6 WAR,) Reed (2.4 WAR,) and Kelly (1.3 WAR.) Everyone else in that bullpen was 0.7 WAR or lower.

If you contrast that with bullpens around the league, it’s staggering.

The World Champion Houston Astros boasted four relief pitchers with above 1.0 WAR. The Yankees and Cleveland’s Baseball Team had five such pitchers. Andrew Miller alone accounted for 3.1 WAR.

Next: Red Sox possibilities for 2018 from the baseball landfill

The American League is flush with dynamite bullpens, and the Red Sox aren’t one of them. If Thornburg can come back and pitch to the height of his abilities, however, the Red Sox are only one reliever away.