Red Sox closer-by-committee approach could work in 2019
If All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel does not return to Boston next season, the Red Sox could replace him with a committee of closers.
The World Champion Boston Red Sox entered the offseason, after a historic campaign, with few needs. For the most part, the core that won the franchise their fourth title of the 21st century will remain intact, at least for 2019.
One of the few question marks surrounding the team stemmed from the closer’s role. Incumbent Craig Kimbrel remains one of the best in the business, but after a shaky postseason, the Red Sox may not be willing to give him the long-term, lucrative deal that he wants and other teams will offer.
So, let’s assume that Kimbrel leaves, which seems almost inevitable at this point. Let’s also assume that one of the other remaining unknowns resolves itself and Joe Kelly re-signs with Boston, which also seems inevitable given his postseason and what he meant to Boston for most of the 2018 campaign. If both of those things happen, then Boston could fill the closer position with a committee next season.
In addition to Kelly, the Red Sox most reliable relievers in 2018 were Matt Barnes, who has finally found a home in the bullpen, and Ryan Brasier, who came out of nowhere to become a key member of the relief corps. Normally, teams like consistency in a position as important as the closer. The unique stress that comes with the job makes it hard to find someone who fits, and hard to move away once that person is found. However, Kelly, Barnes, and Brasier proved last season that they are all capable of handling high-leverage situations. Kelly, in particular, thrives in them. Using a committee instead of a designated closer would allow the Red Sox to better play matchups and highlight the strengths of their top three relievers.
By the numbers, Kelly has the most experience working in the ninth inning and has delivered the best results. He’s logged 31.1 innings of ninth-inning work, across which he’s accumulated a 0.86 ERA and 33 strikeouts against just 10 walks. If there were to be a primary in this hypothetical triumvirate of closers, it would be Kelly. He would likely perform well should the Red Sox decide to install him as the sole closer, but using a committee could help mitigate the wear and tear that Kelly suffered from last summer.
Brasier and Barnes don’t have as much experience in the final frame of games and their numbers don’t look nearly as good, but both have shown potential. Per Baseball-Reference, Brasier has a 6.00 K/BB ratio in high-leverage situations and a 2.79 ERA in the ninth inning. His 2.45 ERA and 0.64 ERA in the seventh and eighth inning, respectively, further indicate his affinity for the big moment.
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Barnes’ numbers in the ninth don’t look so great on the surface; a career 5.29 ERA in that frame doesn’t inspire much confidence. However, he was much better in 2018 than he had been previously and seems to be trending in the right direction. In 2016, opponents hit .286 against him in the ninth. A year later, that number dropped to .250, and this year it plummeted to .227.
A three-man closer committee would keep opponents on their toes and allow the Red Sox to play matchups, something manager Alex Cora loves doing. Over the course of his career, Kelly has easily fared best against the bottom of opposing lineups. Brasier has put up far and away his best numbers against the tops of orders, and Barnes has fairly even numbers against any part of a lineup.
Barnes and Brasier both fare much better against left-handed batters than they do against righties, while Kelly has dominated both sides of the plate (though he, too, is more effective against lefties).
A trio of closers would give Cora the opportunity to rest Kelly some nights and to choose each night’s closer based on game-by-game situations.
Ultimately, the Red Sox will probably name an official closer, and will probably go with that guy more often than not. That guy will probably be Kelly. A committee would benefit the bullpen by protecting the health of its top three members and by putting those three in the best position to find success, but consistency in the ninth inning is important and pitchers like to know their roles. However, even if they don’t go with a true committee, don’t be surprised if Brasier and Barnes finish off more than a few games next season. They’re proven and capable, and the Red Sox will certainly need them.