Red Sox vs Yankees: Comparing the bullpens of AL East rivals

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 27: Members of the Boston Red Sox bullpen stand in the outfield prior to Game Four of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 27, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 27: Members of the Boston Red Sox bullpen stand in the outfield prior to Game Four of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 27, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

The AL East rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees has been progressively heating up. Let’s examine one particular area for both teams: the bullpen.

The Boston Red Sox haven’t made many changes during the offseason. The team, following strategies mentioned by Dave Dombrowski, has remained virtually the same. The NY Yankees are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They’ve made numerous changes to their bullpen core.

The Sox lost free agent Joe Kelly in free agency to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kelly had played an important role in middle relief. With his previous experience as a starter, he could maintain efficiency throughout numerous innings when needed. He is known to have a nasty fastball with speeds near 100mph. The major precaution that comes with Kelly is his likelihood to throw a wild pitch or two.

Free agent notable closer Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned. This is an enormous hole in the bullpen. Kimbrel is one of the top closers in the league. He won’t come cheap. If the Sox decide to sign him, they’ll have to cough over more money than what they’d prefer. However, the chances of Kimbrel getting the deal of his dreams is unlikely when you factor in his rocky postseason performance last year and his age.

With the Red Sox holding off on determining a deal with him, they might be able to negotiate something that works more in their favor. If Kimbrel makes a return to Boston both sides will have to compromise. But the longer they wait, the higher the chance that Kimbrel signs elsewhere. He’s also the only top closer left available in free agency.

The Yankees signed Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino to 3-year deals. The team will have Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder return for the 2019 season. MLB’s Bryan Hoch predicts the bullpen to consist of Aroldis Chapman, Betances, Britton, Ottavino, Green, Holder, and Domingo German.

What sets the new additions apart and makes them such dangerous competition?

Britton became known as one of the most dominant closers in the MLB during his time with the Baltimore Orioles. What makes him so treacherous for opponents? He has a nasty high 90’s sinker and consistently produces ground balls, making it easy for the infielders around him. As MLB’s David Adler puts it,

"“The 31-year-old left-hander throws a sinker basically nine out of every 10 pitches. Think about baseball today, the state of pitching, and then think about that. Pitchers across the MLB are throwing fewer sinkers than ever, in favor of other pitch types that get better outcomes.“"

He used one pitch 92.1% of the time in 2018 and was still dominant. Let that sink in for a moment. 92.1% of the time he’s doing the exact same thing. Batters enter the box knowing what’s coming and still can’t find answers. Britton perfectly executes Vince Lombardi’s football mindset but applies it to baseball. He goes to basics and executes perfectly. He gives opponents the opportunity to outplay him and often they simply can’t because he’s too talented with his one pitch.

For this and other reasons, including health and money, it’s easy to understand why BoSox Injection’s Brendan Mizgala and Rick McNair believed that he would have made a great addition to the Red Sox team.

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MLB’s Mike Petriello coined Ottavino as the most interesting free-agent reliever available. He produced a poor 4.56 ERA in 2012 and has a career 3.68 ERA. His numbers are nothing to suggest that he’s going to be among the elites. Teams, scouts, coaches, analysts are drawn to him because of what he’s capable of rather than the story that his stats tell. Ottavino reinvented his technique. It’s not unheard of in the baseball world. Sometimes wear and tear will force a pitcher to completely change his pitching technique and become a knuckleball pitcher, like R.A. Dickey, in order to stay in the league. But what Ottavino did was different.

Ottavino set up numerous cameras in a storefront where he used analytics to examine and improve his pitches. He took an academic approach to better understand himself, to dissect everything that he was doing, the result it was having, and what he could have been doing instead. The solo film work improved his strikeout and walk rates by a 46.6 point difference. He took his craft and examined it in the tiniest microscopic level. He was truly able to break it down, learn from it, and improve.

Ottavino was another player that BoSox Injection writers Quinn Allen and Justin Berglund thought the Red Sox needed to pursue. That’s two players on the Red Sox list of eligible candidates that their rivals got to first.

The Red Sox Bullpen

The relief core for the Sox includes Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Bobby PoynerTyler ThornburgSteven Wright, and Brandon Workman.

In November of 2018, BoSox Injection conducted a player report card series. During the series, Hembree scored a C+ and Workman scored a C. In 2018, Hembree only managed to put up a 4.20 ERA over 67 appearances. He made an impact in the playoffs when he went scoreless for 4 2/3 innings. If you recall, Workman wasn’t on the roster for the World Series. Throughout the course of the playoffs, he was only able to retire three of thirteen batters that he faced.

The Big Unanswered Question Mark

As I mentioned earlier, the major area of concern in the bullpen is the closing spot. Many analysts suggest that Barnes and Brasier have abilities that make them potential closer options. Barnes was consistent as Kimbrels set-up man throughout 2018. Braiser was a big surprise with his comeback in the MLB. He hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2013. Five years removed from the majors and he became one of the most reliable relief pitchers for the Red Sox.

As BoSox Injection’s Rick McNair points out, Barnes has a hard throw, accumulates a lot of strikeouts, and doesn’t give up many home runs. The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier explains that the main separating factor between Kimbrel and Barnes is the amount of saves Kimbrel accumulates.

"“Aside from the saves, Matt Barnes had a very similar season. Like Kimbrel, he struck out 96 and walked 31; Barnes did so in 61⅔, while Kimbrel accumulated those totals in 62⅓. Barnes punched out 14.0 batter per nine, walked 4.5, gave up fewer homers (a career-low 0.7 per nine), and posted one of the higher ground-ball rates in the game (53.0 percent).In other words, Barnes allowed contact with roughly the same frequency as Kimbrel, while the kind of contact that he allowed proved less damaging.”"

During the 2018 season, Brasier recorded a 1.60 ERA and 0.77 WHIP through 33.2 innings. With numbers like that after a long absence it’s easy to see why BoSox Injection’s Jacob Anes lists him as one of the Sox under the radar players. While Baseball-Reference projects his 2019 season to drop off leaving him with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, his 2018 campaign definitely puts him in the running for the closer position.

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Dombrowski remains positive about the impact that his team can make in 2019. It’s evident that the Yankees have already done a lot to improve their bullpen, a bullpen which was already good. Time is starting to run out, but let’s hope that the Red Sox strategists have some moves up their sleeves and that some under the radar players come up big this season.