A return to form by reliever Austin Maddox after two years lost through injury and surgery could work wonders for beleaguered Red Sox bullpen
Time has been kind to the Boston Red Sox bullpen. As the weeks go by, it becomes clearer that the team’s abysmal pitching of 2019 was predicated mostly on a starting rotation allergic to quality starts. Relievers were called on early and often in games, and by June much of the bullpen was gasping while operating on fumes.
While starters were falling short on quality starts, the bullpen suffered from a lack of quality depth. The latter gets pinned on former Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, who never adequately addressed the losses (or addition by subtraction as borne out in 2019) of closer Craig Kimbrel and middle reliever Joe Kelly to free agency.
There was a bright side. The emergence this past season of Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez as late-inning stalwarts and Brandon Workman’s embrace of, and excellence in, the closer’s role helped fill the gaps and mute critics.
Could right-hand reliever Austin Maddox, who hasn’t pitched at the MLB level since late 2017, be a similar surprise 2020?
One big knock against the Boston bullpen in 2019 was its 31 blown saves, according to MLB.com. That was deemed disastrous to many Red Sox supporters, but consider this – the Oakland A’s had 32 blown saves, yet won 97 games and an AL wild-card spot. The Los Angeles Dodgers won 106 games despite 29 blown saves.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Toronto Blue Jays lost 95 games yet had an MLB-low 10 blown saves. Blown saves could be baseball’s equivalent to penalties accrued and time of possession in football – stats that aren’t highly reliable predictors of wins, losses and overall success.
Blown saves aside, more relief help is needed in Boston, and the 6-2, 220-pound Maddox, 28, could be part of the answer. The hope in Boston is that he can reproduce the same mound magic he weaved late in the 2017 season.
As the Red Sox raced to the 2017 AL East title, Maddox (who still qualifies as a rookie), made a bold impression in giving the bullpen a boost. He finished the regular season with a 0.52 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP, notching 14 strikeouts opposite 2 walks in 17.1 innings. It was a limited sample of work, sure, but most of it came during crunch time as the Red Sox had to fend off the New York Yankees to win the division crown.
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Even if Maddox’s short stint of excellence was a fluke, it earned him a spot on the postseason roster for the AL Division Series. Pitching further into October, he gave up one run spread over a pair of one-inning stints in a losing cause against the garbage can-banging Houston Astros.
Maddox was not an overnight sensation. Originally drafted by Tampa Bay in the 37th round in 2009 (but not signing), he then inked with the Red Sox after being picked in 2012’s third round. Maddox labored in the minors for several seasons, gradually working his way up the ladder, before finally being called up to the Red Sox in June 2017.
Make no mistake about it, as good as Maddox was that year, he enters 2020 as a reclamation product – but one worth nurturing.
Coming off his strong finish in 2017 and expected to advance his career in Boston, Maddox developed shoulder inflammation during spring training in 2018. After spending the rest of the season bouncing between Pawtucket, Portland, and the disabled list, he finally underwent right rotator cuff surgery in September 2018. That sidelined him for almost all of 2019 before he finally pitched off a mound this past August. The Sox released him on October 25, only to turn around and re-sign him 17 days later.
Although Maddox still has miles of comeback road in front of him, look for the Red Sox to throw him plenty of rope. His apparent upside is impressive enough for the Red Sox to give him ample opportunity to compete for a spot in a reliever corps that currently pencils in Workman, Matt Barnes, Taylor, Hernandez, and possibly Marcus Walden, Heath Hembree and/or Ryan Brasier. That bullpen makeup is subject to change, however, as Red Sox Chief of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom continues to navigate through the offseason.
With regular season rosters expanding from 25 to 26 in 2020, that could enhance Maddox’s chances of earning a Red Sox role – if not coming out of spring training, perhaps by mid-season or sooner. One factor in his favor would be if the Red Sox opt to go with an opener setup for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, which might mean parlaying that No. 26 roster spot into a ninth bullpen arm.