Boston Red Sox are still searching for bullpen structure

BOSTON, MA - MAY 11: Darwinzon Hernandez #63 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the seventh inning of a game against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park on May 11, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 11: Darwinzon Hernandez #63 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the seventh inning of a game against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park on May 11, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox are searching for answers for their bullpen

The Boston Red Sox have drastically improved a bullpen that was among the worst in baseball last season. Despite the upgrades, it still might be the Achilles Heel of this team.

Matt Barnes has risen to the challenge of being the closer for this club, posting a 2.00 ERA and converting all eight of his save opportunities. He has aggressively attacked the strike zone to avoid the control issues that plagued him in the past, striking out 30 batters and walking only three in 18 innings.

The Red Sox bullpen has had some positive signs from the supporting cast. Garrett Whitlock has been a revelation as a multi-inning reliever, producing a 1.58 ERA over nine appearances. Phillips Valdez is building on his breakout season with a solid 3.38 ERA.

Boston has their solution for the ninth inning and some reliable options to handle low-leverage situations and the inning or two after the starter is lifted from the game. It’s the gap in between that has been a problem. The bridge to the closer has been unstable.

An example was on display in Tuesday’s loss to the Oakland A’s. Nathan Eovaldi did his job by limiting the opponent to one run over six strong innings. Darwinzon Hernandez relieved him in the seventh inning and quickly unraveled. The lefty walked the first batter he faced followed by consecutive singles to allow Oakland to take a lead. One of those inherited runners would score on a base hit against Adam Ottavino to give the A’s a pivotal insurance run.

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Hernandez is a flame-thrower with the potential to be a lights-out reliever but his velocity can work against him when he can’t control where it’s going. He’s struck out 16 batters in 11 1/3 innings but he’s also walked 11. The bouts of wildness will lead to the occasional meltdown, which explains his unappealing 4.63 ERA.

Ottavino hasn’t been everything the Red Sox hoped for when they acquired him from the New York Yankees. A down season last year was blamed on one rough outing in a small sample but he’s already had more than one bad game this season. Ottavino owns a 4.30 ERA and he’s walked 11 batters in 14 2/3 innings. He’s been charged with three blown saves as a setup man and tagged with a pair of losses.

Hirokazu Sawamura tossed two strong innings against the A’s but has otherwise struggled of late following a few strong appearances to begin his major league career. He’s allowed earned runs in two of his last four appearances and at least one earned run in five of his last nine.

Matt Andriese was one of the teams’ most reliable arms in April but he’s been a disaster so far this month, allowing seven earned runs in his last 4 2/3 innings. His ERA has risen from a stellar 1.42 to a brutal 4.67 over his last four appearances.

Worst among this group has been Josh Taylor. The lefty is in danger of losing his spot on the roster after posting a 6.39 ERA in 15 appearances. At this point, he can’t be trusted anywhere near a tightly contested game.

The lack of reliable options to handle the middle innings has made it difficult for manager Alex Cora to establish a hierarchy for his bullpen. According to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo, Cora told reporters that he believes the talent is there but these relievers need to step up and show more consistency in order for the team to develop a structure that secures players in their proper roles.

"“We’re searching. You’ve seen it,” Cora said. “Obviously, we do feel very comfortable with some of the guys back there. We still have to get these kids going. I think they’re very important. Stuff-wise, we know what they can do. We’ve seen it before. But we need them to be more consistent. When that happens, the structure is going to be a lot easier.”"

The Red Sox are tied for the most wins in the majors with 22 and they only have 15 losses but the bullpen has been charged with seven of them. There are a dozen major league teams with more losses from their bullpen but eight of those teams have eight losses charged to relievers. In other words, Boston is only one more relief pitcher loss away from being tied for the bottom-five in that category.

This bullpen certainly isn’t awful, ranking 15th in the majors with a collective 3.92 ERA, but it’s very top-heavy with the dominance of Barnes and Whitlock. There are a few unproven options and several underachievers.

Boston’s starting rotation has been better than advertised but Cora has been cautious with their workload, rarely allowing his starters to go deeper than five or six innings. He wants to shorten the game with the bullpen to avoid having his pitchers face the opposing lineup too many times and preserve their arms for the long haul. It’s a solid strategy as long as you have a bullpen you can trust. The Red Sox don’t currently have enough quality relievers to handle that many innings on a consistent basis.

The minor league season recently started but there’s nobody in Triple-A who has had enough time to make a statement worthy of getting promoted. We’re still over two months away from the trade deadline. Reinforcements aren’t on the horizon yet. The Red Sox are stuck with what they have for now.

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There are talented arms in that bullpen but as Cora said, they have to do the job. Red Sox relievers haven’t been getting it done often enough and eventually it’s going to catch up with them, allowing other teams to catch them in the standings.