Red Sox are trusting their bullpen too much by giving starters an early hook

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 27: Michael Wacha #52 of the Boston Red Sox pitches to the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on April 27, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 27: Michael Wacha #52 of the Boston Red Sox pitches to the Toronto Blue Jays in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on April 27, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox starters aren’t going deep into games

Michael Wacha was in the midst of another dominant performance when Boston Red Sox manger Alex Cora strolled to the mound to take the ball out of his hand with two outs in the sixth inning. Despite holding a powerful Los Angeles Angels lineup scoreless to that point in the game, Wacha’s night was over after a mere 60 pitches.

The analytics will tell you that Cora made a wise decision to give his starter an early hook. Wacha began the inning by retiring the No. 9 hitter for the Angels before the lineup turned over for the dreaded third time through the order. A groundout by leadoff hitter Taylor Ward had Wacha on the brink of escaping the inning. Mike Trout followed by beating out an infield single and advanced into scoring position on an error by Rafael Devers. With Shohei Ohtani stepping to the plate representing the tying run, Cora turned to his bullpen.

It was surprising to see Wacha get pulled with a low pitch count when he was throwing the ball so well but Cora wasn’t taking any chances with his team clinging to a two-run lead, according to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo.

"“I think in the era that we live, they understand the value of getting outs,” Cora added. “If we were to score more, he would go seven, eight or maybe he gets us a complete game. Where we were in the game, 2-0 with that guy at the plate, regardless of the stuff that you have, the matchup is better at the end of the day. He understands that.”"

Cora wasn’t messing around in a tight game with the reigning MVP capable of tying the game with one swing. Ohtani collected a base hit against Wacha in his previous plate appearance and was now facing him for a third time in the game. Cora preferred the matchup with the left-handed Jake Diekman in that pivotal spot. Diekman has been inconsistent this season but he’s been tough on lefties, holding them to a .214 average and .552 OPS. Ohtani can do damage against anyone but he has historically been slightly less effective against southpaws.

The plan worked – Ohtani lined out to left to end the inning and Diekman remained in the game to handle a clean seventh. The Red Sox bullpen combined to shut down the Angels for the final frames to secure the victory.

The slim margin for error in a close ballgame played a part in dictating Cora’s decision but his track record this season suggests he wasn’t going to stick with his starter for much longer. It’s not about pitch count anymore, it’s about how many times the lineup turns over.

Wacha has only faced the opposing lineup for a third time in 11 plate appearances this season. He’s held those hitters to a solid .182 average and .636 OPS, although those numbers are notably higher than his production against them through the first two plate appearances.

The trend has been seen with all of the Red Sox starters. Nathan Eovaldi is having an excellent season but he’s allowing a .304 average and .812 OPS to hitters in their third plate appearance of the game. Nick Pivetta cruises his first time through the lineup (.211 AVG) but gets hammered when hitters see him multiple times (.386 AVG). Rich Hill, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock rarely, if ever, stick around long enough in their starts to see the order for a third time.

The outcome reveals that Cora pulled the right strings in this case but the question remains if this strategy of pulling starters early is sustainable.

Baseball is trending toward a reliance on relief pitching. The data proves that hitters gain an advantage when they receive more plate appearances against the same pitcher. The analytics make it clear that this was the right decision but those numbers ignore an important variable – it takes a strong bullpen to handle the increased workload when the starter isn’t going deep into games.

The Red Sox bullpen has been better than advertised but we would still be hard-pressed to find more than few relievers on this staff who inspire confidence. Boston’s bullpen has logged the ninth-most innings in the majors with 99.0, but rank only 16th with a 3.55 ERA and 20th with a 3.67 FIP. Red Sox relievers have been tagged with a loss seven times this season, tied for the third-most in the majors.

Red Sox starters have combined for 113 1/3 innings through 24 games, an average of fewer than five innings per start. That means they are often counting on their bullpen to handle at least four innings. With Whitlock moving into the rotation, at least temporarily, are there four relievers in this bullpen that we can trust? Keep in mind, those same four can’t pitch in every game.

The decision to pull Wacha early made sense in terms of finding the best solution for that  moment. The bullpen was well rested following an off day on Monday and the platoon advantage was favorable with Diekman. It worked to win this game but what about the next one? Whitlock and Hill will wrap up this series with the Angels. Burning through the bullpen in game one of the series seems shortsighted when you know the next two pitchers in line to start can’t be counted on for more than five innings.

Boston is relying heavily on a bullpen that hasn’t done enough to earn our trust. They risk putting themselves in spots down the line where they don’t have enough reliable arms to turn to. Even when the data tells you that it’s the right move, you still need the right personnel to pull it off. If Cora intends to stay with this strategy of pulling his starters when the opposing lineup turns over for a third time, he’s going to need some reinforcements for his bullpen.

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