MLB playoffs reveal winning formula for Chaim Bloom, Red Sox

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Alex Cora #20 removes starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox from the game during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 21, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Alex Cora #20 removes starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox from the game during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 21, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox are not playing playoff baseball this season, but there’s still value to be gained from watching the 2022 postseason.

For one, the MLB playoffs are an incredibly entertaining spectacle; elite talent is featured in innings 1-9, making them the most enjoyable to watch if you’re a true fan of the game. They also offer valuable insight when trying to rationalize what separates playoff teams from non-playoff teams and how to build to become one in the future.

A consistent trend each year is pitching, and it was more apparent than ever this season.  The Dodgers (1st), Astros (2nd), Yankees (3rd), and Braves (5th) were all in the top 5 in Team ERA during the regular season, and all are still alive in the playoffs. In fact, they each earned a bye from the Wild Card round, which includes one division-winner per league in the new format.

The top playoff teams in 2022 all have a true ace and an elite bullpen, the two biggest missing pieces for the Red Sox

The team with the 4th-best ERA (Rays) got eliminated in the Wild Card round by the team with the 6th-best (Guardians). The Red Sox pitching staff’s ERA ranked 25th, and their bullpen was 24th.

The top 4 seeds in the playoffs each have a true ace and an elite bullpen. The Astros have the lowest bullpen ERA and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and the 2nd best bullpen. The Yankees bullpen ranks 3rd and the rotation is led by Gerrit Cole. And lastly, the Braves have Max Fried and the 4th lowest bullpen ERA.

This is not a fluke coincidence; it is a clear formula for success. And this success isn’t limited to the 162-game regular season. It clearly translates to postseason play, when aces need to be at their best to shift the momentum of the series and the bullpen must be able to be relied on to do the rest.

There were 2 performances in particular from the Wild Card round that stood out, in terms of immediate impact on that game and the shift in momentum for the entire series.

Shane Bieber, ALWC Game 1 vs. Rays: 7.2 innings, 3 hits, 1 run (earned), 1 walk, 8 strikeouts 

Shane Bieber pitched into the 8th in Game 1 of the AL Wild Card round between the Cleveland Guardians and the Tampa Bay Rays, limiting the Rays’ offense to 1 run in the process. The Guardians managed to score twice in the bottom of the 6th, holding off the Rays by a slim 2-1 margin to take the win.

But the impact of Bieber’s outing might have been even more substantial in Game 2. The team’s starter, Triston McKenzie, went the first 6 innings. Once he was relieved, the bullpen needed to pitch 9 innings because the game went into the 15th with no score.

The Guardians needed only 2 pitchers in Game 1: starter (Bieber) and closer (Clase). If the bullpen had been more taxed, it’s possible that the Rays would have emerged victorious in Game 2.

Instead, Bieber’s performance allowed the team to use its full arsenal of relief options (Karinchak, Stephan, Clase, Sandlin, Morgan, De Los Santos, and Hentges) in the 2nd game. The Guardians won on a walk-off home run off Corey Kluber (a starting pitcher) in the bottom of the 15th inning.

Joe Musgrove, NLWC Game 3 vs. Mets: 7.0 innings, 1 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 5 strikeouts

There wasn’t as much nuance involved in this performance and its impact compared to Bieber’s; it was just pure domination in a do-or-die game for the San Diego Padres. The New York Mets leveled the best-of-3 series the night before, with the team’s offense exploding for 7 runs.

It seemed like the Mets had taken back some momentum that was lost by dropping Game 1 at home to the Padres, but Joe Musgrove completely halted that. He held the Mets offense hitless until the 5th inning and allowed only 1 hit and 1 walk in 7 scoreless innings.

Musgrove’s performance was a perfect example of what teams expect from their aces; he was at his best when it mattered most. He is the key reason why his team advanced.

The shortcomings of the starting rotation, coupled with an abysmal bullpen, made it no surprise that the Red Sox finished in the basement of the AL East. The team expected Chris Sale to only miss 2 months and targeted the return of James Paxton in July or August. Sale threw 5 2/3 innings and Paxton didn’t pitch at all, a reality that Chaim Bloom and the front office did not sufficiently plan for.

Compare that to 2018, when the Red Sox rotation and bullpen managed to stay healthy for almost the entire season. When looked at in the context of subsequent seasons, that was the clear difference-maker.

The Red Sox have many gaps to fill this off-season via free-agent signings, trades, or some combination of the two. However, the rotation and bullpen must be addressed in a significant way. Since Bloom took over in November 2019, the Sox have not handed out any significant starting pitching contracts, opting instead for short-term deals, often with older pitchers saddled with injury history and looking to rebound from poor performances. They did extend relievers Matt Barnes and Garrett Whitlock, but both deals are fairly team-friendly.

The decision to avoid lucrative contracts was in part due to the many that Bloom inherited from the Dave Dombrowski era, but also because it’s a practice that’s worked well for the Tampa Bay Rays, where Bloom got his start.  But being among the bottom 5-10 teams in ERA again next season will not be acceptable for a team that regularly has one of the highest payrolls in baseball, including this year. And since a substantial sum comes off the books this offseason and the organization has a replenished farm system, there are no more valid reasons why the Sox cannot target some formidable arms.

Bloom is out of time and out of excuses. It’s time for action.