It’s easy to overreact to bullpen implosions, particularly when they cost a team a seemingly surefire lead. Last night’s meltdown at Fenway not only cost the Red Sox a win, but played to some of the major fears entering the season.
As Alex Speier of the Boston Globe writes, the collapse against a tepid Indians lineup featured messy appearances from Ryan Brasier, Marcus Walden, and Travis Lakins. While Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes weren’t charged with any runs, they didn’t really help with the ugliest stat line to emerge from the evening: the Boston pen recorded just one strikeout against seven walks.
The bullpen was the source of much consternation when camp broke. In particular, many worried about the failure to add established arms to a late-inning unit that bid adieu to closer Craig Kimbrel.
As MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk wrote in reviewing the club’s offseason efforts, the “nightmare scenario” some posited was an overreaction. But he also noted that the decision not to bring in additional high-leverage arms — which would also have deepened the middle relief unit — was a “risky strategy.” After all, Polishuk reasoned, “settling for even a middle-of-the-pack bullpen for a few months could cost the Red Sox” in a tight division race.
Every win matters, and it’d always be preferable to have another elite arm to call upon. But after observing the Boston relief unit for one-third of the season, it’s hard to call it a problem. Combined, the group carries a solid 3.92 ERA that ranks in the top third leaguewide. Fielding-independent pitching metrics concur with that general placement.
Have things gotten worse of late? The unit has recorded as many blown saves in the past two weeks (4) as have the Nationals, but other teams have more and that’s not necessarily a worthwhile metric to go by in evaluating overall bullpen health. Despite grading in the middle of the pack on the season, Sox relievers have suddenly become walk-happy over the past two weeks with a league-worst 13.3% BB rate. Still, that seems like a short-sample blip. Overall results have actually ticked up over the past month, with the relief corps combining for a 3.21 ERA.
If a true, overarching issue has cropped up it may relate to Ryan Brasier. Expected to function as a core part of the high-leverage group after last year’s surprise emergence, Brasier has fallen on hard times of late. As Speier notes, the righty has been tagged for five long balls in his last 22 2/3 innings of action. Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com looked further at Brasier’s struggles.
But even if Brasier has stepped back, the Red Sox have seen others emerge. Barnes has doubled down on his strong 2018 season. Though he’s allowing too many walks, Workman has done the same, carrying stepped-up swinging-strike and strikeout numbers. And Walden has been excellent in his first full season in the majors, with a pleasing mix of K’s and grounders to support a 2.05 ERA.
To be sure, the remainder of the outfit isn’t as strong, but that’s a nice trio. Heath Hembree has been useful and Brasier still holds out hope of a bounceback. The team’s rotating cast of other relief pitchers has yet to find sustained success, but that’s a common issue around the league.
It’s certainly not difficult to see the merits of a mid-season acquisition or two. But really, who didn’t see that coming for a team that obviously prioritized other areas in the offseason? What’s more surprising is that the assembled group has performed so well for such a sustained stretch. Most any relief unit will produce moments like last night; plenty of others haven’t been capable of the sturdy results produced to this point by Boston’s hurlers.
Better still, further improvement might be found without a budget or farm-busting move for a high-end closer. The one area where the righty-heavy Sox have clearly struggled is in retiring opposing left-handed hitters. The relief unit has been tagged for a 5.31 ERA and 1.70 HR/9 by southpaw batters. Adding even one quality situational lefty could help smooth out this bump and make it easier for skipper Alex Cora to get the ball to his most reliable relievers in the late innings.