By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Their lead in the American League East is now a perfect 10 and the Red Sox are on pace for 115 victories, and yet we all wonder: how far can they go? And the answer, it seems, is that the Red Sox can go however far their bullpen takes them.
Tell you what: let’s keep this simple. The first rule of pitching is to throw strikes. And if you watched the Red Sox play against the wretched Baltimore Orioles over the weekend, you undoubtedly noticed that Red Sox relievers still have difficulty throwing strikes, even in games against weak opponents, even with reasonably comfortable leads. In the final three games against Baltimore, Red Sox relievers Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Workman, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree and Matt Barnes walked a combined eight batters in eight innings, which is simply way too many.
Can the Red Sox win doing that in the playoffs? Sure. Anything is possible. But it’s a hard, dangerous way to live, and recent Red Sox history suggests the Red Sox will need far better performance in the postseason if they are to win another World Series.
With that in mind, we decided to review the bullpen performance of the Red Sox’ last three World Series winners – in 2004, 2007 and 2013 – at least as it pertained to strike-throwing ability. Again, we kept this simple, focusing solely on walks per nine innings. And what we found was alarming.
Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, here’s a look at the 2004 Red Sox bullpen, focusing on their three best relievers – Keith Foulke (the closer), Mike Timlin, and Alan Embree. (Few teams have more than three reliable relievers, and those are typically the ones entrusted with a lead.) We’ve highlighted the walks per nine innings in red, and remember that the general goal is to keep that number under 3.0.
Good, right? Foulke, Timlin and Embree were all good strike-throwers. And it’s worth noting that all three had fewer strikeouts than innings pitched that season, which leads to an obvious conclusion. As much as we all love power pitching, fewer walks might actually be more important than more strikeouts, the latter of which is something all teams seem to covet.
Now here’s a look at the 2007 Red Sox bullpen:
Again, the numbers are good. At the same time, Timlin and Hideki Okajima and both had fewer than a strikeout per inning pitched. Closer Jonathan Papelbon had both great strikeout capability (13 per nine innings) while walking very few, which is why he was arguably one of the best two or three relievers in baseball.
Now let’s jump to 2013:
Obviously, the strikeouts in this group are a little higher – both Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa struck out better than a batter per inning. But with regards to the walks, nothing was compromised. Uehara, in fact, was downright surgical, issuing just seven unintentional walks all season. And while it’s worth noting that Craig Breslow blew up on the Sox in the World Series, Boston still was able to win the World Series riding largely on the shoulders of relievers Uehara and Tazawa, who pitched a combined 21 postseason innings that year … with one walk.
Let’s say that again.
In 21 combined innings in the 2013 postseason, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa walked one batter.
Now let’s get the 2018 Red Sox, who sometimes feel like they’re playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey in the late innings. Has it hurt them thus far? No. They’re a whopping 50 games over .500 and now on pace for 115 wins. But we also know that the 2018 American League is absolutely wretched an uncompetitive at too many levels, which raises the question as to whether the Red Sox relievers have truly been pushed.
Here are the numbers, paying particular attention to the ones again outlines in red: (We’ll get to the green numbers in a moment.)
Scary, right? In some cases, Red Sox relievers are walking batters at more than three times the rate of their predecessors in 2004, 2007 and 2013. And the Sox’ primary relievers – Kimbrel, Barnes, Kelly and Hembree – all come in at 4.0 or more walks per nine innings. Thornburg comes in at 3.4 (which is still too high) and has walked four in his last 4.2 innings.
As for the relievers attached to the numbers in green, there are a couple of questions worth asking: first, is manager Alex Cora ready to trust Ryan Brasier or Brandon Workman in the postseason? And is the bullpen the real reason the Sox acquired right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who is currently pitching in the starting rotation?
One final variable here: David Price. Last year, out of the bullpen, Price was dominant as a reliever. He also would give the Sox a power, strike-throwing arm from the left side, which is something they lack in the relief corps. Either Price or Eovaldi seems destined for the bullpen come playoff time, which the Red Sox will enter coming off one of the great regular seasons in baseball history.
But come October, their inability to throw strikes in the late innings could be the first strike against them.