Breaking Down the Bull(s***)pen

For the best team in baseball, we really have a garbage bullpen. Craig Kimbrel seems to like walking batters more than striking them out. Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree can’t even pitch half of a clean inning. And I’d rather pour acid into my open eyes than watch Drew Pomeranz pitch.

It’s a measure of how good our starting rotation and lineup are that we’ve made it to a 96-44 record. But as September amps up, and with it, the pressure of an impending postseason, the bullpen looks worse than ever.

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Almost every pitcher in our bullpen has seen dramatic downturns since the All-Star break. The only two pitchers who have really improved are Kelly and Thornburg, but have they really? Thornburg’s pre-break ERA was so high because he only pitched 3.1 innings, and was finding his footing after not pitching for nearly two years. And Kelly hasn’t yet seen half as much work as he did before the break, though he’s been much better in the last month; in July, he posted an 8.38 ERA with 9 earned runs in 9.2 innings. In the last month, he had a 1.84 ERA with just 3 earned runs in 14.2 innings pitched.

Now, on the one hand, a pitcher who appears in fewer games/innings has fewer opportunities to make a mistake. So it’s easy to look at a reliever’s ERA from just a few good games and say that they’re better than a reliever who pitches almost every night. But on the other hand, the more innings you pitch, the less concentrated your ERA should be, i.e. one bad game won’t matter so much. Look at Kelly, who had a 4.31 ERA by the break, but an ERA of over 100 in March because of his performance on Opening Day. It’s a very skewed sample because he only appeared in one regular season game that month, and it was a disaster.

Another thing to note is that for a long stretch in the beginning and middle of this season, our starting rotation was pitching so phenomenally and going so deep into games that our bullpen was getting little to no work. It’s quite the tightrope line to walk, between overusing and underutilizing all of our pitchers; you want your starters to be able to go deep into games, especially when your starters are talents like Sale, Price, and Porcello, but relievers need regular outings in order to hone their craft and stay alert. Craig Kimbrel, in particular, is a pitcher who needs to work regularly; his performance trends towards dismal when he has more than a few days rest. But now, the issue is that a lot of our starting rotation is either on the DL (Sale) or not pitching well (Eovaldi). David Price left his start early last week after being drilled in the wrist by a comeback ball, and we’ll have to wait until the Astros series later this week to see if that will put a damper on what has been his best season with the team yet. We need the bullpen to step up for their starters now, and it really doesn’t feel like most of them will be able to rise to the challenge.

So yes, our bullpen really is much worse than it was before the break. Anyone who says otherwise is either blind or kidding themselves. Starting the last month of the regular season with a 96-44 record, it’s both an incredible and incredibly stressful time to be a Red Sox fan.

Photo: NESN

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