Since the beginning of May, there has been no bullpen in all of baseball better than that of the Boston Red Sox. Even with the three earned runs of Darnell McDonald in that terrible 17-inning game, Boston's relief corps grades out at he top of the pack with a 1.64 ERA. Peripherally they are not much worse, with a 2.79 FIP trailing only the Reds and Marlins--two units that have had to pitch only around 50 innings in the month compared to Boston's 76.
Still, just when looking at the pen, it's seemed kind of a jumble of late. There are plenty of players providing quality innings right now between Scott Atchison, Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, Rich Hill, and Vicente Padilla right now, but other than Alfredo Aceves in his closer spot it's been hard to say who will come in in what situation.
Or at least that was the case until recently. Over the past couple of weeks, there have been more and more patterns emerging. Finally, it looks like we're seeing some order emerge from the chaos, however productive it may have been.
Not long ago, this bullpen seemed to be one made exclusively of long men, which left the question of who was actually the designated long reliever. With players like Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa back in the minors for now, however, it looks like that job belongs to Scott Atchison, who always seems to be the first man warming up when the Sox have a starter struggling early. While the Sox haven't needed this sort of outing from him in a while, thanks to the improved performances of their starters, he's always up for three innings to bridge the gap to the rest of the bullpen and to give the offense time to catch up.
Then there are the two firemen in Andrew Miller and Vicente Padilla. The former is as surprising to me as to anyone, but Miller has been outstanding so far this year, showing some ridiculous control compared to what he used to have. The result is that whenever a starter seems to tire late, and the Sox find themselves in a jam, Miller is the one called on to strike some batters out or at least to limit the damage.
Vicente Padilla can essentially be seen as the backup or later-inning option for that role. He's now stranded all 15 runners he's inherited this season. While it will be interesting to see if this is something he can continue, for now the Sox just have to avoid giving him clean innings. An oddity, to be sure, but one we'll not complain about having until it stops working.
The setup role has been the biggest question mark. Franklin Morales seems to have more-or-less been relegated to getting lefties out since his mediocre performances in eighth innings have cost him Bobby Valentine's faith. Rich Hill has been given the nod of late, but had some trouble in his last outing. Ideally, I think we'd have Mark Melancon take another shot at this spot, but that would require freeing up a roster spot.
How might we do that? The answer may lie in Matt Albers, who seems to be little more than a mop-up man at this point despite strong numbers on the season so far. It would not be surprising at all to see the team try and move Albers for whatever value they can get at this point. Given his performances to date, that actually might not be nothing given the state of some of the bullpens around the league right now.
Regardless of where they go from here, however, it's remarkable how fast this bullpen--at one time simply untenable--has suddenly become such a strength that it's been able to outpace the majors in May even with three strong pieces in the minor leagues and Andrew Bailey on the disabled list. Who could have imagined?