Thing the first: Injuries. Peter Abraham just wrote that the Red Sox have lost 1,119 man-games to injury this season. He said it on Monday too, so the number has actually increased since then. Ignoring pitchers who make this whole calculus far more complicated, there are eight position players who play 162 games apiece. That means, there are 1,296 non-pitcher man-games in a season if everyone plays every game. Of course the reality is more complex, but that puts a bit of context to that number, I think. 1,119? Amazing. Not surprisingly, according to Mr. Abraham, it's a record.
Thing the Second: under-performance. Even the star players who have stayed on the field haven't performed up to expectations. Adrian Gonzalez is coming around, but for the first half of the season he hit .283/.329/.416. That's good for a catcher or shortstop, but atrocious for a first baseman. Dustin Pedroia has also been a disappointment. Kevin Youkilis wasn't so great before he was hurt and then traded. Jacoby Ellsbury was lousy for a week then got hurt. The entire starting staff it seems has either been injured or lousy. Obviously that's a generalization, but not so much of one that I don't mind writing it here.
I'll spare you the rest of the details and get to the point. Lost in the flailing maelstrom of the 2012 season has been perhaps the brightest spot on the team, a place of good performance, exceeded expectations, and reasonable hopes for a bright future: the bullpen.
The 2012 Red Sox bullpen has been the fourth best Red Sox bullpen by ERA in my lifetime. And I'm old. Since the 1975 season, only three other Red Sox bullpens have posted better ERAs than the current team's 3.35. Two of those, the 1981 team's 3.22 and the 1982 team's 3.21, came in a lower run scoring environment and during a time when bullpens were put together and managed much differently than they are today. If you limit the sample to the last 22 years, from 1990 on, there is only one bullpen with a better ERA than this year's: the 2007 World Champion Red Sox.
The '07 team's bullpen ERA was 3.10, a quarter run below this season's team and done in a higher run scoring environment. That was a good bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and Hideki Okajima each had an ERA+ over 200, and Papelbon's was 257. That's good.
This year's bullpen doesn't have that kind of star power but it does have something over that 2007 pen: depth. If there is one thing we know about bullpen arms it's that they're unpredictable from one year to the next. The number of consistent relievers over a long stretch of time can seemingly be counted on one hand. There are reasons for this (sample size, injury, etc.) but mostly this means one thing: depth is vital.
Look at the 2007 pen. The majority of innings came from seven guys:
Brendan Donnelly, Clay Buchholz, Joel Pinero, J.C. Romero, and Eric Gagne also threw some innings. That's 12 total pitchers. Of those, Buchholz is in the rotation, Papelbon signed his big deal with Philadelphia, Romero has bounced around but has generally been working, and Pinero re-invented himself as a Cardinals ground-ball starter before remembering that, oh, he's actually J.C. Romero. The rest of the guys disappeared, flamed out, fell apart, retired, or were sent back to the minors never to be heard from again.
Being a reliever means having an above-average year and spending the next season in the minors or out of baseball. It's tough and it's maybe as tough to try to pick relievers as it is to actually be one. That's why the bounty the Red Sox have on their hands now is so impressive. Every reliever who has been half decent this season, and that is a lot of them, is under team control for next year at least.
The worst reliever to get regular work by ERA+ is Vicente Padilla (95 ERA+) and he was above average before his last outing (homer, walk, homer) put him below. Padilla likely won't be around next season, but that's no great loss. There are a ton of guys who can easily step in and do his job, only better. Alfredo Aceves may be miscast as a closer, but if nothing else he's proven himself to be a valuable long man who can, as they say, eat innings.
Matt Albers put together some lucky innings and was shipped to Arizona (what were they thinking?) for Craig Breslow. Breslow may not be a shut-down reliever, but he's a lefty who can get both righties and lefties out, strike out some guys and not walk the park in the process. Those don't grow on trees.
With Aceves and Breslow, Clayton Mortenson, Junichi Tazawa, and Andrew Miller all make up the backbone of a talented, young, inexpensive, and team-controlled pen. They've all been so good that moving Franklin Morales to the rotation hasn't been any kind of problem at all. Then you've got Chris Carpenter, Alex Wilson, and if you're daring, Mark Prior down in Triple-A.
That's impressive. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of this bullpen is that the two pitchers who were expected to be central to its success, the closer and the set-up man, missed large portions of the season and haven't pitched particularly well when they have been healthy. Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey were both trade targets and the centerpieces of off-season deals. They were expected to improve a pen that had been suspect last season. Both were to be a lock-down pair but instead both have been just locked down. In Bailey's case for health reasons, in Melancon's for fan sanity. Despite losing both guys, neither was missed.
Speaking of not being missed, I give you set-up man extraordinaire Daniel Bard.
There are no guarantees when it comes to next year's pen. Injuries happen, something Red Sox fans know all too well. So do seemingly random downturns in performance, that, well, ditto. Still, the Sox are as insulated against this kind of thing as a team can be. Next year it will be like the Red Sox just acquired Bailey, Bard, and Melancon to go with the rest of the group. It should be a very strong bullpen next season, and it could be for years to come. Not what we wanted out of 2012, but still, it's something I guess.