Alfredo Aceves has had a rough go of things as Boston's replacement closer, but it could turn out that the Red Sox have pinpointed the problem. And, in an odd twist, that issue was discovered while watching the Red Sox bullpen embarrass themselves against the Yankees on Saturday.
Aceves's strength is that he's highly-effective when he gets to work a lot. He's all about throwing strikes and looks sharp the more he works -- it's one of the reasons the idea of him as a starter isn't particularly thrilling, as it would give him a lot of time off in between appearances. It sounds as if The Bobs -- Valentine and McClure -- have realized this, after watching Aceves struggle in relief after five days off.
In an attempt to get Aceves throwing more effectively, pitching coach Bob McClure said the Red Sox may treat him like a throwback closer, possibly using him for more than just the one-inning saves that have become common over the past two decades. Aceves thrived in a multiple-inning role last season, and with the bullpen in disarray, McClure said the Red Sox will consider bringing Aceves into games in the eighth inning.
Using Aceves for an inning at a time, at the start of a fresh inning in the ninth, is a waste of his abilities. And if it also lowers his effectiveness, he's a pointless bullpen creature. Not coincidentally, when the Red Sox used Aceves for 64 innings of relief from July through September of 2011, he was at his most effective, with 7.3 strikeouts per nine, a 2.6 K/BB, little in the way of homers, and an obscene 1.82 ERA. That's the Aceves the Red Sox pictured when he was thrust into the closer role, but if he's not used in the way that suits his abilities, they won't get that.
McClure took the blame for what happened Saturday, noting that Aceves was rusty from not pitching in five days. Aceves seems to thrive on a heavy workload. He hadn't gotten as many as five days' rest since last July 2 against Houston, and McClure said he must do a better job of getting regular work for Aceves, even in non-save situations.
According to McClure, the Red Sox learned another lesson from Saturday's debacle. If they turn to Aceves for a two-inning save, they will have him start the eighth inning rather than inheriting baserunners.
If Aceves is both the eighth- and ninth-inning reliever a few nights per week, there's less pressure on the team to put Daniel Bard back in the bullpen, especially if Mark Melancon can return to the Red Sox with his pre-2011 mechanics intact. This isn't a given that Aceves succeeds more in this setup, but unlike a few of the moves made by the manager involving relievers, this is one that looks to be in the team's best interests as far as being in a position to win goes.
Can Aceves's arm handle it over a full season? That 64 innings of relief over the course of three months was roughly half his year's total, and also was one out fewer than what Jonathan Papelbon threw all season as the closer. Aceves just might be built of different stuff than your typical closer, and because of that, he should be used atypically.
Daisuke Matsuzaka made his first start of the season last night for High-A Salem, as the first step on his path back to Boston. He went four innings and threw 57 pitches, 40 of those going for strikes, and didn't issue a walk to any of the 18 batters he faced. For emphasis:
Daisuke Matsuzaka did not walk any of the 18 batters he faced in Monday night's start.
He gave up quite a few hits, including two homers (there's the rub!), but overall it sounds as if it was an encouraging first performance back. As an aside, Matsuzaka has now worked 46-2/3 innings in the minors in his career, despite never having to play there in order to get to the majors. In those frames, he has a 3.28 ERA and 4.0 K/BB, thanks to 8.5 strikeouts per nine against 2.1 walks. Oddly, he's given up six homers, though, or 1.2 per nine, despite the lesser competition.
Andrew Miller also worked in last night's game as he attempts to get back to Boston. His stint at Pawtucket has been up-and-down, with Miller giving encouraging performances, but following them up with disappointment. It's an old story at this point, and it isn't inspiring much faith in regards to his helping out the big-league team at some point in 2012.
Miller has 11 strikeouts against nine walks, and if you're feeling charitable, has 14 K and nine free passes when you include his short time at Greenville. As usual, the groundball out has been a weapon for him, but he just hasn't shown the consistent control of his pitches that is going to be necessary for him to succeed in the majors. Rich Hill might be farther behind in his recovery from Tommy John surgery than Miller is from his spring injury, but the longer Miller is inconsistent while Hill finds new and exciting ways to miss the bats of kids (15 strikeouts against one walk in seven innings this year), the less likely it is we'll see much of Miller in Boston.
In the 56 innings of relief Hill has thrown in the Red Sox organization since 2010, he has 70 strikeouts (11.2 per nine) against 23 walks (3.7 per nine) with a 2.08 ERA. Now, if those could just come all in a row, instead of over three years, a lot of bullpen woes would vanish. As with lots of things Rich Hill, it's a big if to ask for, but he certainly has the potential still, even at 32 years old.