Coming into the season, the Red Sox bullpen looked to be one of the real strengths of the team. With Koji Uehara anchoring a unit that also featured guys like Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller, late-game situations didn't project to be a major concern for Boston.
As of today, things have actually gone more-or-less according to plan in this area. The bullpen has been one of the few bright spots for the team, even if some of the guys (Mujica) haven't lived up to expectations. By the job's nature, middle relievers don't really get the credit they may deserve. It's true that relievers are volatile and middle relievers don't face the highest leverage situations, but they are still often big contributors to a team's success. The Red Sox have the perfect example of a player like this in Burke Badenhop.
Though it was met with very little fanfare, the right hander was Boston's first acquisition this past offseason. Just 23 days after they took home the World Series trophy, Boston traded Luis Ortega to Milwaukee for their new reliever. At the time, it was hardly discussed, since they already had a very deep pitching staff and Badenhop wasn't likely to be one of the late-inning relievers in this bullpen. He's been a bit of a journeyman the last few years, as the Red Sox are now his fourth team in four seasons. However, wherever he's gone, he's been extremely consistent. In 2012 and 2013, he threw the same number of innings, struck out and walked the same number of batters and gave up the same number of home runs. He allowed one more hit in 2012 than he did in 2013. He didn't do it in a flashy way, but teams knew what he was going to give them, and what he gives can be very valuable.
Before we get to his number one skill, it's worth mentioning that Badenhop's overall numbers have been very good. Though his strikeout rate is down to 12 percent from his normal 16 percent, he is inducing a lot more weak contact than normal. His line drive rate is down five percent from his typical rate from the last few years, and his home-run-to-flyball ratio is a minuscule 4.5 percent. Whether or not that's sustainable remains to be seen, but it doesn't appear to be all luck. The Red Sox certainly haven't had any problems trusting him, as he currently has the most innings pitched of anyone in their bullpen. They have been rewarded to the tune of a 1.89 ERA and a 3.39 FIP.
What Badenhop does best is get ground balls, and he does it at a rate few pitchers in the game can match. Thus far this year, he has a ground ball rate of 61.5 percent. This is the best of any pitcher on the staff with more than one appearance (Rubby De La Rosa has him beat right now), and is 11th in baseball among pitchers with at least 20 innings under their belt. He's never had less than half of his batted balls go for grounders (for context, the league average ground ball rate is typically around 45 percent). This skill makes him hugely valuable for the Red Sox, as he's the perfect man to come in and get them out of jams. In his 33 innings this year, he's already induced 9 double plays, the most among any reliever in baseball. Really, there's no reason for Badenhop to ever come into a game with the bases empty. With runners on base this season, batters are hitting just .258/.306/.379 against him.
It's been a tough year so far for the Red Sox, and so they've found themselves in plenty of said jams throughout the season. Having someone like Burke Badenhop to help them escape from those situations, then, is that much more important. He's not going to be the most exciting player on the team, and he'll likely see most of his appearances in the sixth or seventh inning, before the usual big-name relievers come into the game. Despite that, he is still one of the most important arms in that bullpen. John Farrell has a huge weapon at his disposal when one of his pitchers gets in trouble, as Badenhop can put two outs on the scoreboard with one pitch better than almost anyone else in the game. He's not going to be the reason the Red Sox turn it around, but he'll play his role. And with the way things have gone for Boston's starting pitchers, it's a pretty important one.