The offseason is in full swing, with trades already being made and minor free agents signing contracts, though almost exclusively with their old teams. Refreshingly, the Red Sox appear to already be active on the market, even without making a move to this point. We all knew they’d be aggressive, but it’s nice to see it happening.
Specifically, Dave Dombrowski is already on the phone with all of the top bullpen targets, an area we all know needs addressing. He’s been in contact with Joakim Soria. They also appear to be willing to go all-out for Darren O’Day. There’s even been some speculation that they’ll be involved in trade talks for Aroldis Chapman. They won’t head into next season with all three, of course, but they’re keeping their options open.
Any one of those guys can slide into either the eighth or ninth inning and become one of the key pitchers on the entire roster, including those in the rotation. Dombrowski has made it known that he wants someone like that on this team, and it doesn’t look like he was lying. As great as that is, we know that he can’t stop there. This bullpen had issues from top to bottom, and stopping at the top will look good aesthetically, but it won’t produce the desired results. Boston will need to address more minor roles as well, starting with the lack of a strong left-handed reliever.
It’s something that they should have addressed last offseason after losing Andrew Miller, but they opted to go with a couple of relatively soft tossers in Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross. To be fair, both of these guys have roles on major-league teams, but each fit better as secondary lefties in a good bullpen, not primary ones. Specifically, Layne can only face other lefties, and Ross just doesn’t have the stuff to be better than good. Edwin Escobar, Brian Johnson and Henry Owens could be part of the bullpen at one point or another, but one can’t put a ton of faith in any of them at this point either. That brings us to the free agent market, and specifically Tony Sipp.
Sipp has had one of the stranger careers in all of baseball, as he spent the first five years of his career in Cleveland and Arizona as an average-at-best pitcher. He then went to Houston for the 2014 season and has been one of the better relievers in baseball ever since. He’s appeared in 105 innings over the last two seasons, pitching to a 2.66 ERA (149 ERA+) and a 2.93 FIP. In fact, he’s had exactly a 2.93 FIP over each of the last two seasons. Essentially, he’s been a left-handed version of O’Day since 2014, at least in terms of peripherals, as just 0.01 points separate the two in FIP.
He improved even more last season, with the same FIP coming with better results. After his 2014 ended with a 3.38 ERA, he pitched to an extremely impressive 1.99 mark in 2015. The main reason was extreme success with runners on base, with his 88 percent LOB% coming in as the eighth best mark among all pitchers with at least 50 innings. That will likely regress a bit heading into next season, but everything else about his game suggests that he will continue to produce good results.
Of course, the fact that Sipp has only been this good for two years, after struggling for five, is a bit worrisome, so it makes sense to look for some reasons why this happened. Number one has been a slight change in his repertoire, as he started mixing in his splitter much more often after pitching as a fastball/slider for the first part of his career. On top of that, he’s added about 1.5 mph to his fastball.
Both of these have contributed to a large increase in swinging strike rate, which in turn has resulted in a large increase in strikeout rate. To wit, Sipp has struck out 32 and 29 percent of his opponents in the last two years, respectively. In addition to these changes, he started throwing more first pitch strikes after joining the Astros and he started inducing more swings on pitches out of the zone. The latter fact is likely attributable to his newfound splitter.
These are things that seem like they can be sustained over the next couple of years when he would theoretically be on the Red Sox. Specifically, he’d be pitching with Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, two pitchers who have mastered the art of the splitter. If Sipp were to be brought in, he’d slide in nicely into a sixth or seventh inning role, somewhere the Red Sox struggled all season a year ago.
They look poised to be solid in the back end with Tazawa, Uehara and a new addition, but Sipp would shorten the game even more. Even better is the fact that he has no discernible platoon splits. He’d still likely be used primarily against lefties, but he can pitch full frames and stay in for lineups that sandwich right-handed bats between their lefties. This is an underrated skill that someone like Layne doesn’t possess.
Unsurprisingly, Sipp isn’t expected to cost a back-breaking amount of money, either. For all of the similarities between him and O’Day, their respective prices couldn’t be more different. Jim Bowden, the premier free agent contract predictor in the world, pegged Sipp as a two-year, ten million dollar guy. Five million dollars of average annual value for just two years is something the Red Sox can easily afford at a position with little major-league depth and even less minor-league depth.
I wouldn’t expect anything like this to happen until they address the back-end of their bullpen, but the Red Sox need some left-handed help in the middle of their relief corps. Layne and Ross are fine on the fringes, but in a big spot a strikeout machine like he is a much better fit. He may just be a poor man’s Miller, but he’s a one percenter’s Layne. On a small deal, Sipp could make the difference between being merely a good team and being a championship contender.