Heading into the offseason, arguably the biggest hole on the Red Sox roster was their bullpen. It was clear they needed to make moves to improve the unit, but no one could have predicted they would have been this successful at remaking the group this early. They struck early by giving up a haul for Craig Kimbrel. That alone made their bullpen infinitely better than it was in 2015, creating a three-headed monster in Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa. Then, on Monday, they struck again by acquiring Carson Smith in the Wade Miley deal.
Now, the team finds themselves with four legitimate late-game arms. The league as a whole is trending towards grouping elite relievers together, and the Red Sox appear to be taking this trend to heart. It’s an exciting time to be a reliever lover like myself, and it provides a few obvious benefits to Boston’s roster. Chief among those benefits may be the fact that it allows them to avoid overworking any of these pitchers, particularly Uehara and Tazawa. The former is entering his age-450 season, and the latter showed signs of fatigue after extreme workloads in each of the last three seasons. Now, they can spread out the high-leverage situations amongst this foursome.
Beyond the rest factor, however, there is a more interesting effect to watch for in 2016. John Farrell has been criticized in the past with how he uses his bullpen, but now he has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. How he uses each individual arm will be a fascinating thing to watch when the season gets rolling.
It seems to go without saying that Kimbrel will receive the bulk of the save opportunities. Uehara likely has a clear role set up for him in the eighth. The league is starting to get away from strict roles like this, and I fully expect the Red Sox to get more creative than this on some nights, but this will be the late-game structure more often than not. What’s more interesting though, in my opinion at least, is how Smith gets used.
Before we delve deeper into how the newest Red Sox reliever will be used, let’s take a second to appreciate just how good he was in 2015. In his first full major-league season, Smith emerged as one of the best young bullpen arms in the game. He split the year between a setup and closing role, tossing 70 innings with a 2.31 ERA and a 164 ERA+. Those numbers are more than backed up by his peripherals, too. The 25-year-old finished tied for seventh in FIP- amongst all pitchers with at least 60 innings with Ken Giles. He also finished tied for twelfth in cFIP (which takes in more contextual factors than the three true outcomes) with Wade Davis and Darren O’Day, and tied for fourteenth in DRA- with Justin Verlander, Ryan Madson and Pedro Strop. The dude was flat-out dominant.
How he does it is even more interesting. While he throws in the mid-90’s, he’s not exactly a blow-away fastball kind of pitcher. Instead, he gets the job done primarily with a nasty slider/sinker mix. Even without the elite velocity, he gets strikeouts in spades, striking out roughly a third of his opponents over 78-1/3 career innings. More importantly, his arsenal leads to a ton of ground balls. Per Baseball Prospectus, Smith induced grounders on 66 percent of his batted balls last year. Looking again at the group of pitchers with at least 60 innings, only four of them had higher ground ball rates.
All of this brings us back to the best way to utilize this skillset. With the top two late-inning spots already locked down, Farrell can afford to use Smith in unorthodox roles. They don’t need a specific pitcher to save for the seventh inning, and even if they wanted that Tazawa is still there. Instead, Smith can be unleaded early in a game — think the fifth or sixth inning if the situation calls for it — and Farrell doesn’t need to worry about not having options later. Specifically, Smith can be used to get the Red Sox starters out of jams, like the Mac to their Dennis.
The one concern is that this isn't a role that he was used in very often with Seattle. This was mostly a product of them needing to save him for the end of games, but he only inherited a runner in 23 of his 70 appearances. However, his skill set is perfect for this role. When there are runners on base in a key situation, there are two things a pitcher wants to do. He either wants to get a strikeout, thereby ensuring that the runners can’t advance. As I mentioned above, Smith can do that at an elite level. Failing that, they want to induce a ground ball, either forcing a double play or at least preventing sac flies and run-scoring doubles. Again, Smith is great at this.
Having someone like this is particularly beneficial to a team like the Red Sox. Even if one assumes the rotation is improved over last year — and it almost certainly is — it is still far from perfect. Beyond David Price, there are four question marks of varying degrees. Chances are, there will be a fair amount of games that come down to a high-leverage jam in the fifth or sixth inning, and Smith is the perfect guy to get out of those kind of jams.
Farrell looks like he’s going to have a fun box of toys to play with in the bullpen this year, and how he utilizes them will be a big storyline for the season. While Carson Smith is typically one of the two best pitchers in a bullpen, the Red Sox can afford to use him as a traditional middle reliever. He’s perfect suited to get out of mid game jams, and Farrell doesn't have to worry about who will pitch in later games if he uses Smith in the fifth or sixth innings. He can afford to be aggressive with his bevy of relievers, and Smith specifically, and I for one am excited to watch it happen.