The playoffs have begin, and as we all know they are a completely different animal. The intensity is ramped up, and more importantly the level of competition is raised. With the importance of each given game incalculably higher, the leashes for starting pitchers become shorter. Obviously, if your starter is shoving you leave him in. In all other cases, though, a manager should not hesitate to go to the bullpen. In short: relievers are all the more important in October.
It’s been a strange second half for Boston’s group of relief arms. They were unfathomably horrible in August, and then spent most of September looking like an elite group. Much of that goodwill exited stage right in the last week of the season, though, as many key arms slumped at the same time. On the other hand, as I wrote earlier this week, they may have an X-factor in Joe Kelly. As it turns out, they may have another throwing from the other side in Drew Pomeranz.
As intriguing as the lefty could be in the bullpen, this clearly isn’t an ideal situation for the Red Sox. They traded one of the best pitching prospects in baseball to put Pomeranz in the rotation, and he filled that role admirably for much of the second half. It wasn’t all pretty, but he undeniably helped get the Red Sox to where they are now. He has clear upside as a starter, and that’s likely more valuable than what Clay Buchholz gives them. At the same time, this isn’t the end of the world. Buchholz could be fine, and Pomeranz could be a real weapon out of the bullpen.
The most important part of all this is that he’s done it before. It’s always easy to say any starter can shift to the bullpen and immediately dominate, but it’s a different animal. Not knowing when you’re entering a game, coming in during the middle of an inning and starting an appearance with runners on base are big deals. It’s not an adjustment everyone can make on the fly. Pomeranz, however, has shown the ability to thrive here. Look at last year, for example. His overall numbers on the season don’t jump off the page, but his nine starts skew things. As a reliever, he allowed just a .587 OPS with ten strikeouts per nine innings. Over his career, his opponents’ OPS is slightly lower, though he’s striking out marginally fewer batters.
On top of that, as with Kelly, there are tangible changes that happen when Pomeranz is shifted to a one- or two-inning role. First and most obviously: His fastball velocity is up. For the entire 2016 season, he is averaging a shade under 92 mph on his four-seamer, a solid but unspectacular number for a southpaw. In his one relief appearance at the very end of the regular season, he was averaging 94.6 mph on his 13 fastballs. The sample clearly isn’t anything substantial, but that’s a clear improvement. If you want a little more data, just look at 2015 when 44 of his 53 appearances came in relief and he averaged 93 mph on his fastball over the whole season.
In addition to the velocity, he can tinker with his repertoire. A big part of Pomeranz’s improvement as a starter this season has been the addition of his cutter. He had failed in the rotation because he lacked a true third pitch to turn over a lineup. However, he doesn’t need it now as he shifts back to the bullpen for October. It’s far and away his worst pitch, and he can now focus on throwing his ramped up fastball and nasty curveball. If he wants to mix in a cutter here and there to keep hitters off balance, that’s fine. He doesn’t need to move away from his dominant pitches, though. In that one relief appearance references above, he didn’t throw a single cutter, per Brooks Baseball.
It’s clear by now that I think putting Pomeranz on the playoff roster is the right decision, and it’s made even better by the fact that he can play two key roles. The first is as a long reliever. Pomeranz can be that long reliever to throw multiple innings and save the other arms for the next game, and he can do so effectively. This becomes especially important with Heath Hembree being left off the roster, as he’s served this role for much of the year.
Beyond the long relief duties, Pomeranz can be an effective weapons against tough left-handed hitters. This is an area in which the team has lacked for a long time. Robby Scott looked good, but the sample was far from reliable. Fernando Abad was better than he was given credit for, but it still would’ve been hard to feel comfortable with him in a game. Pomeranz hasn’t shown extreme splits this season, but he allowed just a .438 OPS against lefties in 2015 and a .550 OPS over the course of his career. Even better, he doesn’t need to be a one-and-done guy. Instead, he can be trusted to stay in and face a righty if an inning presents a lefty-righty-lefty sequence.
In Game One, we saw him fill both of these roles, albeit with mixed results. He came on after Rick Porcello was unexpectedly knocked out of the game in the fifth inning, and he was tasked with facing the left-handed Jason Kipnis. Of course, he did not succeed, and was later bailed out by a Mike Napoli double bouncing over the fence, escaping the inning with just one run scored. After that, he got things under control and looked borderline dominant. He finished the night with 2-1/3 innings of five-strikeout, one-walk ball. More importantly, he helped save the bullpen after a short outing from Porcello.
In an ideal world, Pomeranz would be taking the mound for the Red Sox in Game Three, as that is what he was acquired for. We don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, he’s going to be throwing out of the bullpen. Luckily, he has a strong history there and has the ability to serve two important roles. Bullpens are crucial in October, and Pomeranz should be a big part of Boston’s.