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The Importance of the Red Sox’ playoff bullpen

The Red Sox are still figuring out who will start in the postseason, but who they decide will be in the bullpen will be just as important.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s hardly gone unnoticed by a large chunk of the Red Sox fan base, but the change in narrative around the pitching staff over the last month or two has been incredible. For the rotation, this transformation has been happening for the entire second half. It’s amazing how much better a starting unit can look when it’s bona fide ace actually starts throwing like one.

For the bullpen, the success has come in a much smaller sample, but it’s been a phenomenal run. After an August in which they looked like one of the worst units in all of baseball, they have completely turned things around in September. To wit, the relief corps has pitched to a 0.89 ERA since the calendar turned while striking out just under 11 batters per nine innings. In short, they’ve gone from a clear weakness to a clear strength, and they could play a big role if/when this team makes it to the postseason.

Of course, bullpens tend to play big roles in the playoffs. It’s not always the case, but generally speaking the team that gets hot in the postseason and makes a run to a World Series does so partially because their relievers got hot. Just look at last year, when the Royals had their studs in the back and Jeurys Familia looked like one of the best closers in baseball for the Mets.

The reason is twofold. For one thing, the level of competition is obviously much more even in the playoffs, so teams play more close games. They need near-perfection from relievers in late and close games to make a run. Additionally, managers are a lot more willing to be aggressive with so much on the line. Specifically, they aren’t afraid to put their starter on a short leash.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

Luckily for the Red Sox, this is a bullpen that has already proven it can come up big and pick up the rotation after the starter doesn’t do their job. That could turn out to be massive, as Boston suddenly has some questions creeping up regarding the back-end of their rotation. We talked about Drew Pomeranz last week, and he followed that rough outing up with a 3-2/3 inning outing in which he allowed four runs. After looking like a lock for the playoff rotation, he’s now in a dogfight to even get a playoff spot.

He’s fighting with Clay Buchholz, which is absurd given how close the team was to straight-up cutting him earlier in the year. Buchholz has been much better in the second half, but he’s still reminded us that he’s not the most trustworthy pitcher in baseball, to say the least. Even Eduardo Rodriguez, who has all but locked up a playoff rotation spot after his masterful outing on Tuesday has shown off some inconsistencies. His last time out, for example, lasted just two innings.

The point isn’t that the back of the rotation is doomed. It’s not, as we’ve seen plenty of potential from that unit. However, it’s not at all unreasonable to be worried about a short start from any of those three. Luckily, the bullpen has come up big in those games lately. In September, the Red Sox have already suffered through four games in which their starter didn’t go at least four innings. The good news is they won three of those games. Furthermore, the bullpen threw has thrown 25 innings in these games while allowing just three earned runs (1.08 ERA).

So, there is a real possibility the bullpen is going to have to carry this team through at least one game in a postseason series, and we’ve also seen them do it a few times already in September. The last big question to answer, though, is who exactly is going to do it? Generally speaking, teams carry eleven pitchers on their playoff roster, meaning seven relievers will make it after their four starters.

Right now, Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler and Robbie Ross are locks, plus whichever starter misses out on the rotation. After that, there are just two spots among a large group of options, and the Red Sox would be wise to keep their multi-inning arms. In this case, that would mean keeping two of Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly. I’d personally lean towards the first two, but any combination has its merits. However, they could also decide they need another lefty, which would hopefully be Robby Scott but would probably be Fernando Abad. On the other hand, that need would go away if Pomeranz was in the bullpen. Hell, we haven’t even mentioned Junichi Tazawa.

The final stretch of the season is going to be important for determining which pitchers will be carried on the postseason roster. The question of which pitchers will take the hill for starts in games three and four has gotten a lot of headlines lately, and for good reason. However, regardless of who is chosen, there is a decent chance the team will need to lean on the bullpen in at least one of those games. Luckily, they’ve shown the ability to weather those kind of storms, particularly with all of their pitchers that can go multiple innings. The challenge now becomes deciding which relievers to bring with you.