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Craig Kimbrel’s usage will be a key for the Red Sox

John Farrell needs to be flexible with his closer

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next couple of days leading up to the first pitch of the Red Sox-Astros series, you are going to be reading about a whole lot keys to the series for both sides. Many of those things will (hopefully) be read on these very pages on the world wide web. There are lots of keys for the Red Sox to win this series, as they are the underdog and the somewhat significantly less talented team on paper. They aren’t going to win this series unless pretty much everything goes right. With all of that being said, though, there are two players who are the biggest keys to this series. One is Chris Sale, who was discussed on these pages earlier today. The other is the Chris Sale of the Red Sox bullpen: Craig Kimbrel.

The Red Sox bullpen has been getting a ton of love from both the local and the national media over the last few weeks, and they absolutely deserve it. The relief corps has been nails all year long and is a huge reason this team won the division. The number of close games this team one thanks to strong late-game performances from its pitchers is staggering, and it was a true group effort. At different points of the year there were different guys who were stepping up and pitching above expectations. Kimbrel is the one guy who did it from day one, though. He’s the star of this group, and as well as everyone pitched this year the Boston bullpen only goes as far as Kimbrel will take it.

I don’t think anyone needs a reminder of how incredible Kimbrel was this year, but I am not going to pass up a chance to remind you. The righty tossed 69 innings in 67 appearances this season and pitched to an impressive 1.43 ERA. That was not a fluke, either, as he finished the year with a 1.39 FIP and a 1.89 DRA. Of the 254 batters Kimbrel faced this year, 126 of them struck out, or just under half. He was utterly, amazingly, absurdly dominant from the start of the year until the very end.

MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Kimbrel was great against everyone he faced this season, of course, but he was particularly hard on right-handed hitters. There was a point in the early-to-middle of the season where righties literally couldn’t manage a hit off the Red Sox closer. On the season — and I swear this isn’t a typo — right-handed batters hit just .109/.156/.180 against Kimbrel in 136 plate appearances. Of the 413 pitchers to face at least 100 right-handed batters this year, only Kenley Jansen allowed a lower OPS than Kimbrel. This dominance against righties is clearly useful in any situation, but it should prove to be particularly important in this series against this Astros lineup.

As has been mentioned ad nauseum and as many likely noticed when these two teams met in the final weekend of the regular season, Houston’s lineup is absolutely loaded with right-handed talent. This is where John Farrell comes in. At some point before this series, he needs to let Kimbrel know that he is liable to come in at any point over the last few innings depending on the situation. That situation, in this case, will be if Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman are coming up. No team in baseball boasts a group of right-handed hitters are scary as Houston’s, and Boston needs to use its own right-handed weapon to neutralize them. That means, if the top of the Astros lineup is coming up for the eighth inning, that’s when Kimbrel needs to enter the game. If Farrell doesn’t want to push him too much and wants to use Addison Reed in the ninth that’s fine. Kimbrel needs to face that part of the lineup, though.

Really, it shouldn’t be all that hard to convince Kimbrel that this is the role he needs to play in the postseason, and convincing his closer should be the only obstacle in Farrell’s way. In short, saves don’t matter in the postseason. In the regular season, I understand. For younger relievers, their paychecks are determined by saves. It makes sense to want as many as possible. For older players who are past arbitration, there is still a narrative that saves get paid in free agency. For whatever it may be worth, I don’t believe that’s the case but what really matters is what the player believes. Furthermore, legacies matter to players whether they want to admit it or not. Finishing near or at the top of the all-time saves list would be a hell of an accomplishment. Postseason saves don’t count towards any of that, though. Players will be remembered for how well they pitched and the big outs they made, not the number of saves they recorded. The best chance for Kimbrel to record big outs is against the top of Houston’s lineup, regardless of the inning.

The Red Sox will need a big performance from their bullpen in this series if they are going to advance to the ALCS, and that starts with Kimbrel. At some point, and likely at multiple points in this series, the Red Sox will find themselves in a huge spot while facing some of the best right-handed hitters in baseball. Farrell and company cannot mess around in these situations and rely on their second-tier relievers despite how good they’ve been all year. In Kimbrel, Boston has a unique weapon seemingly designed to shut down this Astros team. It’s just up to them to be unafraid to use it.