Back in the middle of April, the Red Sox made a low-impact minor-league signing of veteran reliever Blaine Boyer. I recall getting a message from our friend outofleftfield in the OTM slack room alerting me to the signing so I could write a post about it. Here is that post. As is fairly clear in that little write-up, I was not overly excited about the signing. Granted, I wasn’t upset about it, either. It was a minor-league deal, so who cares. I also recall a subsequent conversation with OOLF that same day in which he said something along the lines of being mildly excited about the potential of Boyer to help the major-league bullpen. I don’t have the exact transcripts from the conversation, but I can tell you he was more optimistic about the newly acquired righty than I was. My response to his optimism was something along the lines of “nah”.
Well, I think I’m ready to admit I was pretty clearly wrong about this. The Red Sox have had a surprisingly solid bullpen all season long, but the last spot in the group was a revolving door for much of the year. That wasn’t always because of a lack of success — if you recall, Ben Taylor pitched fairly well at the beginning of the year but lost his spot because they needed to him to work a long mop-up outing — but there wasn’t a consistent presence. That has changed since Boyer joined the major-league roster at the end of May.
Since being called up, the former Twin, Brewer, Brave and many other teams’ mascot has taken the mound 17 times for the Red Sox and has tossed 23 innings. He certainly hasn’t been amazing in that time, and he’s not going to be knocking down the door for any closer jobs in the near future, but he’s been shockingly solid. Over that time, he has pitched to a 3.13 ERA with a 3.33 FIP and a better-than-average 4.41 DRA. Again, we’re not talking about a 36-year-old who has suddenly turned into an elite reliever. He is, however, a solid major-league middle reliever and that is totally shocking to me.
It’s not just that he’s gotten some solid results that makes him so interesting, though. In order to become a consistent member of this bullpen, Boyer has turned into a totally different pitcher than the guy he was for most of his ten-year major-league career. For most of his time in the bigs, he was a pitch-to-contact arm who had decent control and did a great job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard. This year, though, he is striking out plenty of batters and allowing them to hit it in the air much more often.
Through his first 23 innings of work, he has 20 strikeouts and has set down a little over 20 percent of his opponents. For some context, prior to this season he hadn’t struck out this many batters since 2008 and this season’s rate is six percentage points above his career mark. To make matters even more interesting, he is coming off the worst strikeout season of his career as he struck out fewer than ten percent of his opponents with the Brewers in 2016. This increase isn’t an accident, either, as his 22 percent swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus) is easily a career-high. On top of the increase in strikeouts, Boyer’s 42 percent ground ball rate represents a career low, per Baseball Prospectus.
There are two clear changes in strategy from Boyer that are leading to these new results. The first can be found within his repertoire. For most of his career, he had a relatively large pitch mix for a reliever but leaned most heavily on his sinker. Over his career prior to this season, he threw the pitch 29 percent of the time. He threw it at that same rate in 2016 as well. This season, he is throwing it less than nine percent of the time. Additionally, he has ditched his changeup entirely and is throwing his curveball less than ever. As a result, he has turned into a two-pitch, fastball/slider reliever and it is working wonders. His fastball is being clocked in the mid-90s — the highest velocity of his career — and he’s getting great results with his slider as well. Both offerings are resulting in whiffs about 13 percent of the time, which for context is the same as the whiff rate on Drew Pomeranz’ fastball.
In addition to the new, simplified repertoire, Boyer has also been much more willing to work up in the zone. Below you can see a comparison between his pitch chart in 2016 versus his pitch chart this season, with the former on the left and the latter on the right.
It’s pretty clear that he is concentrating more on challenging opponents up in the zone in 2017. This is why he’s allowing many more balls hit in the air, but it’s also why he’s getting so many more strikeouts. It’s a logical counter to the league’s trend towards uppercut swings at the plate.
I have no idea how long Boyer can keep this up or how long he’ll be on the Red Sox roster. Despite his surprising success, one would have to imagine he’s either last or second-to-last on the totem pole right now, depending on how the Red Sox feel about going with just one lefty in their bullpen. If Carson Smith is able to come back at some point relatively soon (which seems optimistic at this point, to say the least) or if they acquire a new reliever from outside the organization, someone would have to go. It wouldn’t shock me if Boyer was the guy, but it also wouldn’t change what he’s done this year. The veteran has reinvented himself on the fly, and it’s resulted in a pitcher that may be able to hang around the big leagues much longer than anyone could have anticipated.