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Craig Kimbrel needs to be leaned on

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The Red Sox closer is a huge part of the plan this October

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Something that became abundantly clear to me on Monday: It’s going to be a long wait until Friday. Even with Monday in the books, we still have to get through the National League Wildcard Game, the American League Wildcard Game and the first day of the NLDS before we get to Boston’s next game. I say get through as if it’ll be a chore — I’ll enjoy all the baseball — but it’s not the same as a Red Sox game. I’m ready for it now, and don’t want to wait.

I mostly just don’t want to wait because all of the waiting just brings out the worst in me, and in most fans I think. Every passing moment is just another opportunity to run a simulation in our heads of everything that can happen once the postseason starts, and really that means it gives us an opportunity to dream up every way things can possibly go wrong. Most of us, myself included, are naturally pessimistic even if we want to fight it. It’s in our blood, and it sucks. As has been the theme really all year, but in particular over the last six-to-eight weeks, most of the potential failure scenarios boil down to the bullpen.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

As we look at how the bullpen breaks down and the different roles different guys will play, there are arguments to be made for both Matt Barnes and Eduardo Rodriguez as they “keys” to the bullpen. In fact, I made those arguments here and here. I think they’re fair, but more in “X-Factor” terms where you aren’t sure what to expect. Ultimately, however, the most important arm in the bullpen is the best arm in the bullpen. If things go according to plan, Craig Kimbrel is going to play a huge role this October, and part of that is going to mean recording more than three outs per outing.

The idea of Kimbrel throwing multiple-inning stints has many Red Sox fans feeling uneasy just at the sound of it, though if pressed I think most would agree it is going to be necessary. Though it doesn’t happen a ton in the regular season, we all know that the playoffs are a totally different beast. This has become more and more true as the years has gone by. When every game is essentially a do-or-die affair, the best arms need to be on the mound, and clearly that means Kimbrel for the Red Sox. No rational person would argue any of that.

The reason it makes people uneasy is there is this perception that Boston’s closer is bad when he is asked to pitch in a non-save situation, or come in for the eighth or record more than three outs. It’s something I’ve pushed back against a lot over the last couple of years, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. Kimbrel has been worse than usual in these non-traditional situations since coming to the Red Sox, but that’s not the same as being bad. Just generally among these splits, he’s still been better than just about any other option even if he hasn’t been the Kimbrel we all associate that name with. That goes for these multi-inning situations as well. It’s not pure dominance when he’s gotten the chance, but it’s not nearly bad enough that you want to avoid it.

Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t really gotten a ton of chances in these situations. In fact, I was a little surprised Cora didn’t give him a four- or five-out opportunity at some point in September. Kimbrel did get five four-out chances in 2018, shutting out his opponent in four of them and overall allowing two runs in 6 23 innings with ten strikeouts and six walks. In 2017, John Farrell gave Kimbrel seven multi-inning chances and he allowed runs in three of them. Overall, he allowed three runs in 10 13 innings with 22 strikeouts and three walks. Finally, in 2016, he did this five more times and he allowed runs in just one of them. Overall in that season, he allowed two runs (one earned) in 7 13 innings with 14 strikeouts and two walks. So, overall he has pitched to a 2.22 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 11 walks as a multi-inning reliever with the Red Sox.

As we alluded to above, leaning more and more heavily on elite relievers in the postseason is just the direction into which the game is moving. Just over the last couple of years, there have been three high-profile relievers who have taken over postseason runs. Last year for the Dodgers, it was Kenley Jansen. Two years ago, as the Cubs and Indians met in the World Series, both Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman stretched themselves out to perform in October. Basically, if teams have elite relievers they turn to them early and often in the postseason. The Red Sox haven’t done that with Kimbrel in October. With a new coaching staff in tow, even if they haven’t done it much in the regular season, you have to imagine that’s going to change this year. At least, if the want to advance and give themselves their best chance at succeeding this October, they’ll change.