Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Robby Scott.
The Question: Can Robby Scott keep outperforming his peripherals?
The Red Sox bullpen was great last year, and while it certainly has question marks heading into 2018 it also has plenty of upside. That being said, there is a major question on who will lead the unit from the left side, and it’s been a question for a few years. The Red Sox have never really answered it, and they continued to ignore it this winter as they watched one-by-one as every viable left-handed option left the market. There are a few reasons why they wouldn’t look to upgrade this area of the roster, and while I disagree overall there are solid reasons here. Their rotation is loaded with lefties, so they should theoretically be playing a lot of lineups loaded with righties. They may also like their depth pieces like Bobby Poyner and Williams Jerez along with Brian Johnson, Roenis Elias and Jalen Beeks more than the general public. Most important, though, is the presence of Robby Scott, who the team is clearly comfortable with as the number one left-handed option in a major-league bullpen. Whether or not that’s well-founded trust is an entirely different matter.
After Robbie Ross got hurt at the very start of last year and never recovered along with Fernando Abad never being more than serviceable and often being less than that, Scott quickly became the de facto number one lefty in the ‘pen in 2017. He was perfectly fine in that role, posting a 3.79 ERA and holding left-handed hitters to a .119/.224/.303 line. His job is to prevent runs and dominate lefties, and he did that. However, if you buy peripheral numbers as being better indicators of future performance, you may not believe this kind of performance from Scott is sustainable without real and substantial changes being made.
Despite the solid ERA and wildly shiny numbers against left-handed opponents, Scott struck out just under eight batters per nine innings while walking more than three and allowing seven home runs in just 35 innings. As a result, he finished the year with a 5.29 FIP. It’s not as if all of this damage came against righties, either (though a significant portion did). Lefties still walked over ten percent of the time and hit three of those seven home runs, though they also struck out a higher than league-average rate. The good news is that the peripherals are kinder if you are more of a believer in DRA, which takes more than just the three-true-outcomes into account and uses all available data (including but not limited too framing numbers, umpires and weather) to create one number. Scott’s 2017 DRA was 22 percent better than league-average in 2017, which is good! Unfortunately, his cFIP (DRA’s more predictive counterpart) was a few percentage points worse than league-average.
All of that is to say that whether or not you believe in Scott as a viable number one lefty in the bullpen comes down to how much you believe in the weak contact he induced last year. He allowed a .172 batting average on balls in play, which definitely isn’t sustainable. That being said, some pitchers — particularly those in specialized bullpen roles — can sustain low BABIPs. Scott forced lefties to hit almost entirely grounders and flyballs last year, avoiding line drives, and it paid off. None of his pitches are all that special, but there is enough movement to get by to go with a deceiving arm angle that can wreak havoc for opponents.
At the end of the day, I’m not the biggest believe in Scott, though he does have the kind of profile that leads to weaker-than-average contact. Whether or not that’s enough to repeat last year’s performance is a different story, though. Scott is probably going to be able to outperform his peripherals enough to be a viable end-of-the-bullpen arm, but I’d still feel a whole lot more comfortable with other options around him.