We’ve talked a whole bunch in recent weeks about the Red Sox bullpen and how it was going to shake out behind Craig Kimbrel, who is obviously going to be the closer and the most important arm in relief. Beyond him, though, there is something of a mess of pitchers jockeying for position. Well, perhaps “mess” is the wrong word because there’s not a lack of talent but rather a lack of elite, standout arms that have established themselves to be worthy of a slam-dunk eighth inning role. With all of this in mind, we (well, at least I) have spent a not-insignificant amount of brain power trying to figure out the most likely pitcher to take control of that eighth inning and become the second-best arm in the bullpen behind Kimbrel. The prohibitive favorite heading into the season seems to be Carson Smith as he comes back for his first full season since Tommy John surgery, but there is risk there and Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes have an argument to make, too. The same goes for Tyler Thornburg if/when he can make it back to full health. That was the wrong way to be approaching this issue, though, and Alex Cora and Dana LeVangie have made it clear that they are not approaching this issue in this way. Instead, they are going to mix and match and use pitchers based on matchups as opposed to rigid roles, and that’s a really nice change of pace.
This all comes from a story written by Sean McAdam at the Boston Sports Journal over the weekend, which you can read here if you are a subscriber. (I highly recommend a subscription there, particularly if you are a fan of the Boston sports scene as a whole.) If you’re not a subscriber, here’s a quick summary of the plan laid out by Cora and LeVangie (the new pitching coach). Essentially, the idea is to get away from rigid roles and use the strengths of all of the options in the bullpen to decide who will enter the game at different points. John Farrell wasn’t someone who was totally rigid in his usage of the bullpen and it’s hard to argue against his management of this portion of the roster in 2017, but he was a little more traditional here than many of us would like. We’ll have to see how this plays out in practice, of course, but Cora and LeVangie are saying the right things so far. While Boston lacks that elite, established arm behind Kimbrel as mentioned above, each of their late-inning options have some skills that will be utilized in this job-sharing method of bullpen usage.
Carson Smith, for example, has a skillset that can be hugely valuable in the right circumstances. Really, he’s the most likely to establish himself as an elite reliever — he’s already been just that in 2015 — but even if he’s just a role player he can play a big one. Smith can get a ton of ground balls and he can pitch with confidence of hitters against any handedness. When he’s at his best he also gets tons of strikeouts, but the grounders and lack of platoon splits will be most valuable. It’s not hard to envision him coming into an inning with a runner (or runners) on base and the middle of an order coming up as he looks for a double play ball or at the very least some weak contact.
Joe Kelly has a similar skillset, though he possesses greater platoon splits and has less strikeout upside. He also, as McAdam notes in his post, leans more on a fastball/curveball combination than Smith’s fastball/slider arsenal. Teams, of course, have data on what teams and what specific hitters struggle with, and there will surely be times when a string of righties who struggle more against curveballs than sliders come to the plate. Kelly will be called upon in that case, and like Smith he’ll also likely be used when the team is in need of a ground ball. On the other hand, if any power-hitting lefties are due up soon it’d be surprising to see Kelly.
Matt Barnes is the pitcher I’m most interested to see the usage of in this early-spring plan. I’ve made it known that I think Barnes has legitimate upside as a late-inning arm, but there’s no doubt that he has also shown off significant downside as well. It seems more likely that Barnes will be called upon to start clean innings rather than potentially coming in with guys on base like Kelly and Smith could. He is a big strikeout pitcher and he will be used to take advantage of swing-and-miss lineups as well as teams that won’t show a willingness to be patient against his inconsistent control. So, ya know, the Orioles.
Finally, there is Thornburg, though the righty is not up to speed with the rest of the pitchers just yet as he comes back from TOS surgery last season. If he can make it back to full strength, though, he’s just as much of a weapon as anyone else on this list. What sets Thornburg apart from the others here is that he’s shown an ability to completely shut down left-handed hitters with his fastball/curveball combination. He has massive reverse splits over his career. That can prove to be very valuable in a bullpen that lacks a true shutdown left-handed reliever and is another reason they could really, really use a healthy Thornburg in 2018.
So, looking at the names and what each can do, it makes total sense to not marry any guy to a specific role but rather seek out the times when each could be most valuable in any given day. As LeVangie mentions in McAdam’s post, though, the key to all of this is communication. They are going to make sure the players are on board with this, and they are going to anticipate when each could be used before any game even starts so the pitchers can be on some sort of schedule even without a rigidly set role.
This is the way the game is moving, of course, and the Red Sox won’t be the first to employ this kind of fluid management of their bullpen. That being said, it is a bit of a change from the way things have been before, or at least how they’ve been articulated to the public. This should result in the bullpen being able to carry over much of 2017’s effectiveness even if individual performances regress, too. More than anything else, it’s another reason to be excited about the new coaching staff in Boston and how they can help take this talented roster to the next level.