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Multi-inning versatility is a key for the Red Sox bullpen

With Alex Cora’s strategies, these guys are very important.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox are off to an incredible start this season and the pitching has been the biggest part of that. Sure, the offense has caught fire recently and there’s plenty of reason they can keep that going, or at least stay very good. Still, as I’ve said probably 1000 times by this point, this team is about the pitching, and specifically the rotation. The depth and talent among the starting pitchers on this roster is the most likely portion of the roster to allow separation between Boston and other American League contenders. The rotation has been the headline, but while the bullpen has certainly caused some headaches here and there they have also done their job pretty well. No team wins 14 of their first 16 games without the bullpen mostly doing its job. What’s particularly interesting about the Red Sox bullpen isn’t necessarily the back-end talent — although Craig Kimbrel’s talent is obviously always interesting — but how they are getting the job done. Specifically, they are throwing a lot of multi-inning appearances.

This bit of usage strategy with the relievers ties right back to that rotation, too, because of how Alex Cora is managing his starters. It’s no secret that he is playing the long game with the entire roster this year, and it is most magnified with the rotation. Despite how well everyone in that group is performing early on, Cora hasn’t given in to temptation and allowed them to push themselves deep into games. He’s made a point in limiting their workload, and that has meant they are leaving games much earlier than one would expect. That, obviously, leads to more innings for the bullpen, and rather than go to a bunch of different relievers for an inning at a time every night, Cora has been able to lean on some more stretched out arms to fill in the gaps.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

As a result of this strategy, the Red Sox find themselves fifth in all of baseball in terms of relief appearances in which a pitcher records more than three outs, with 16 such appearances. On the flip side, their eleven appearances in which a reliever records fewer than three outs is the seventh-fewest in the game. (Note that these numbers do not include Wednesday’s action.) This is clearly a result of Cora’s strategy of pulling his starters early in games, as one would imagine teams with good starting pitching would generally be able to rely on them getting deep into games and then using standard one-inning relievers to finish things off. It’s also likely not going away, because it would be hard to imagine the Red Sox manager abandoning this strategy at this point in the year, particularly when you consider that the strategy hasn’t led to more losses on the field.

The emergence of multi-inning versatility isn’t really something that we think about much, because the relievers who demand the most focus are the late-inning arms. No matter how the game changes, guys like Kimbrel and Carson Smith and Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly are going to be the ones who draw the most attention both for their high-leverage roles and their eye-popping stuff. However, the ability to record more than three outs at a time is really important for both the Red Sox and this changing baseball environment. For Cora, the strategy enables him to preserve his high-leverage relievers in the same way he’s preserving his starting pitching. Rather than having to use all or most of the four righties listed above, he can use just one or two a night. Avoiding wearing those guys down early in the season is much easier said than done and can pay huge dividends down the road.

Of course, this isn’t just a matter of Cora doing a good job in managing his roster. He can have all of the great strategies in the world but it doesn’t matter if the players don’t do their jobs. In terms of the multi-inning relievers, the Red Sox are getting exactly what they need. Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez have both been phenomenal in versatile roles, going from starter to reliever and back again. This is something that is very easy to take for granted, but we hear all the time about the different mindsets involved with starting and pitching out of the bullpen, so it’s impressive to have two guys who have, so far, been able to transition between the two roles seamlessly. Heath Hembree isn’t really in the same mold as those two, but he’s shown over his career — particularly two years ago and early on this year — that he can record six outs in an outing without too much trouble. Marcus Walden isn’t as impressive as the others listed here, but he’s at least shown an ability to get throw innings when called upon. Even down in the minors, the Red Sox have guys like Roenis Elias, Chandler Shepherd and Jalen Beeks who could all theoretically be called upon in this role if injuries and/or underperformance call for reinforcements.

At the end of the day, the pitchers who can throw multiple innings out of the bullpen are rarely going to grab the headlines unless they’re doing it in late-and-close games. That does not describe guys like Johnson or Velazquez — though if they keep pitching like this they should see more high-leverage opportunities — but it’s important for a team that is prioritizing saving their bullets for later in the year. Expect Cora to continue to look for longer outings from his middle relief, and if/when the rotation and high-leverage arms look fresh late in the season, remember how they got to that point.