The Red Sox, despite playing roughly .500 ball over the last week or so, possess the best record in baseball and are still in single-digits in the loss column as we speak on May 7. That is....well, it’s extremely good. Of course, that’s not to say we can’t acknowledge the inconsistencies around the roster lately. The offense is still scary and is certainly more potent than they were last year, but there are also games where they fail to show up. The bottom of the lineup in particular has been rough. The starting pitching got off to a blistering start, but there are some cracks beginning to show recently. The defense and the baserunning have....well, both areas have left something to be desired.
One area has actually been getting better as the year has gone on, though, and that has been the bullpen. Among the questions with this roster through March and April was how things would shake out behind Craig Kimbrel on the depth chart. Of late, there is starting to become a clearer hierarchy among Red Sox relievers, with a couple guys stepping up into set up roles.
Starting at the top, everything obviously revolves around Kimbrel. The Red Sox closer hasn’t really missed a beat since last year, despite his recent blown save at home against the Royals. Even with that rough outing, he has an ERA of 1.23 so far this year, and Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing DRA metric has him at a 1.31 mark. For context, that is on the same scale as ERA, and after adjusting for park effects it is 71 percent better than league average. That’s bananas! His strikeouts are a little down and his whiff-rate is more amazing than god-like, but Kimbrel is still one of the truly elite relievers in the game (perhaps the best in baseball with Kenley Jansen looking more human this year), and he’s going to get paid this winter. The only question with Kimbrel is how often he’ll be tied to the ninth inning this year or if the team will show a willingness to use him more flexibly.
After Kimbrel, things are much more interesting. Of late, it seems that Joe Kelly is emerging as the second-best reliever in this bullpen. That standing in the ‘pen became entrenched over the weekend when he came in with the bases loaded to strike out both Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar. It was as high-leverage at it gets, and the righty who has had so much trouble missing bats over his career missed some bats at the most opportune time. Kelly is using his fastball less than ever this year, instead mixing in those secondaries more and becoming more of a pitcher than just a dude who pumps out 100 mph fastballs on a regular basis. That strategy hadn’t worked much over his career, but this new approach is off to a great start. Not only does it have his general numbers up, but he’s also dominating lefties, which has been huge for a bullpen that hasn’t had a true left-handed reliever for most of this season.
Along with Kelly, the Red Sox have another enigma in the late innings with Matt Barnes. There is still a feeling of dread among many fans when the righty enters games in tough situations, but the fact is that his overall numbers have been great since the start of last season. Granted, he’s had some control issues in important starts, so I certainly acknowledge where the uneasiness comes from. That being said, he’s improved his strikeout rate every year of his career along with his groundball rate, and in 2018 the righty is striking out 13.5 batters per nine and he’s inducing grounders on 52 percent of batted balls. If the team is in a situation in which they need a strikeout, Barnes is clearly the guy to call upon. The control is still an issue and he needs to find the zone more consistently, but his other skills have been cancelling that out and then some.
After Barnes is where things begin to get really interesting. Based on the numbers and how Alex Cora has been using his guys, it seems to be that Heath Hembree has jumped up to this point on the depth chart, at least for now. The righty always seems to come into the year barely hanging on the roster, but this year he’s pitched his way into an important role. He’s striking out more than ten batters per nine innings, he’s walking fewer than three per nine and he’s inducing grounders on more than half of the batted balls he allows. There is always some concern regarding hard contact with Hembree, but he’s worked around that and, at least by DRA, he’s been much better than his 3.78 ERA would indicate. As an added bonus, he has also shown the ability to toss a couple of innings at a time, which adds a wrinkle to his game that no one else in the late-inning discussion really has.
Finally, there’s Carson Smith, who we talked about not too long ago. The righty was the favorite to emerge behind Kimbrel heading into the year, but he’s been underwhelming of late and hasn’t really been the top option in close games in a few weeks. Based on his past track record and the flashes that we still see — he was very good on Sunday in Texas in his one inning of work in a blowout — he certainly still has a chance to work his way back into the setup role. For now, though, he needs to miss bats on a consistent basis and show the kind of dominant stuff he is capable of.
Even with how well the Red Sox bullpen is performing, there are still some questions. Is the new approach going to be permanent for Kelly, and will he be able to prevent opponents from adjusting? Can Barnes keep his control in check enough to show off his stuff? Can Hembree limit the hard contact in high-leverage spots where one big hit can swing a game? For now, Cora has no choice but to trust his guys. Expect to see Kelly in the most important innings moving forward, particularly if left-handed hitters are due up in that inning. Barnes will be right behind him, and Hembree will be available in multi-inning roles for close games. I’d expect this hierarchy to continue to change as the year goes on — Smith should (hopefully) improve more consistently, and Tyler Thornburg is a wildcard who’s returning soon — but for now they have three guys they seem to trust in the late innings before turning to the best reliever in the game.