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Dave Dombrowski has built good bullpens in Boston

Having Craig Kimbrel helps, but it’s not everything

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Dombrowski was known for two things when he came to Boston and we were warned about them by every fanbase that had rooted for a Dombrowski-led team. The first is that he will never be afraid to trade prospects to improve the major-league roster. That has proven very true, though the downside of this strategy has been overstated by many in this writer’s opinion. That’s not what we’re talking about today, however. Instead, I want to talk about reputation point number two: His bullpen building. As the Red Sox know fairly well, one of the consistent characteristics about Dombrowski’s Tigers teams in particular was that the bullpen was a fatal flaw. In fact, it prevented them from getting to the promised land at least a couple of times. It had Boston fans worrying when he first took over the team, and there are still some whispers around the local fanbase and really around the league about his inability to build a bullpen. The thing is, however, it’s not really true.

To be fair, it’s not hard to see why the reputation has stuck. While Dombrowski did make a great acquisition (some may argue he overpaid) by trading for Craig Kimbrel, who is arguably the best reliever in baseball right now, he’s also made a couple of bad ones. He didn’t give up much for Carson Smith, though he’s gotten exactly nothing in return either. The Tyler Thornburg trade has been a disaster thus far, and while things can turn around later this year it’ll be hard to shake the first impressions from that deal. So, two of Dombrowski’s three big reliever acquisitions have been horrendous. That’s not great. Despite that, the Red Sox have benefited from strong bullpen performance over the last few of years. Perhaps the Dombrowski reputation is unfair.

Boston has, of course, won two consecutive division titles and could very well be on their way to a third. It’s hard to do that with a bad bullpen, and the Red Sox have been no exception to that. Below, you can see where they’ve ranked among MLB bullpens in ERA, FIP and DRA over the last three years. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty impressive.

Red Sox Bullpen Ranks

Year ERA Rank FIP Rank DRA Rank
Year ERA Rank FIP Rank DRA Rank
2016 9 6 12
2017 2 3 6
2018 6 3 6

Now, there is a lot that goes into this. Obviously, it helps that Craig Kimbrel has been the best arm in this bullpen for each of these three seasons. Having an all-time great reliever as a focal point is going to give a relatively high floor to any bullpen. That being said, Dombrowski has generally done a good job of building a strong supporting cast, particularly for the second half. In 2016, if you’ll recall, he made one of the best trades of his tenure when he acquired Brad Ziegler for the stretch run. (Side Note: I will forever be convinced that the Diamondbacks accidentally traded for the wrong Basabe brother in that deal.) Last year didn’t work out quite as well, but Addison Reed was better than most of us remember him being and really stabilized the eighth inning for this team.

Dombrowski obviously hasn’t been able to make the big trade acquisition yet this season, but the supporting cast has already been really good. Matt Barnes and to a lesser extent Joe Kelly still don’t have the full trust of the fanbase, but with each passing day that becomes more and more unfair. Consider how well Boston has done in high-leverage situations. In all of baseball, only the Athletics have allowed a lower wOBA than the Red Sox this season. I should note that this includes numbers from starting pitchers too, but Kimbrel, Barnes and Kelly have the bulk of these high-leverage innings and each have allowed wOBA’s under .240. For reference, wOBA is on the same scale as on-base percentage. That’s really good!

Things could get even better without a big Dombrowski trade acquisition as well. The aforementioned Tyler Thornburg has been on rehab for a while, and he’s been pitching well of late including a recent back-to-back run. That’s always a big step in a reliever’s rehab. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be an impact reliever, of course, as the TOS surgery from which he’s returning has a rough track record on pitchers’ skills. That being said, he has shown the ability to be elite in the past and if he can get close to that and match the skill level of Barnes and Kelly, the Red Sox would all of a sudden have one of the most feared late-inning quartets in the game. Pretty good for a team run by a bullpen-killer.

Now, none of this is to say that the Red Sox should not make another trade. We’ll have some looks at specific targets as we get closer to the deadline, but bullpens can always be improved and Dombrowski has recent success with this kind of deal. There’s no reason he can’t make it again. In the meantime, it’s worth handing over your trust to the Red Sox front office and building a bullpen. He came in with the reputation of being a disaster in this regard, but perhaps there were other factors at play. I can only judge from the information we’ve been given, but all signs point towards Dombrowski building strong bullpens in Boston. This season’s version could be his best yet, too.