clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Stop worrying about the Red Sox bullpen

Coming out against brainworms

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Boston Red Sox
A struggling Joe Kelly does not spell doom for the Sox. Just look at the standings.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Red Sox won the first game after the All-Star break 1-0 against the Tigers behind a wonderful performance by David Price and great relief pitching from Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel, upping their league-best record to 69-30. Dan Shaughnessy, predictably, was pissed off:

It’s not surprising that Shaughnessy found a reason to complain about this team -- he blamed “analytics” for the game taking too long, rendering it “unwatchable” -- because the brainworms are fully in control of him now, having taken root in his cortexes and grown outward into public view. Chances are simply by virtue of reading this on a screen you know it already, because you’re not stuck in 1989 waiting for the clarion call of Shank’s Opinion, and for that reason I have no further desire to preach to the choir.

I do, however, have a vested interest in making sure the choir remains on-pitch and brainworms-free, and I fear the collective overwrought worries about Boston’s bullpen are less the product of genuine concern than an outbreak in the altos. Rather than spot-check each panicking Sox fan, I’m going to teach you how to self-diagnose, mostly because I don’t want to risk contracting the worms myself.

Without further ado, here are 10 reasons not to worry about the Red Sox bullpen:

1. The trade deadline hasn’t passed

J.D. Martinez is an MVP candidate and one of the five best hitters in baseball, but he didn’t sign with Boston until late February. While there were doubts that he would join the team, it was always expected, and now the date he actually put pen to paper is a piece of trivia.

The non-waiver trade deadline is next week, and instead of needing one specific player, the Sox could stand to add any number of great relievers. There’s no compelling argument that the best team in baseball has suffered as a result not doing it yet, nor is the fact of not having done it evidence that they won’t. The simplest explanation is that they are searching for the best deal and the team’s stellar play has let them wait longer than they would have otherwise. That’s a good reason!

2. For every Joe Kelly, there’s a Heath Hembree

Maybe the problem is that fans think Kelly has to be good for this team to succeed, despite watching them truck over opponents during a decidedly down year for the bespectacled righty, because at one point he was arguably No. 2 on Alex Cora’s depth chart. But there’s a reason the team hasn’t sunk as Kelly has stunk -- actually, there are several, but the biggest one is Heath Hembree, who has done exactly what we expected Kelly to do. I think the critics expect Hembree’s bubble to pop eventually, and it might, but the broader point is that the Sox are no worse off, holistically, than they were when Kelly was good.

3. Matt Barnes is becoming great

The biggest late-inning danger the Sox found themselves in during the 1-0 win over the Tigers on Friday wasn’t due to poor relief pitching. No, the Sox almost coughed up the lead because Barnes was too good. The bite on his curveball was so pronounced as to render the ball more or less uncatchable, which doesn’t sound great, but it also made it unhittable. As Matt wrote recently, Barnes has the makeup and stuff of a closer and could step into that role tomorrow if Kimbrel went down. As with Hembree, it’s easy to look at the past and say the bubble’s about to pop, but if we’re diagnosing the bullpen right now it’s probably best to look at the bullpen… right now.

4. They still have Craig Kimbrel

He’s good! Really, insanely good. If he’s not the best closer in baseball, it’s only because Seattle’s Edwin Diaz is putting up a freaking negative FIP in July. Tip of the cap to big Ed, but it takes nothing away from Kimbrel, who has a ho-hum 1.90 ERA and 32 saves.

5. For every Carson Smith, there’s a Brandon Workman

It’s not just the top-tier guys who have swapped roles. Smith seemed penciled into a medium-to-high leverage role once the season began only to suffer another injury and potentially talk himself out of the organization thereafter. This could have been a big blow, but Workman, long an afterthought, has harnessed his cutter and breaking stuff to become an effective medium-leverage guy. The numbers don’t lie: He’s got a 2.89 ERA to go with an acceptable, if not spectacular, 3.85 FIP, and has been a solid addition to the summer ‘pen.

6. Tyler Thornburg is still getting warmed up

Thornburg hasn’t yet been the prince that was promised, but he’s getting there. Lost in the panic over Kelly’s most recent high-wire act -- a bases-loaded jam in the ninth inning of a 9-1 game, the horrors -- was Thornburg’s extrication from that jam, which was more or less an afterthought following what was a ho-hum win in every other way. He’s a volatile asset, sure, but the upside is extremely high. He’s an asset.

7. The worries about the ‘pen often lack context

Look, Kelly is frustrating. I get it. I understand why beat writers watching him load the bases in the ninth inning of a 9-1 getaway game would be sensitive to some handwringing.

The difference between you and them is that you’re under no obligation to sit there and watch Kelly try to figure his shit out in a long-decided contest, and they are. There’s hardly a lower-leverage situation in the book, and for us to pretend that his continued struggles in that spot portend doom is to conflate mild frustration at not getting to the plane earlier with portents of doom.

8. The baseline is solid, and the available arms are very good

With Kimbrel, Barnes, Hembree and Workman all proving themselves reliable, and Hector Velazquez providing a solid-if-unspectacular long option, any addition to the ‘pen has the chance to put it over the top, so to speak. Obviously, with Kelly’s struggles, the team is probably looking for someone to dominate lefties, which is why Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias is at the top of a lot of people’s wish lists, especially now that Brad Hand is off the market. With Iglesias (or whoever), a team that has managed to win the most games in baseball without him would (will) get definitively better, and, again, waiting hasn’t hurt them in any meaningful way.

9. Dave Dombrowski usually gets his guy

When are we going to accept that the dude in charge knows what he’s doing? If back-to-back division titles, the best record in the bigs and the additions of Chris Sale and Martinez haven’t done it, I can’t imagine that my plea to wait a week before going nuts will help, but it doesn’t make Dombo’s track record any less impressive. More to the point, he’s predictable, and in this case, he’s predictably waiting out the market to get the deal he wants. It’s worked to an incredible degree until now. I think we can let him work his magic again.

10. There’s always Bobby Poyner

Anyone who has read this far and has a passing familiarity with my work knows my love of Poyner, the capable lefty on the Merloni Shuttle between Pawtucket and Boston. He’ll definitely be up when rosters are expanded in September -- maybe not early enough to steal the Cy Young Award, but you never know. As if it wasn’t clear already, I think the Sox are in a great position without him, but it never hurts to have the best player in baseball on retainer.

Okay, I may have brainworms too.