On Tuesday, the Red Sox won their 86th game of the season. Tuesday’s date was August 14. Those two facts in concurrence with one another is absurd. The team is on pace for 115 games, they could lose more games than they win moving forward and still break the franchise win record, and already having more wins than 60 percent of the teams in franchise history. It’s hard to complain about too much these days, though of course we find a way. Right now, the hotness is to complain about the bullpen. Now, despite the tone right there I don’t want to totally dismiss this complaints. The relief corps has been noticeably worse of late, and given the increasing emphasis on relief pitching in the postseason it’s natural to worry about it when they’re at their worst. That said, the amount of time that is spent worrying about the bullpen rather than marveling at the rest of this team is strange to me. So, let’s try to figure out just how big of an issue this is.
We have to start at the end here, by which I mean Craig Kimbrel. The Red Sox closer is, of course, the number one arm in this bullpen and a guy on whom the team would like to lean pretty heavily come October. He is one of the best relievers of all time who is still at or near his peak. Except, well, he’s been struggling lately. We’re dealing in arbitrary endpoints here, but over his last eight outings he has allowed runs in five of them. In total, he has a 6.48 ERA over 8 1⁄3 innings with 13 strikeouts and seven walks and a couple homers. Clearly, the command is off. Kimbrel has said pitching coach Dana LeVangie thinks he found a mechanical issue that can be easily fixed, and he did toss a scoreless outing on Tuesday, albeit one that included a free pass. Kimbrel is good enough to work around some control issues, and for most of the year he was in a good spot with a walk rate around three per nine. Really, this reminds me of his 2016 season, when control plagued him throughout that year too. Below is a graph showing every eight-game stretch of Kimbrel’s Red Sox career in terms of walks per nine innings. You’ll see he never had a stretch like this last year, though he had some much worse stretches in 2016.
So, what does this tell us? Well, for one thing, it can get worse. The bad news is that the end of the graph is still trending up. If that continues to happen, it could be an issue. However, the concern seems to be how this sets up for the postseason. In 2016, he was certainly trending in the wrong direction at the end of the year, but he came out for the postseason and didn’t walk a batter in the two games he appeared. That sample isn’t meaningful, but it shows that trends don’t always carry into October. Ultimately, the Kimbrel situation is certainly one to monitor and if he continues to trend like this it’s a legitimate concern.
As for the rest of the group, well, I think this is where things get overblown. Matt Barnes is the clear number two in this unit, and he’s been a bit shaky of late as well. However, he’s being hurt by balls in play rather than bad control. That’s not to say it’s been all bad luck, but we know by now that when Barnes is going bad his biggest issue is handing out walks. If he’s keeping his control — and he only has one walk in his last five innings — then I’ll hold out hope for his performance moving forward.
After Barnes, there’s Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree and Ryan Brasier all fighting for that third spot. Thornburg has had a couple of shaky outings of late, but I’m not ready to worry about him just yet. Of course, that he’s still unproven coming off his injury needs to be mentioned. Hembree has been really good all year, but he’s getting hit hard of late. Brasier has been the best of this entire group, but he’s also the guy with the shortest track record. Among these three are plenty of pros and cons, but I always think good bullpens have three trustworthy options, and I’m confident in at least one of these pitchers settling in and joining Kimbrel and Barnes in the back of the bullpen.
If you are worried about this bullpen and whether or not it can really compete in October, it would be most helpful to simply look at last year’s postseason to feel better. In 2017, both World Series teams had something in common. During the regular season, their bullpen was the biggest question mark and people wondered if it would hold them back in the postseason. Obviously, it did not, and that’s for two reasons.
For one thing, they had some relievers with questions during the regular season who stepped up in a big way in October. The Red Sox have plenty of those guys, with Barnes, Hembree and Thornburg all having track records of success at the highest level. The second thing, and probably the more important point, is that they had starting pitchers move to the bullpen and boost the entire unit. The Red Sox saw it with David Price last year, and Lance McCullers was a major part of the Astros going all the way in 2017. Boston expects to get a similar boost this year. Assuming Eduardo Rodriguez can come back healthy — and the signs continue to point that way — then Boston will have either him or Nathan Eovaldi to put in the bullpen. There’s obviously no guarantee they would slide seamlessly into that role, but both pitchers have the type of stuff one would expect to play up in shorter stints. That’s a massive advantage that is hard to see right now.
It goes without saying that we would all feel better if the Red Sox bullpen was pitching well right now. That’s easier said than done, and a look around the league shows that this may just be a time when relievers struggle. There really aren’t many teams that are happy with their relief corps right now. Over the last 30 days, the team is seventh in bullpen ERA and 13th in bullpen FIP. That’s not exactly where they’d like to be, but it’s much better than the conversation around the group would indicate. There’s a reason August is known as the “dog days” and it shows in the bullpen. These guys are tired and it’s tough to find breaks right now. The key is to be able to find time to rest the arms in September when rosters expand, and the Red Sox are in a position to be able to do just that.
Bullpens are inherently volatile and tend to go throw extreme ebbs and flows that aren’t experienced by other portions of the roster. As easy as it is to say that you shouldn’t overreact to any one stretch, it’s tough to do in the moment when you watch meltdowns and poor performances. I understand the instinct to wonder if there’s an issue, and I’m not even going to go so far to say there’s definitely not an issue. However, bullpens all around the league are struggling, and I doubt that’s a coincidence. The Red Sox have real talent among their relievers, have starting pitching reinforcements coming in October and look pretty similar to the two World Series participants last year. All hope is not lost in relief.