The plan of action for the Red Sox through the rest of the offseason shouldn’t feature too much in the way of surprises. The defending world champs brought back a couple of key pieces in Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi early in the winter, and now they just need to address the back of their bullpen. Dave Dombrowski has gone on record multiple times to say he’s comfortable with Matt Barnes and/or Ryan Brasier taking on a key role in the late innings but, well, what else is he supposed to say? His comments aside, I’d still be extremely surprised to see a Red Sox bullpen without some sort of significant addition before Opening Day.
As one would expect, they have been connected to each and every big relief name on the market. Obviously, there’s no guarantee these rumors are actually coming from the Red Sox side, as it benefits the agents of said relievers to have the rest of the league thinking that Boston wants to sign their client. Still, it’d be hard to believe that the Red Sox aren’t in on Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Adam Ottavino and Kelvin Herrera, among others. In addition to those guys, there is one more reliever out there with a big name that can presumably be had for pretty cheap, but there have oddly been virtually no rumors around the league regarding him. I’m talking about Cody Allen, which you already knew if you read that headline at the top of the page.
Allen is likely a name you are familiar with as a baseball fan, because he has spent the majority of his career as a dominant arm handling the ninth inning in Cleveland’s bullpen. Although Andrew Miller (deservedly) received most of the headlines in the Indians’ relief unit, it was actually Allen that has always handled the ninth inning duties. Over his first five full seasons, stretching through 2017, the righty had three 30-save seasons, never posted an ERA of 3.00 or higher, and was at least 35 percent better than the league-average pitcher by DRA in four of the five years. In the one season he was not that much better by DRA, he was still 23 percent better than average. In short, Allen was an elite arm who has long been overshadowed.
So, why isn’t the former Indian closer a bigger deal in this free agent market? Well, you may have noticed that the previous numbers didn’t include last year, and that’s because his 2018 was bad. No qualifiers, not just relative to his past performance. Allen was bad in 2018. Over 70 appearances and 67 innings he pitched to a 4.70 ERA and a 4.59 FIP with a 3.61 DRA. That last number was easily the most encouraging part of his year — he was still 20 percent better than the league-average pitcher by DRA — but that’s hard to be too excited about when he got worse in strikeouts, walks and home runs.
Now that we got that out of the way, we have to figure out whether or not we should be too worried about this downturn in performance in 2018. I will start by saying it has always been a personal pet peeve of mine that relievers, who have the smallest sample of any position, are the players whose single-year performances seem to hold the weight. I’m certainly guilty of falling into that trap as well, to be fair, but I think we can be too quick to write off a reliever after one subpar year and too quick to elevate someone after one good season.
That being said, this wasn’t just Allen falling back to league-average. There was a lot that went wrong in 2018, and it’s important to check on the symptoms that led to the poor season. As I said above, Allen got worse in all three of the true outcomes. The good news with the strikeout rate is that it was still up near 11 strikeouts per nine innings and his swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus) was still above 30 percent. That still puts him in the top 15-20 percent in baseball in that area.
The bigger issue was the walk and home runs, where Allen has usually been able to separate himself from the ever-increasing number of strikeout-heavy relievers. Last year, however, the righty walked 4.4 batters per nine innings (his highest rate since his 29-inning rookie season) and gave up double-digit home runs for the first time in his career. The home runs have been trending this way for a few years now, which isn’t too surprising given his fly ball tendencies and the league trends with home runs. You’d like to see his total home runs down in single digits and his per nine innings rate in the 1.0-1.3 range, but an extra home run or two in one season doesn’t necessarily portend future disaster to me.
On the other hand, the walks can be an issue. We saw with Craig Kimbrel in the postseason that walks can be beyond detrimental for a late-inning reliever, and as good as Allen can be he doesn’t have Kimbrel’s pure stuff. Basically no one does. Allen has long been able to keep his walk rate around three per nine innings, which has helped him dominate in the past. In 2018, he didn’t hit the zone at any sort of significantly lower rate. Instead, the issue arose from batters laying off pitches out of the zone. According to BP, opponents laid off those pitches at a higher rate than any other full season in Allen’s career, which obviously leads to more hitter-friendly counts and in turn, more walks.
With all of this in mind, is it worth it for the Red Sox to take a chance? Well, there are a few factors to consider. For one thing, Allen is on the younger end of the age scale compared to the other late-inning arms available. The righty turned 30 in late November, making him younger than everyone mentioned at the top of this post besides Kelvin Herrera. However, he is showing some slight signs of age with his fastball velocity dropping each of the last two years. It’s still at an effective 94 mph, and his curveball is still as effective as it’s been for most of his career, but if the trend continues his results could crater.
Finally, the contract is the biggest point in his favor. While most of the other names mentioned here will take big deals, the consensus at the start of the winter seemed to be that Allen would get a two-year deal worth between $14-$18 million total. There’s also a chance he could take a one-year deal with an eye at rebuilding his value and hitting free agency again next winter in search of a big payday. Add in the fact that the rumor mill has been quiet on Allen — look through MLB Trade Rumors the only mention of him this winter has been some vague interest from the Twins back in early December — and the potential price could come down.
Taking everything into consideration — Allen’s quietly elite past, his loudly disappointing 2018, his decreasing stuff, his relatively favorable age, his relatively reasonable presumed contract — I think he should at least be a consideration for the Red Sox. I’m not sure he’d be the top on my board, but if they are going to be interested in any and all late inning relievers available there’s no reason to not at least keep tabs on the Allen market. Given how strange free agency has gotten over the last couple of years, it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see someone like him fall through the cracks. I would certainly be okay with a deal bigger than this, but there’s a chance he could be had on a one-year deal worth single-digit million dollars. Even if the Red Sox already signed one of the other names, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to add Allen on a deal like that. Or, alternatively, if the contracts for the others are too rich for Boston’s blood, there’s worse ideas than taking a chance on a potential bounce-back and possibly getting one of the best closers in baseball from 2013-2017.