We’ve been over and over and over the approach the Red Sox have taken with their bullpen since the end of last season. They let Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly walk with the only new face being added to the 40-man roster being Colten Brewer, a guy with very little major-league experience and no major-league success. Instead of adding even a lower-tier free agent like Sergio Romo or Brad Brach or Nick Vincent, not to mention the big names like Craig Kimbrel (who is still a free agent...hint hint) or Adam Ottavino or David Robertson, they stood pat. They expressed confident in the guys who would start the year in the majors and there has been buzz building for months around the guys in the minors ready to make their major-league debuts later in the year. It’s not a strategy I am personally fond of, but there is something to be said of just throwing a bunch of options at the wall and seeing what sticks. If that’s the plan, though, you have to be willing to move on once it’s clear an option will not stick. That brings us to Tyler Thornburg.
We all know the story of how Thornburg came to Boston in the worst trade of the Dave Dombrowski era. Boston’s President of Baseball Operations has a tremendous track record in deals since coming to Boston, but this was an obvious miss many disliked from the moment it was made and everyone now agrees was a mistake. They lost Travis Shaw, who has done nothing but rake in Milwaukee, as well as Mauricio Dubon, who sure would look good as a second base option right about now. That’s in the past, though, and at this point it’s not healthy to spend too much time on what could have been. This is Thornburg’s third year in Boston now, and it’s long past time to stop looking at him in terms of what it cost to acquire him. At this point, he’s just a right-handed reliever in a bullpen crowded with fringy talent trying to fight for a roster spot. To this point, he’s done nothing to show he’s doing well in that fight.
While Boston’s bullpen in general has been much better to start the year than many expected, Thornburg has been a clear weak spot. The righty has appeared in just eight games right now, tossing 8 1⁄3 innings, and has pitched to a 6.48 ERA. He does have nine strikeouts, which is solid, but he also has three walks and has already given up two home runs. Obviously, we’re dealing in a tiny sample but this is generally following along the same trendlines we saw in 2018 when he pitched to a 5.63 ERA in 24 innings. Moreover, the one positive here — his strikeout rate — is likely to come down as his 22.5 percent swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus) does not reflect a guy who regularly strikes out a batter per inning.
The plate discipline hasn’t really been the issue for Thornburg, though. The strikeout and walk numbers would be manageable if he hadn’t been allowing good contact. Instead, batters have been teeing off on Thornburg with ease. Again, this is all in a tiny sample, but it is also carrying over from what we’ve seen since he returned from the thoracic outlet surgery that so many pitchers have failed to come back from. According to early-season Statcast data, Thornburg is getting ground balls on just 25 percent of balls in play, an easy way to give up a whole lot of home runs. That’s especially true when 20 percent of balls in play have been “solid” contact, more than double his rate back in 2016. Ultimately, this has all come down to him being unable to command his fastball. Below is a zone contour from Statcast showing all of Thornburg’s fastball locations this year with the red zones representing areas he is hitting with greater frequency.
I don’t think I need to explain this, right? Look where that red is, and also remember Thornburg’s fastball sits around 94 mph. Yeah, major-league hitters are going to crush that. There is some hope at improvement with a change of approach, because the righty’s curveball has always been sick and still is right now. He’s getting whiffs on a third of the curveballs he’s thrown this year and batters haven’t been able to square them up at all. However, he’s throwing it just 26 percent of the time. Granted, we’re seeing with Matt Barnes some of the perils of leaning heavily on curveballs as eventually you have to throw it for strikes and that can lead to big contact. That said, the fastball clearly isn’t working as a primary pitch.
As much as I’d like this to not be the case, however, it’s not my feelings on Thornburg. If the team believes there is a turnaround here, they are going to pursue that. Except, well, they’ve shown no indication that’s the case. Heading into Monday’s action, Thornburg hadn’t been used since April 15, a six-game stretch without being used, all of which were close games where the bullpen was being used to death. It’s clear the Red Sox are searching for someone to put behind the trio of Barnes, Ryan Brasier and Brandon Workman, and Thornburg isn’t even getting an audition. In fact, among the 161 relievers in baseball who have at least eight appearances this season, only one has a lower average leverage index than Thornburg. In other words, the righty is being used in just about the least important role in all of baseball.
That brings us back to where we were at the top. The Red Sox have built a bullpen with which they have to throw whatever they can find at the wall and try to find their best guys from there. Like I said, that system requires some aggression and moving on to the next guy when one has been deemed unusable. It’s perfectly reasonable for Alex Cora to not trust Thornburg in big situations given what we’ve seen thus far! What’s not reasonable is him still taking up a spot on the roster while guys like Travis Lakins, Jenrry Mejia and Durbin Feltman, among others, toil away in the minors. This is the strategy the Red Sox inherently chose with their inaction this winter. It’s time to let Thornburg slide off the wall and toss forward another option.