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If you’re looking for a bright spot, start in the most improbable place

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The bullpen, folks, has been good.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

We all know what the narrative and expectations for this Red Sox roster were heading into the 2019 season. Beyond the simple expectation they’d be right in the thick of the race to win another championship, the individual components of the roster had clear expectations. The rotation was supposed to be outstanding one through five, giving the team an old school-type feel going deep into almost every game. Obviously, that hasn’t gone according to plan very early on. The lineup was supposed to be loaded, and even if they weren’t quite as great at the top there appeared to be a more balanced attack. The group did well in Seattle — though a large chunk of that was against the Mariners bullpen — but has mostly struggled mightily in Oakland before a bit of a breakout on Wednesday. Then, there’s the relief corps, who was simply supposed to be trash. If anything was going to set this 2019 Red Sox roster back, it was the guys at the end of games. Well, a week into the season, the biggest bright spot for Boston has been that same group.

It goes without saying that the sample we are dealing with is incredibly small. Relievers in general deal in small samples, of course, which is why their performance year-to-year varies more than any other position group in the league. Here, we’re dealing with a small sample size in terms of team performance and infinitesimal sample size for individual pitchers. That said, as we’ll get to in a minute, it’s not just the numbers that have been impressive for these guys.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Media Day Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

That is where we’re going to start, though. Again, the sample means these numbers really shouldn’t be expected to be sustained, at least just based on the numbers alone, but we need some good numbers to look at, right? As a team, the Red Sox bullpen has tossed 26 innings, the tenth most in all of baseball. In that time, they’ve pitched to a 2.42 ERA (fifth in baseball) and a 3.70 FIP (13th in baseball). Even being in the middle of the pack by FIP seems like a win given where they were expected to be this year. On an individual basis, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg and Hector Velázquez all have rough numbers largely because they’ve allowed a home run. That’s how these samples work, with one swing having a massive impact. On the other hand, the rest of the bullpen has an ERA of 2.08 or lower, with four guys yet to allow an earned run.

Like I said, though, the good feelings around the bullpen in this first week haven’t really been about the numbers. None of these relievers have more than 4 13 innings under their belt, and we’re all smart enough to not get caught up in numbers at that sample size. Most of these guys have looked better than at least I expected them to, and while things can change quickly and hitters adjust it’s a good step. For example:

  • Brandon Workman has been electric. He doesn’t have the fastball we typically associate with big-time right-handed relievers, but his curveball has been outstanding and most importantly he’s getting it over for strikes.
  • Tyler Thornburg is sitting just below 95 mph with his fastball after sitting at 93 mph last year. His curveball is also looking very good.
  • Colten Brewer has struggled with control a bit, but we’ve seen the intrigue with his cutter/curveball combination in action.
  • Ryan Brasier is picking up where he left off in 2019 and concerns of him being a fluke are at least a little lower.
  • Matt Barnes has only pitched once but, well, Matt Barnes is: Good.

Personally, I’m already starting to adjust my views on some of these guys. Given the sample that may prove to be stupid, and I should emphasize that no opinions are being changed to any major extent, but the stuff looks better than expected for some. On the lower end, Heath Hembree is still the same guy, who flashes solid stuff but his command leaves too much to be desired. Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez are who they are as long guys with limited upside. However, I was down on Workman and Thornburg at the start of the year, and their stuff has been impressive. Brewer was intriguing but unknown, but it’s easy to at least see the toolshed in which the Red Sox were interested when they acquired the righty at the start of last offseason. Combine that with Barnes and Brasier, both of whom I was already confident in, as well as the potential in the minors and perhaps they do have a stew goin’ here.

There hasn’t been a lot of good in watching the Red Sox early in this season, with the west coast treating this team like no one expected. It’s been frustrating to watch, and the negatives are outweighing the positives seemingly on a nightly basis. The bullpen does give a small ray of hope, though. Maybe we were too harsh on this group and there is more here than originally met the eye. With the sample, it’s too early to say that. We don’t need to say that yet, though. For now, we’ll just take something to be happy about.