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Marcus Walden needs a role change

He’s been the second best reliever, and it’s time his role more effectively reflects that.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

There were a bunch of players who played a role in the Red Sox picking up a ten-inning win on Wednesday to avoid a quick, two-game sweep at the hands of the Rockies. The top of the lineup built an early lead by single-handedly putting five runs on the board in the first three innings. Eduardo Rodriguez pitched mostly well, having a bad inning in the fourth then again in the seventh when he likely shouldn’t have been out there. Xander Bogaerts got the big leadoff double in the tenth. And, of course, Michael Chavis had the game-winning hit, not to mention some strong play at second base earlier in the game.

Above all of those names, however, was Marcus Walden. The righty was the MVP of this game, coming in with the go-ahead runner in scoring position for the Rockies with two outs in the seventh. He got a huge strikeout to end that rally, then came out for two more easy 1-2-3 innings to keep the game tied. That was big as the Rockies had all of the momentum when he entered the game and one could very easily have seen them taking a late lead for the second straight night to win the game. Walden proved to be exactly the steady presence the Red Sox were looking for in that game, and really that’s what he’s been all year.

Walden did not start the year on the Opening Day roster, but he came up just a couple weeks into the season and has made his mark on this pitching staff since that day. To this point the righty has appeared in 15 games tossing a total of 24 23 innings and in that time he has a 1.46 ERA with a 2.45 FIP. Walden is striking out just about 11 batters per nine innings while walking fewer than two, and before last night’s game (Baseball Prospectus is a bit slower to update their numbers than some other sites) his DRA stood at 2.68. That last number is a whopping 42 percent better than league-average and puts him one spot behind a guy named Max Scherzer on the leaderboard. Equipped with a new slider on which he is leaning heavily as well as a new tendency towards four-seamers over two-seamers, it’s a new Walden in 2019.

This new Walden has, in short time, proven himself to be the second best reliever in the Red Sox bullpen right now. Obviously we’re talking about a small sample size, but we’re also talking about a group without a whole lot of top-end talent behind Matt Barnes. Brandon Workman has probably jumped up to the “true number two” role, if such a thing exists, and the results for him have been largely great. He has been tough to square up (outside of Tuesday’s game) and he’s allowed just four hits in 19 innings this year. However, he’s also walking over six batters per nine innings. He’s been able to work around that to this point, but it’s a tough tightrope to walk. Ryan Brasier, meanwhile, started the year as the de facto number two but has been going through a rough stretch. For the most part his velocity has still been intact, but he’s had little semblance of command. He’s allowing a ton of hard contact of late and issued two big walks on Tuesday to lead to his blown outing. He has more of a track record than Walden after last season’s playoff run, but right now he can’t be trusted much in the late innings.

So, despite the small sample size Walden has pitched his way into a big role for this team pretty much by default. You can argue Workman over Walden if you want, but ultimately it’s picking nits. In today’s game you need three guys you can trust in the late-innings, and Walden is one of them. Which brings us to the issue: Walden is being forced to go three innings pretty much every five days when Hector Velázquez gets the start. Granted, Velázquez made it through five innings in his last outing, but that’s tough to count on every time out. So, you have your second best reliever (or third) but you can’t let him loose when needed because you might need him for an extended outing in a day or two. It’s not ideal!

To fix it, there are really only two options. The first is to replace Velázquez in the rotation with someone like Mike Shawaryn, who is more capable of longer outings and more stretched out right now. That isn’t likely to happen, nor has Velázquez earned that kind of demotion. So you’re stuck with the other option of shifting either Josh Smith or Ryan Weber into that role. That’s not ideal either as neither of those guys have proven they can be trusted for extended outings. Still, it would (hopefully) only be temporary with Brian Johnson on the way back. Plus, it would be in the middle innings, leaving time to make up for any runs allowed in that time.

Really, there isn’t a perfect solution here because the depth of this relief unit just isn’t great. We knew that heading in, and we’re starting to see some cracks here. However, one shining bright light has been Walden, and the Red Sox need to take advantage of the run he’s on for however long it can last. That probably means sacrificing his two- or three-inning outings after Velázquez, but losing that should be cancelled out by gaining his presence on a consistent basis late in games.