The Red Sox are coming off a season in which they boasted one of the very worst pitching staffs we’ve ever seen from this franchise. Most of the scorn has been directed towards the rotation, which is certainly a very deserving recipient of said scorn. But we shouldn’t ignore the bullpen, which itself was a major issue.
Consider that they entered last spring with five relievers they figured could anchor the group to at least be passable in Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez and Marcus Walden. Workman was traded midway through the year. Barnes had his worst season since his rookie year. Taylor and Hernandez were sidelined most of the season with COVID issues. Walden may have pitched his way off the roster entirely. There were a few success stories like Ryan Brasier’s bounce-back and Phillips Valdez emerging as a solid option, but for the most part the bullpen was as troubled as the rotation.
And so, while there will be plenty of interest in starting pitchers, I would certainly expect the Red Sox to make some additions to the bullpen as well. Depth is surely necessary here, but perhaps the biggest issue is that they lack an anchor. Even as perhaps the number one Matt Barnes fan in the world, I will fully acknowledge he should not be the number one reliever in the bullpen to start 2021. Hell, as we talked about earlier today, there’s not even a guarantee he’ll be around through the end of the week. Whether he’s non-tendered or not, though, the Red Sox need a new top man on the depth chart.
I’ll probably write more extensively about this at some point, but there are a lot of potential bullpen anchors available this year. Some are certainly better than others, of course, but given the other needs around the roster the best move for the Red Sox may be to wait and see which options falls through the cracks. There’s risk there, but that may be the ideal strategy in this case. Even with that said, though, it’s worth looking at the potential options while they remain available, and we’ll look at our first today with former Twins righty Trevor May.
May, who turned 31 in late-September, is a former fourth round pick who was seen as a consensus top-100 prospect back in 2012. Things never worked out for him as a starter due to injury and performance issues, though, and he switched to a full-time bullpen role in 2016. Things there didn’t exactly get off to a flawless start in his new role — he pitched to a 5.27 ERA in that first season in relief — but May has improved since then.
It hasn’t exactly been a steady rise, though, with some peaks and valleys showing up along the way. He showed enough flashes beyond the results in that 2016 season to be seen as a major breakout candidate in 2017, but ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery late in spring training and missed that entire season along with a good chunk of 2018. Since he’s returned from that injury, though, he’s been one of the more underrated relievers in the game.
When looking at the reasons why May has been so successful and why he will be one of the most sought after relievers on the market this year, you have to start with the stuff. Since becoming a reliever, the righty has been one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game, carrying a rate over 30 percent in three of the last four years including a mark of nearly 40 percent this past summer. And while the small sample certainly helped him in 2020, there were also real changes made that helped him take that next step towards elite-level strikeout totals.
Most notable among those changes was with his repertoire, starting with the fact that May completely ditched his curveball, an offering that had been solid in the past but was absolutely obliterated on a regular basis back in 2019. Instead of being a fastball-dominant pitcher who scattered in a handful of secondaries including that curveball, May ditched the curveball while placing less of an emphasis on his fastball and more on the slider. The results speak for themselves, as he set the career-high in strikeout rate while also inducing far less contact on pitches both in and out of the zone. All three of his main pitches (the fastball, slider and changeup) induced whiffs on over a third of swings against them.
Strikeouts are one thing, but we’ve seen enough from guys like Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel to know that pitchers can still get in trouble when they get whiffs. Where May separates himself from those guys is that he has shown an ability to limit his walks. He’s not quite elite in this area, but the righty has been better than average in two of the last three years, and even when he’s been worse it’s been far from a debilitating issue.
So, he gets strikeouts and limits walks, which should make him elite. However, he’s been a step below that top tier of relievers in recent years, and that’s largely due to the long ball. For all of his strengths, May is an extreme fly ball pitcher and in today’s era in particular that can lead to a lot of long balls. Specifically looking at his fit with the Red Sox, the relatively smaller parks in the East could play against him.
May has allowed nearly two homers for every nine innings he pitched in 2020 and he’s allowed at least one per nine innings in every year of his career aside from 2015. Home runs are obviously less than ideal for a guy you’d plan on anchoring your bullpen and closing out games, but they are also a reality of today’s game. In fairness to him, the best way to fight this is to miss bats and not let batters on base for free, and May has done exactly that.
As I said, there doesn’t have to be a rush to go get May as there are other similar-tiered options available. That said, if he does indeed fall to them at a price they are looking for, he’d easily become the top reliever in the bullpen as it stands today. The contract is always going to be the most important point, though, and to that end he’s predicted by MLB Trade Rumors to receive a two-year deal worth $14 million and by FanGraphs readers to get a two-year deal worth $10 million. Boston probably prefers a one-year deal for whatever reliever they target, but given the low average annual values it’s hard to argue that May wouldn’t be a net benefit for a team that absolutely needs some consistency in the late innings.