The Red Sox bullpen has been coming through recently in some big spots, but I think I’m in the majority position when I say I’m still quite scared when they are brought in to finish off a close game. I think it’s a natural thing for a fan base to be nervous about their bullpen, and really it’s basically a universal part of baseball fandom in the same way people only complain about their favorite team’s third base coach, but it certainly feels valid here. Even with strong performances recently, all of the big relievers in this bullpen have the ability to just lose their command at any point, perhaps save for Garrett Whitlock.
Of course, this is also not a new thing for good Red Sox teams. The 2018 team was probably the best Red Sox team many of us will ever see, and their bullpen felt like a train wreck at times. The thing we learned about that season, and the thing that I would expect to continue to see for however long the Red Sox keep this run going, is what Alex Cora has termed the rover position. This concept of starting pitchers going into the bullpen on their days off during the postseason is certainly not one that Cora and the Red Sox made up, but they took a step towards perfecting it on the backs of Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and David Price that season.
I would expect to see a similar kind of strategy this year, even if there are seemingly more relievers that Cora trusts with this group as compared to 2018. Even if he does have trust in someone like Hansel Robles, I still think he has more trust in his starters, and he’ll use them when needed. And to talk about specific names, it’s Nick Pivetta who I can see stepping up and, in the event of a long run this month, becoming the kind of folk hero that steps up in all of these different roles.
Pivetta is obviously not the best pitcher on this staff, but with Eovaldi having pitched on Tuesday and Sale on Sunday, neither of the big guns will be on full rest for Thursday’s series opener against the Rays. I don’t have a great sense for what Cora is planning to do in terms of a starting pitcher for that game, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Pivetta got the first start, especially given his ability to miss bats and the Rays’ propensity for strikeouts. And then I wouldn’t be surprised to get back to Fenway for Game Three and (potentially) Game Four with Pivetta as an option out of the bullpen in that aforementioned rover role. I could also see him work entirely out of the bullpen for this series and then transition to a rover role if they make it to the ALCS and beyond.
He really does seem like the kind of pitcher who can thrive in this back-and-forth role. We’ve seen what he can do as a starter this year, which is just about anything. He certainly is no sure thing to be good, and we’ve seen plenty of blow ups. But we’ve also seen big starts against good teams, and when his stuff is playing at its best there’s not a lineup in the league that he can’t successfully navigate.
And then, if and when he gets into a relief role and shorter stints, his pitching style really plays up. Before the season started I felt like Pivetta would eventually settle into a relief role, and while I certainly believe he’s earned a chance to keep starting long-term with his performance this year, I still also believe he can work wonders in that shorter stint type role. He has been able to get by mostly fine this year without a changeup, but a pitcher with his mid-90s fastball and his breaking balls can really do wonders in one or two innings at a time.
We all know the stakes ratchet up this time of year and each inning comes with extra mounting pressure, and Cora is going to turn to his best pitchers in those moments regardless of their nominal roles. It was probably the number one reason the Red Sox were able to roll through a historically difficult playoff road in 2018, and I’d be shocked if Cora didn’t go back to that well this year too. I don’t think any starting pitcher will be off the table if their arm feels okay, but Pivetta specifically seems like the guy whose pitching style will best translate into what we’ve already seen as a crucial role for this team at this time of year.