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2021 in Review: Hansel Robles was erratic, but mostly effective

It never felt comfortable, but it usually got results.

Boston Red Sox vs Houston Astros Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Hansel Robles’ 2021.

2021 in one sentence

Hansel Robles wasn’t a dominant bullpen arm for the Red Sox after coming over at the deadline for Alex Scherff, but he was more often than not an effective arm in the late innings, albeit sometimes in erratic fashion.

The Positives

Robles has been something of a poster boy of bullpen volatility in recent years, spending time looking like an elite top-tier reliever and also looking like he didn’t belong in the majors at all. The Red Sox were fortunate enough to mostly get the positive side of that coin, and a lot of that came down to his ability to miss bats. Robles at his best is able to rack up strikeouts, but he struggled to do that with Minnesota before being traded. That changed once he got to Boston, and he struck out an impressive 30 percent of the opponents he faced. It’s always notable when a pitcher reaches that 30 percent mark, and it was in fact something he’s never been able to do over a full season.

And the results of that suddenly crisp stuff showed themselves the most in September. He certainly showed flashes that provided optimism in August, but there were also a few rough spots that left his overall trust level up in the air. But when the Red Sox needed Robles the most in September as they were fighting for their playoff lives, he was spectacular. The righty didn’t allow a single run over the entire month, striking out 15 and walking four in a 12 23 inning stretch.

While Robles was good with the Red Sox, his overall season was still more middling than anything else, and it’s hard to read too much into a two-month stretch from a reliever. If you want to make a case for his performance being meaningful, it’s usually helpful to have something tangible at which we can point. For Robles, that would be the usage of his slider and the lack of usage of his changeup. Prior to the trade, the changeup was his clear second pitch while he used his slider only about 10 percent of the time. With Boston, the slider became his top secondary and to great effect. Robles got whiffs over 40 percent of the time on the breaking ball after the trade, and batters produced a wOBA under .200 against it in each of his two regular season months with the team.

The Negatives

For the most part, it’s very hard to argue with what Robles provided for Boston, particularly in the regular season. The postseason was a little shakier, but a lot of that was two homers in a small sample size. That said, even when things were going well, as we alluded to above there was always a feeling that it was about to fall apart, and a big part of that feeling was that he just never had his fastball with the Red Sox. It’s his most-used offering and everything plays off the heat, and in August in particular it was hit hard. To his credit he did improve the performance of the offering in September, but still per FanGraphs it was a negative pitch for him during his run with Boston, and that’s not a great thing for a pitch that is thrown more than 50 percent of the time.

And just speaking more generally, Robles also seemed to have constant struggles in hitting the plate and keeping his walks in check. This was much less damaging after the trade deadline when he was striking out more batters than ever before, as noted above, but he still walked about 12 percent of his opponents with the Red Sox. That’s just bordering on a problem walk rate for someone with an elite strikeout rate, and leads to a lot of tightrope walks. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that he was throwing more sliders than he used to, and that’s a pitch often thrown off the plate, but more so it’s just that he rarely throws strikes. Robles always walks a lot of batters, and it really limits the ceiling unless he can maintain an elite strikeout rate.

The Big Question

N/A

2022 and Beyond

After the season Robles officially became a free agent, and he remained on the open market once the transaction freeze went into place. He’s not among the elite reliever options so he seems like the kind of player who will take some time to find a home in free agency, but someone will give him a decent contract to shore up their right-handed relief. And in fact, I would expect the Red Sox to be among those teams. Whether or not he’d be a good signing comes mostly down to who he’d be surrounded by and what his role was, but if he wasn’t expected to be a top-tier option in the bullpen then he would be a very good signing as a top middle reliever. Anything more, and you’re likely asking for trouble.