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The Red Sox bullpen picture is coming into focus

It’ll never be beyond improvement, but the foundation is solid.

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Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Red Sox are a team that is built upon it’s lineup. This is no secret, as it has been the case basically for the entire history of the franchise, and certainly for this season. Just looking at the roster in a vacuum, almost the entirety of what we’d consider the core steps to the plate with a bat in their hand. And then on top of that, the rotation has been getting much of the credit for the team surprising this year, and deservedly so. They’ve stayed remarkably healthy, and their performance has far exceeded what most saw coming from the unit.

So those two factors have left the bullpen as something of an unsung hero on the roster, but it’s been a big reason for its success. That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups or that everyone has been perfect all season, because that is extremely not the case. But they have settled into a strong group, particularly in the late innings, and it is a sneaky reason why they have been able to win so many of these crazy, close games like the one they pulled out on Tuesday night in Tampa.

There are different philosophies about how to build a bullpen and what makes a strong relief corps, and the construction of a team’s rotation will at least slightly alter what they need compared to other clubs around the league. But generally speaking, for me I would like my team to check off a few boxes as a contender heading into a stretch run. I’d want them to have at least three guys they can trust against the meat of a lineup in late and close game, with one truly elite relief ace in the mix. I’d want to have at least two lefties I can trust in reasonably high-leverage situations. And I’d want at least one good multi-inning reliever I can trust in the middle of a game to keep the score within reach from, say, the fourth through seventh innings when a starter gets knocked out early.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There is obviously some overlap in those boxes, but the Red Sox at this moment in time are checking all of those boxes. They have a group of five arms they are willing to throw out in late and close situations, all of whom continue to come through at a strong rate. Matt Barnes has been playing the role of the relief ace, and doing it just about as well as any pitcher in baseball. Adam Ottavino has recovered from a rough start to settle in nicely as the primary setup option, shutting teams down in the eighth inning. Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez are executing as a dynamic duo from the left side, with Taylor in particular dominating right now. And Hirokazu Sawamura is using his mid-90s splitter to give batters a look they aren’t seeing from anybody else.

This fivesome has totally changed the game for Cora, and as a unit has been producing at a high level, if not consistently all season then at least cumulatively. The five pitchers have combined for 136 13 innings, pitching to a 2.97 ERA with a 33 percent strikeout rate and a 12 percent walk rate. While the control is not ideal, the overall production most certainly is and has been a major boon for Alex Cora. It’s not just that they are shutting the door in the late innings, but they are also doing so at a roughly even clip in terms of work load.

There have been a lot of things that Cora has done well, and that the players have helped him do well, but bullpen management has been near the top. Having all of these pitchers available has allowed him to use them equally, keep them as fresh as possible, and hopefully keep it that way all the way through September. Those five pitchers are all within 19 total batters faced of each other on the season, with Ottavino and Sawamura leading the club at 125 and Taylor bringing up the rear at 106. If Cora can keep trusting all five of these guys, there aren’t many situations he won’t be able to navigate late in games.

And you have probably noticed that to this point I have not mentioned Garrett Whitlock. The Rule 5 selection certainly has the talent to be a late-inning arm and has served in that role here and there, but his real value comes from throwing multiple innings. The Red Sox have obviously been able to make some big comebacks and overcome poor starts, especially lately. Having a guy who can come in and stop the bleeding, giving time for the offense to mount a comeback is a massively underrated piece in a bullpen.

Whitlock has been that piece. Of his 20 appearances this season, half of them have seen him go at least two innings, with another four on top of that being between one and two frames. And as he’s done that, and simultaneously adjusted to life as a big leaguer coming off Tommy John on the fly, while pitching to a 1.57 ERA. The Red Sox are in a fortunate position where they don’t necessarily need him to be a set up arm, and it allows them to put him in an often equally valuable, though underrated, role.

None of this is to say the Red Sox bullpen is perfect, or even complete. We know this game well enough to know that relievers are fickle and performance can change on a dime. We also know you can never have enough pitching, particularly in the bullpen. The Red Sox should absolutely target some sort of relief help at the trade deadline, and they should continue to keep an open mind about their own in-house options like Eduard Bazardo (whenever he’s healthy again) and Kaleb Ort, among others in Worcester. But in the meantime, a late-inning situation that once looked fraught and unstable now looks deep and consistent, and is one of the biggest reasons the Red Sox have been able to put together the first-half run on which they still find themselves.