At the start of the season, the Red Sox were not exactly a stars and scrubs kind of roster like what we’ve seen from the Angels, as an example, but this was certainly a roster with clear strengths and weaknesses. In the latter category, it was very hard not to include the bullpen, which was a tightrope throughout last season’s postseason run and really didn’t see too much improvement in the offseason, at least not readily-apparently improvement. There was, to be fair, upside to be seen throughout the group, but wherever that upside resided it was largely obscured by question marks.
All of that said, 11 games into the season and the bullpen has been mighty impressive. It hasn’t been a perfect run, and some of those upside plays with questions have gone in the wrong direction, but the key was always going to be finding the players Alex Cora could trust, and that seems to have been found. At least for the time being, the Red Sox have a foursome on which they are okay leaning, with Garrett Whitlock, Hansel Robles, Jake Diekman, and Matt Strahm jumping out to the top of the depth chart. We saw the group front and center in Tuesday’s win as they held the Blue Jays scoreless for 4 1⁄3 innings, giving the offense time to take a lead that this group would hold.
While the order of trust among the other three can be reasonably debated, it’s extremely clear that Whitlock is the best pitcher in this group. In fact, I’m not sure it’s ridiculous to think he could be in the best reliever in baseball conversation by the end of the season if he remains in this role. Tuesday was his first ever traditional one-inning save, but no matter what kind of situation he’s thrown in the young righty excels. Whitlock has now made four appearances this season totaling 9 2⁄3 innings, having only allowed one run on a solo homer while striking out 11 and only walking two. He’s as confident with his stuff as he was at any point last season, and he’s a unique weapon that Cora can use in a myriad of situations.
The other returnee in this group is Robles, who we saw last season can be a heart attack waiting to happen but this season has been showing off all of the positives. Despite an extremely late arrival to an already shortened camp due to visa issues, the righty was ready to pitch in the majors right away and he has not made the team regret moving him along so quickly. Tuesday was 2021 trade deadline acquisition’s fourth outing of the season, and he has yet to allow a run while striking out five batters in five innings while walking two. Interestingly, he’s largely ditched his changeup early in the season after it’s been his second pitch for most of his career, instead leaning more on a slider that has been his go-to out pitch. I’d say it’s gone well.
In addition to the two pitchers who also served important roles throughout last fall’s postseason run, two offseason additions have also made their mark from the left side, starting with Jake Diekman. The veteran southpaw received a two-year deal in the winter and immediately made Red Sox fans feel good about that one, at least after a dismal spring training. In his second appearance with Boston in the regular season, he shut the door on their first win of the season with three strikeouts against the Yankees. That’s how you win over fans. He’s pitched 3 1⁄3 innings over five appearances, striking out seven (!) while only walking one, though he’s also hit two batters. We’ll see some stretches where his poor control outweighs the stuff, but right now he’s a dynamic weapon to use, particularly with lefties coming up from the other side.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this group, though, has been Strahm, who was another free agent acquisition this winter who came in as a complete wildcard. The southpaw had shown some upside early in his career, but dealing with injuries the last few years he’d only pitched 27 1⁄3 innings since the start of 2020. Well, six appearances into 2022 — the same number of appearances he had all of last season — he’s showing that upside again. Pitching well against hitters of any handedness, using his four-seam against righties and sinker against lefties. It’s a new approach for Strahm as far as I can tell, and it’s led to only one run allowed over six innings on two hits, a walk, and six strikeouts.
As with anything this time of year, we are dealing in small sample sizes and we need to keep that fact in mind before making any strong conclusions about what’s to come over the next 150 games. At the same time, the wins in April count the same as those in September, and Boston’s six wins are in large part due to these four pitchers, who have hidden some shortcomings on other areas of the roster. It’s not just that Alex Cora has four pitches on whom he can rely right now, but just what kind of pitchers they are. It’s two righties and two lefties, and they all pitch a little bit differently and present different looks to the Red Sox. I’m not convinced all four of these players are going to be in this uber-trusted role all season, but the way this bullpen is going to work was always going to be a rotation of pitchers throwing well at that given moment.
For the time being, it’s the foursome of Whitlock, Robles, Diekman, and Strahm who Cora can lean on when wins are readily available, and we got a front row seat to what that looks like Tuesday night.