We all knew it. Going into this season the bullpen looked like a surefire disaster and potentially a fatal flaw on an otherwise solid team. For the first week of the season the bullpen performed well, tricking many into the narrative of “Bloom knows what he’s doing; he’s done this in Tampa for years.” Well, those of us who doubted were right. This bullpen stinks. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
The Red Sox bullpen currently ranks 25th out of 30 in fWAR. The unit also has the second worst barrel percentage allowed, behind only the lowly Cincinnati Reds at 9.1 percent. They are allowing the highest average exit velocity at 90.3 mph and they’ve given up 25 home runs, which is the fourth highest total in baseball. All of this is coupled with the fact that they have no defined roles in the back of their bullpen and their 207 1⁄3 innings is the sixth highest total in baseball. Yikes, a bad pen that has been relied upon too much due to starters not working deep into games.
While it doesn’t appear like there would be an easy solution to fix such severe problems, there are some fairly obvious solutions they can try. Let’s start at the very back of the bullpen. The Red Sox have no set closer. They haven’t all year, and we have ample evidence over time that teams without defined roles seem to have poorer outcomes than those with defined roles. The Red Sox best reliever this year has been John Schreiber, who features a sidearm delivery and a devastating sinker and slider combination. He owns a 14/1 strikeout to walk ratio so far and has performed well in both medium and high leverage spots.
The most reliable bullpen arm the entire season has certainly been Matt Strahm, who is currently third on the team in game leverage index. Essentially, what this means is that he is entering the game in high leverage situations more often than everyone on the team except for Hansel Robles and Jake Diekman. The difference between Strahm and those aforementioned pitchers is that he doesn’t really walk anyone. This is an important quality at the end of tight games, and his 16/3 strikeout to walk ratio proves he can continue to succeed in that role. He should be your number two option and someone you don’t hesitate to call into games where you run into trouble.
Robles and Diekman are good relievers with strikeout stuff, but are also best utilized without men on base. Use them in clean innings towards the middle to late innings of the game. Unfortunately, Robles is currently on the IL which further complicates an already taxed bullpen. Both players have their issues, but both are also adept at missing bats and overpowering batters.
The guy whose usage I would most alter is that of Tanner Houck. Houck has been being used as a bulk innings guy to piggyback off of whoever started that night. While I do agree that we need someone in that role, I don’t believe it’s best to use Houck there when you are hurting for reliable late inning arms.
I’d much rather throw Tyler Danish into games that a starter comes out of after four or five innings and reserve Houck for the seventh or eighth. Houck has only had a single appearance of fewer than two innings pitched since converting to a relief role on April 24th. Danish also has multi inning experience with five outings of at least two innings or more already this season, he also hasn’t been walking many batters. Austin Davis is another guy who could be used for multiple innings, but ultimately I like him better as a situational lefty because he still issues too many free passes.
The back of the bullpen is where things start to get really ugly. Ryan Brasier, Phillips Valdez, and Hirokazu Sawamura really shouldn’t be on the team right now, yet due to injuries to Matt Barnes and Robles they are. The only pitcher on the team with a lower gmLI than Sawamura and Valdez is Kevin Plawecki, a position player. That says it all. Cora clearly doesn’t trust these two guys and they have given him no reason to trust them. Valdez is prone to blowups and Sawamura’s fastball and splitter have simply not been very effective pitches over the last two seasons.
Brasier is the guy who probably warrants his own article, but listen, it’s really really bad. According to StatCast he is in the first percentile in Average Exit Velo, Hard Hit Rate, Barrel Percentage, and xSlugging percent. He ranks similarly poorly in xwOBA, xERA, and xBA. His fastball has been among the worst in baseball. He simply does not belong on a major league team yet he has the fourth highest gmLI among Red Sox relievers this year. Perhaps his usage is out of respect for his past achievements, but like Barnes he belongs on the IL or in the minors.
Right now the Red Sox have three players at Triple-A Worcester who I believe would immediately be better options than Valdez, Sawamura, and Brasier. Those guys are Eduard Bazardo, Frank German, and A.J. Politi.
Bazardo was designated for assignment by the team on Opening Day of this year and is coming off a 2021 season where he missed three months with a lat strain. The 26-year-old righty has regained his form and is performing very well at Triple-A striking out over a batter per nine while walking fewer than three per nine. His mid 90’s fastball and slurvy breaking ball could play in a mid-relief role.
German is someone I had an opportunity to see in person at Double-A Portland about a month ago, and his stuff is tremendous. He attacks hitters with a high 90’s fastball and can put them away with either his slider or his splitter. He has been effective vs righties with his slider and lefties with his splitter though he does throw both pitches to any hitter. He has the stuff to pitch in the seventh inning or later.
A.J. Politi is the third option out of these pure relievers, but also the guy I’m least confident in. He has done extremely well this season posting a 2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings at Double-A and an even better 1.50 ERA over 6 innings at Triple-A. My hesitation on Politi comes from the fact that he really doesn’t have any standout pitches. However, I still think he’s worth a shot over Brasier, Valdez, or Sawamura.
All three of Bazardo, German, and Politi would need to be added to the 40-man roster in order to be used, but there are many players on the 40 man who are DFA candidates. The Red Sox should not let the preservation of fringe 40 man players stop them from trying to help the current bullpen.
My last option is a little bit outside the box and is a guy who just recently made his MLB debut, Josh Winckowski. Winckowski is a starter right now and was called up to make a spot start this past week. Currently he is still seeking the development of a reliable third pitch, his slider and fastball are both above average pitches when he can command them. Best case scenario for Winckowski is that his changeup becomes more viable and he ends up a back end starter.
I don’t want to wait for that outcome because I just don’t think it’s that important. The Red Sox have other guys who can better fill that role in the future and they need dynamic relief help now. Currently, Winckowski could come up and help the bullpen right away where his fastball would play up even more in short stints. His past as a starter also means he could fill a multi inning role if he needed to. Don’t wait for him to be a fifth starter when he can impact the late innings now. Winckowski is also already on the 40 man, so adding him is not a consideration.
Later in the summer you may even be able to add stud prospect Brayan Bello to the mix when he nears his innings limit for the season. Without making a single trade you could have a bullpen that looks like this:
CL: John Schreiber, R
SU8: Matt Strahm, L
SU7: Tanner Houck, R
MID: Jake Diekman, L
MID: Austin Davis, L
MID: Frank German, R
MID: Eduard Bazardo, R
LR: Tyler Danish, R
LR: Josh Winckowski, R
When Hansel Robles comes back you can replace whoever isn’t performing with him. Perhaps you don’t need two long guys in Danish and Winckowski and Danish goes down. The bottom line is the team has options, they simply aren’t using them.