It’s hard to say Chaim Bloom didn’t add appropriately to the Red Sox bullpen this off-season for 2023. By many accounts, including our very own Phil Neuffer’s perspective, the group should be at least yards—if not miles—better than the rag-tag bunch of arms the club trotted out during the 2022 campaign.
To some degree, it’s easy to see how the bullpen will organize itself. Kenley Jensen, while certainly not a spring chicken, is the proven closer Sox fans have been longing to have at the ready since the decline and eventual departure of Craig Kimbrel. Josh Taylor is hopefully healthy and prepared to jump back into a middle relief position. Ryan Brasier and some combination of Zack Kelly and Kaleb Ort should settle into… let’s call it “damage control,” stopping the bleeding or just getting outs when games turn into slogs to finish. Matt Barnes needs to find more of himself again before finding where his place will end up.
Where Alex Cora must find more consistency is in his setup reliever.
According to Stathead, entering the 8th inning in a potential save situation last season, Red Sox setup men blew seven holds. The team went 2-5 in those contests. When tied going into their pitching half of the 8th, they blew five chances to keep the score deadlocked and ended up losing every single one of those games. Changing those ten losses to wins would have found the Sox making the playoffs as the last Wild Card series-clinching team.
Not to display some revisionist history on a truly lost season last year, but it shows how much of an X-factor the results of the 8th inning are throughout a 162-game season.
So, who can the Red Sox rely on to be the consistent setup man they need?
Our Bob Osgood had Martin penciled in as his ideal setup reliever back in December, and you can see why based on last year’s performance. With a 0.982 WHIP split and nine holds between the Cubs and Dodgers, he broke out on another level in Los Angeles—nine runs above replacement, garnering an extremely low .200 BAbip and recording a league-low 2.2% walk rate. It’s not hard to see what makes Martin valuable: he keeps runners off base.
Martin pitched the 8th in 10 games for the Dodgers, not allowing an earned run in any outing. Five appearances were either in a hold situation or with the game tied, and LA went 3-2 in those games. Martin can’t be held genuinely liable for either loss.
On September 9th vs. the Padres, Martin mainly pitched in the 7th but recorded the first out of an eventually scoreless bottom of the 8th. It would take extra innings for the Dodgers to drop that one. On September 27th in San Diego, he entered as high-pressure a situation imaginable: bases loaded, one out, tie ballgame. He struck out the first batter, induced what should have been a routine groundout that ended up as an E5 to give up the go-ahead run, then escaped without any more damage with another strikeout.
Notably, as a Cub, he recorded a hold in the 8th on July 1st in a one-run game against the Red Sox, surrendering a leadoff single to Alex Verdugo before swiftly striking out the side.
While it would make me feel all warm and fuzzy to embrace those numbers and crown Martin the winner so quickly, there are certainly some caveats.
Martin only emerged as the pitcher we know him now in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. His numbers before that… don’t paint the prettiest picture, and his 2022 stats are also slightly misleading. He had a 96 ERA+ as a Cub, just less than average. While he sports a career 119 ERA+, that figure is heavily inflated with a 290 ERA+ as a Dodger and an eye-popping 475 ERA+ in 2020 with the Braves. There’s always going to be some amount of regression toward the mean. Is there some chance Martin pitches like he has the last two seasons during his Boston tenure? Possibly. Is it more likely he slides back at some point and lets more runners on base, let alone gives up some runs? Probably.
Father Time also waits for no man, and at age 36, the amount of mileage he has on him may catch up to his performance, as well as less of an ability to recover from potential injuries quicker than younger arms.
Still, Martin’s case is mighty strong to be the clutch 8th-inning arm Cora and Bloom need him to remain.
In a bullpen starved of lefties beyond Josh Taylor, Joely Rodriguez enters the ring with an intriguing case of his own.
His baseline numbers don’t pop off the screen. Appearing in a career-high 55 games last season, he earned a 4.47 ERA with an ERA+ of 87. You’d think he’d be in a damage control role. However, if you look at his usage last season and acknowledge what his mistakes tend to be, the potential for a unique setup pitcher lies within him.
Rodriguez pitched in the 8th inning in one way or another eight times with the New York Mets in 2022, and his tendencies indeed showed during those outings. When he can, he makes outs. When he doesn’t, his lack of control leads to rough conditions.
On May 29th against the Phillies, Rodriguez got the last out in the 7th before coming into the 8th hoping to protect a two-run lead. He did record two outs, including inducing a weak groundout to first base. He also gave up two walks before being pulled for Adam Ottavino. The result? Ottavino gave up a go-ahead three-run homer to Nick Castellanos, the first batter he faced. Even though the Mets would win in extras, it’s a frustrating result when the game could have ended less dramatically.
On August 7th, Rodriguez took over for Jacob deGrom way back in the 6th inning with a three-run lead over the Braves, and his resulting outing shows just how high the potential could be. A groundout to end the 6th. A leadoff single to Austin Reilly in the 7th yielded nothing, with a flyout and two strikeouts letting him get to the stretch. The 8th inning flew by even quicker. Two more K’s and a groundout moved the game forward in short order.
His underlying stats show the kind of Jekyll and Hyde pitcher he can be. According to savant, he lands in the 96th percentile in average exit velocity, the 91st in hard hit percentage, and the 94th in chase rate, getting batters to swing at pitches out of the zone. When he’s on his game, he makes people whiff, and even if they get their bat to the ball, it’s not going very far. His walk rate was in the 6th percentile at a frightening 12%. Control has to be the name of the game for a pitcher whose fastball averages 93 MPH, utilizing both a sinker and a 4-seamer, and whose two lone off-speed pitches don’t have much disparity in speed.
Who knows? Statcast shows he only uses his slider 5.9% of the time. Maybe he can learn a thing or two from Chris Sale—whose slider is notably his put-away pitch. Mixing an improved version of that pitch into his repertoire could continue to maintain his otherworldly chase and weak contact metrics while painting corners enough to reduce walks. It would undoubtedly take a lot of pressure off his changeup, his off-speed pitch of choice by far at 38.8% usage. The same goes for his fastballs, a sinker usage rate of 48.5%, with his 4-seamer only utilized 6.8% of the time. It doesn’t have to be an even split in the least bit, but if he can use more looks with his less-used pitches, it could go a long way to finding the zone more often.
Right now, Rodriguez is far from a sure thing. He’s a boom-or-bust candidate, and the Sox have to hope to see the former. However, an incentive-laden contract and underlying solid metrics make a forward path possible for the 31-year-old.
From a sixth-round Tigers draft pick with no clear path to the majors to becoming one of the most, if not the most consistent bullpen weapon last season, Schreiber should be an active part of this conversation.
Out of his 64 games pitched last season, he saw 8th-inning action 21 times in line for a hold or in a tie game. With a .167 BAA, a .231 BAbip, and 20 K’s, he knew how to make an impact late in a game.
Like Rodriguez, when Schreiber is on, he commands batters. With a whiff rate in the 89th percentile and a strikeout rate in the 84th, he sees a lot of frustrated batters leaving the box. What makes him so different from Rodriguez is a 33rd percentile chase rate and a 54th percentile walk percentage. He’s a master of using his sidearm slot to sweep sliders and dot fastballs but attack the strike zone simultaneously. While Schreiber used his slider most of all four of his pitches last season, he got the most swing & misses in the zone with his 4-seam fastball. He balances that 4-seamer with a sinker he uses at almost the same rate but in vastly different locations. He uses his slider’s horizontal movement and his sinker’s vertical movement to make a league-average 94MPH 4-seam fastball look like a BB coming at you.
Look at June 19th, an 8th-inning hold situation against the Cardinals, a masterclass of the 2022 season:
This outing is the ultimate example of knowing how your pitches work and changing your look to be as effective as possible. Schreiber alternated between his changeup and 4-seamer to put Brendan Donovan away swinging in six pitches. Against Triple Crown threat Paul Goldschmidt, he used his slider just once for a called strike in between overpowering fastballs to sit down one of baseball’s most threatening hitters. How about superstar Nolan Arenado? He changed his approach yet again but showcased three of his pitches virtually flawlessly—a sinker low and in, a 4-seam fastball high, painting a slider on the corner to elicit a swinging third strike, K’ing the side in order.
Is he another one-and-done player like Ryan Brasier has seemingly become? Going into his age-29 season, he has some youth on his side against his two competitors above. The fact it took him until his age 28 season last year to break out is what scares me. While we can always be grateful for the season he put up in 2022, it was of no great consequence considering the team’s fifth-place AL East finish. If he can make a similar impact in 2023, regardless of whether he’s the setup reliever, it would make the bullpen immensely more well-rounded. Maybe that’s what takes him out of the running in this race; being a first responder in the face of critical in-game situations or quickly advancing the game to get to your late-inning relievers might be where he’s needed most.
Is he a starter or a reliever? While management answered that question for his friend Garrett Whitlock, it remains to be seen where Houck will be needed.
2022 saw Houck convert from more of an established part of the back end of the rotation to being the closest thing the Red sox could call a closer. Except for four starts at the beginning of the season, all of Houck’s appearances after May 8th came out of the bullpen, converting eight of nine save opportunities.
One thing that hasn’t changed about Houck is his filthy slider.
Utilizing his slider 40.8% of the time last season, its .211 wOBA and 37.3% swing & miss rate showcase why it’s such an elite part of his arsenal. The problem therein lies with his utilization and effectiveness of his other pitches. His splitter elicited a 36.4% swing & miss rate, but he threw it just 6% of the time. Maybe a tiny sample size isn’t a clear indicator of true success. His sinker and 4-seamer were used in somewhat similar rates hovering above and below 25%, but a .334 wOBA and a 41.3% hard hit percentage on his 4-seam fastball don’t add up. Its velocity is in the 71st percentile, not average but not a flamethrower, but you would think he’d be using his slider and other pitches with more movement a-la-Schreiber to make his 4-seamer more effective.
Whether Houck’s calling is in the bullpen or in the starting rotation, that’s a major factor of his game that will have to improve. By all accounts, he’s been more than a serviceable arm in his career thus far. Whether he becomes a novelty with his slider as his only effective pitch or a truly dominant all-around pitcher is up to him and how the club decides to develop him. The sooner all parties can figure that out, the better.
So where does that leave Alex Cora with his setup man?
Chris Martin is primed out of the gate to be Cora’s 8th-inning arm. Keep Rodriguez and Schreiber in the back of your heads, though—a long 2023 season could see some different faces emerge in new roles.