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2023 Positional Preview: The Bullpen Is Much Better . . . Right?

Yes. Probably. Hopefully.

Kenley Jansen Boston Red Sox Press Conference Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The Red Sox bullpen! It was bad last year, right? Yes. Yes it was. There’s no playing the well actually contrarian with this one. The pen was bad, and it cost the team quite a bit.

The 2022 Red Sox finished with 29 blown saves, the 6th-highest mark in all of baseball. By ERA, it was the 5th-worst unit. And Red Sox relievers hit more batters than every bullpen save that the of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bad!

So it’s not surprising, then, that improving the bullpen was quite obviously an offseason focal point for the front office. Chaim Bloom signed three free agent relievers (Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and Joely Rodriguez) and traded for another (Richard Bleier), and this doesn’t even take into account the minor league acquisitions for guys who may yet have an impact at the big league level, like Wyatt Mills and Ryan Sherriff.

Jansen, Martin, and Bleier in particular have all been very effective in recent years, with Jansen being one of the premier closers of his generation. It’s these three guys that most Red Sox fans are talking about when they discuss the improved bullpen. So, how much improvement are we talking about here?

To answer that question, we first have to look at the [content warning] 2022 bullpen. Who was the best pitcher amongst last year’s Red Sox relievers? By most statistical measures, it was John Schreiber. He led the pen in fWAR, ERA, ERA+, FIP, and home run rate, while finishing third in both walk rate and strikeout rate — and he did this while throwing more innings than anyone else. As good as he was, though, I suspect that many fans wouldn’t say he was the best Red Sox reliever in 2022. That’s because Garret Whitlock, a complete pitcher with the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, was out there doing his weird, multi-inning thing — and he did it extremely effectively. Whitlock walked batters even more rarely than Schreiber, struck them out at about the same rate, and finished the year second amongst Red Sox relievers in both ERA and fWAR — with the latter being particularly impressive given that he threw only threw only the ninth most innings.

Beyond Schreiber and Whitlock, most people would likely single out Tanner Houck as the only other high-end reliever in the 2022 pen. Houck suffered through a number of nagging injuries last year, but finished the year with the second best ERA and ERA+, sandwiched right in between Schreiber and Whitlock.

Adding the trio of Jansen, Martin, and Bleier to the trio of Schreiber, Whitlock, and Houck would seem to be a major improvement. But there’s a catch: Garrett Whitlock definitely won’t be returning to the pen this year, as he’s been slotted into the rotation. Meanwhile, Tanner Houck may well join him. Houck is being stretched out in this Spring as a possible depth starter/swing man. But projected starters Brayan Bello, Nick Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock himself, have all suffered set-backs of varying degrees that may push Houck into the rotation to start of the season at the very least. Giving Whitlock and Houck the opportunity to start is unquestionably the right move for the overall wellbeing of the Red Sox — middle-of-the-rotation starters are far more valuable than even the best relievers, and Whitlock in particular carries the potential to be a near-ace. But when simply analyzing the year-to-year improvement of the bullpen, it must be taken to account that, while it appears that the Red Sox have added three high-end relievers, they may have lost two.

Now, about those three new high-end guys. The 2022 versions of Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin would both have challenged Schreiber and Whitlock for the title of Best Red Sox Reliever, had they been on the team. Jansen struck out more hitters than any reliever on the 2022 Red Sox, while saving 33(!) more games. Chris Martin’s rate of just .8 walks-per-nine-innings would have easily led the team, as is the case with his 2.18 FIP. Bleier wasn’t quite at that level, though his home run rate would have been second to Schreiber, while his 3.55 ERA would’ve been the fourth-best mark in the pen. These guys are pretty good!

But there’s something else that Jansen, Martin, and Bleier all are: old. Jansen turned 35 last September; Bleier will turn 36 in April; and Martin will blow out 37 candles in June. Relievers as a species tend to be volatile, with the quality of their performance often swinging wildly from year-to-year (see, unfortunately, John Schreiber, who put up ERAs above 6 in his first two seasons in the big leagues before figuring it out last year). Compounding that inherent volatility with the aches and pains of middle age only increases the risk factor.

While still effective, these guys are starting to show their age. Jansen’s fastball is 2 MPH slower than it was in his prime, while Bleier’s 2022 ERA was the second-worst of his career. All three of these guys will age out of the big leagues sooner rather than later; if sooner in this case means some time between now and October, then it’s possible that the Red Sox bullpen, while certainly improved from last year (because, come on, how could it not be?), might not be the lock-down unit we’re hoping for.

FanGraphs Projections

Minor League Depth

You saw both Kaleb Ort and Zack Kelly last season. While Ort was outstanding for Worcester, he was a disaster for the Sox, putting up an ERA over 6 and walking 15 hitters in just 28.1 innings; but his fastball touches 100 MPH, so he’ll always be given a shot. Kelly displayed above average control in his stint with Boston, but doesn’t have particularly noteworthy stuff. Wyatt Mills, acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Royals, hasn’t been an effective big league reliever, either, and gets absolutely destroyed by lefties. But Mills keeps the ball on the ground, has a strong minor league resume (a 2.60 ERA in AAA), and employs a sidewinding motion that could be hell on righties if harnessed.

Divisional Rankings

New York Yankees Spring Training Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images
  1. New York Yankees
  2. Tampa Bay Rays
  3. Boston Red Sox
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

The Yankees have had an elite bullpen for the last 375 years (approximately) and boy is that annoying! Some chinks in the pinstriped armor are finally starting to appear, however. Aroldis Chapman is gone, and while Clay Holmes looked like the best pitcher on the planet in the first half of last year, he fell apart in the second half and experienced some shoulder injuries that could linger. It’s possible that the deep-as-hell Rays outperform the Yankees this year, and if everything breaks right, the Sox could too. But still, I can’t bring myself to predict the demise of the Yankee bullpen. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism to keep me from getting hurt, but I just can’t do it.