Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara. Last year, these three guys turned Boston Red Sox games after August into six inning affairs. The emergence of the back end (and also let’s not forget the contributions of Brandon Workman and company in the middle innings) of the bullpen was arguably most critical factor in the success of the 2013 Red Sox. And as Sox fans know, the bullpen at the start of the season looked much different than the group that ultimately closed the season out.
Spring training began with a lot of hype about the Sox bullpen. Andrew Bailey was expected to excel as a setup man for newly acquired close Joel Hanrahan. That sentence alone excited Sox fans all over the country, with the hope that both could stay healthy, or at least one of them would make it to September. (Note: The Daniel Bard switch back to reliever also had us excited and ended up wasting my April-June). Shockingly enough, Hanrahan was gone in mid-April and Bailey injured his shoulder, which paved the way for Uehara to step in as closer, and we all know what happened next.
But therein lies the nature of a large percentage of bullpen arms. There is a small group of relievers who offer roughly 60-70 innings of sub-3.50 ERA baseball. And within that group, you have players who spend more time on the DL than they do warming up in the pen.
But the science of signing relievers (and starters) isn’t just a crap-shoot. So this is where finding those players who can both stay healthy, and have the advanced metric statistics that support the trend that over time, they can consistently perform at an acceptable level. This means they can offer back-to-back seasons that are within a median performance and don’t trend towards a really good season, and then a really poor season.
For example, former Cleveland Indians closer and current Los Angeles Dodger Chris Perez offers an interesting study. Perez was able to have a successful two-year stint with the Indians, but at times, would show a tendency to give up too many fly balls, and as a result more home runs. This continued in 2013 where 20% of Perez’s flyballs ended up being home runs. Not a great number for any reliever, let alone an aspiring closer. While it is more than likely that number will go down to Perez’s career numbers of roughly 10% of those flyballs becoming home runs, it does show the potential for a bottoming out type of season, something you want to avoid in your bullpen.
I could spend an entire article looking at relief pitchers and their advanced statistic trends but you may as well just go to Fangraphs and get the full rundown. Heck, books are written about this topic and I will gladly avoid that task.
So what does this have to do with the 2014 Red Sox? Well, let’s look at which relievers are returning this year. Uehara will begin the season as closer, and yes, odds are he will not repeat last year’s majestic feat, but he does have a consistent track record as a reliever. He did strike out a career high 12.3 batters per nine innings, and only yielded a .188 batting average on balls in play, two numbers that will even out this season, but liekly not go to the opposite extreme based on his career.
And the Red Sox pen is filled with a bunch of these types of pitchers thanks to GM Ben Cherington. Tazawa still has to add more to his resume to convince me of his dominant potential as a setup man, but even with a high number of his flyballs leaving the yard, Tazawa still produced a solid season without the gaudy advanced numbers Uehara possessed. Breslow has been very good at keeping men off base since 2008 and he seems to be another guy in for a solid season.
Andrew Miller, the team’s giant lefty, returns after missing last season and is a bit of a wildcard based on his health. If he can stay healthy, he is a boom or bust type reliever, but is versatile enough in the sense that he can offer a lot of innings at near an average level, as opposed to a few innings at a horrendous level. Brandon Workman returns after a good first season and he seemed to get better as the year went on. He is way too new to assess what his success level will be for the coming season, but there is certainly potential here for a good mid-innings filler, as Workman throws hard and keeps the ball down. This season will be a real good barometer for assessing Workman’s career in the MLB.
Finally we have the newcomers. Cherington added a couple of arms, one of which may be a perfect fit for this squad. Burke Badenhop joined the team officially last week and may have been a steal. Badenhop doesn’t have advanced metric statistics that jump off the page, as in batters hit nearly .300 off him on balls in play last year, yet he managed to keep and ERA below 3.50. In addition, nearly half of the balls put in play against Badenhop are put on the ground, which is great for Fenway and this talented infield. Cherington also added former St. Louis Cardinals closer Edward Mujica, who is a bit of a mixed bag due to injury concerns, but he has also performed well in the last three full seasons he has finished.
I haven’t even touched on the Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster situation, and the load of young arms that can help this year’s team. The depth of pitching for the 2014 Red Sox is somewhat absurd. How many days until pitchers and catchers report?